Come the night of Mahashivaratri, there will be festivities across the country. People stay up all night and participate in bhajans, pooja offerings, chariot pulling etc. all to keep themselves awake for the night, so that their beloved Lord, Shiva gets good rest after taking care of them all year. But it is the day that follows the revered night, that is the essence to this story of mine. The day that follows Mahashivaratri is when Shakthi, the consort of Shiva and thus, the female power is celebrated across the Northern part of Tamil Nadu. The companionship of Mother Angalamman to Shiva, the graveyard dweller is celebrated with a festival called the ‘Mayana Kollai’. As a friend explains, Mayana Kollai translates to the ‘Raid of the graveyard’ in Tamil. I had planned to witness this festival at one such temple dedicated to Angalamman, closer home, at Kaveripattinam.
The festivities had started as early as the sunrise at the Angalamman temple, with the Goddess being taken on a temple car/ chariot. She is supposed to travel along the streets of the town, to the graveyard by evening from where she returns to the temple by night. All other rituals that are part of this journey of her’s are what make this festival more interesting. It is a festival where the entire town / village participates with no barrier of caste or societal status. The chariot leaves the temple with the idol of Angalamman.
She is greeted by devotees who throw a mixture of salt crystals and black pepper or beans all along her way. She is hailed as a symbol of fertility who is calm throughout the year and takes on her powerful form on this day, once in a year. The villagers get their body pierced with various things near the temple premises and walk across the village to the graveyard, where the piercings are removed. This body paining is what they believe, is a gratitude to the almighty for the wishes that have come true or as a part of a prayer that needs to be fulfilled. The size and things pierced can vary depending on individual’s prayers. While those with tridents pierced around their mouth are a very common sight, the more pious go further to get their torso pierced with hundreds of lemons. Yet, a few pull cars, buses, trucks or large stones with ropes that are hooked through their bare skin.
If u peek into one of the many shops (I don’t know if that is the correct noun for such places) around the town, apart from those getting the body piercings, you will find another set of people. Men and children will be getting their faces painted and dressed up in sarees, a representation of Angalamman. With metal arms attached to the backs, elaborate costumes, jewelry and crown worn, Angalamman is impersonated by these people. They hold tridents and dance to the beats of drums across the streets. Several times on their way, they get possessed or get into a state of trance, until they all finally congregate at the graveyard. Animal sacrifice too is a common sight on the streets on this day.
It is evening by the time the temple car and everyone else reaches the graveyard. That is when the most interesting part of the rituals takes place. The folk impersonating the goddess gather around a random grave and dig it up. The bones from the grave are pulled out and chewed by them. This is called the ‘bone chewing’ ritual or what gives the festival its name: Mayana Kollai or the ‘Raid of the graveyard’.
There are several legends and references that explain the significance of this ritual, depending on the region. Here are some of the references I found on the internet.
Post this ritual, the goddess calms down and returns to the temple on the temple car. The festival culminates when the it reaches its home.
While witnessing all this self-violence, I started to deeply think, why this is necessary to please the gods. Although I couldn’t find a convincing conclusion, what I realized is that this form of ritual is not unique to Hinduism alone. It has been largely practiced worldwide, across all major religions. Some of the closest references are:
The long list of places I’ve travelled to and stayed at have given me a new insight to life and a new outlook at seeing life through.. The journeys have been enriching and the stays have added a new dimension to the travel. From five-star luxury to shoe-string budget hostels- I’ve stayed there all. While the pleasant ones were many, there is its own share of hopelessly aweful places. So here are a few ghastly and horrendous stays I have opted for during the course of my Indian discovery.
1. It being a pleasant season in the holy town of Rameshwaram, we had checked into a decent non-AC lodge at noon. After freshening up, we went out for sightseeing and returned to our room post dinner. We unpacked all our girly goods and let most of our wet lingerie strewn out for drying. It was around mid-night and I was just about to fall asleep and my friend Madhu screamed out loud. HECK! I jumped out asking what had happened. She switched the light on and started to pick up 1,2,3.. Bedbugs! She was allergic to them and the rashes had spread across her body. We spoke to the hotel manager and he arranged for an alternate room which he claimed would be good due to A/C facility. While we moved in our luggage and shut the doors, my friend lifted the bed to just reconfirm that everything was alright. Alas! More bedbugs were partying around the hemline.. We ran to the reception and asked them to give a permanent solution. They somehow managed to arrange a room in a nearby hotel after having themselves confirmed the room quality. So the next thing we were found doing was- Two girls walking the empty streets of Rameshwaram at well past midnight with half zipped backpacks, untied shoes in our feet, wet lingerie hanging out of the luggage, random plastic bags on both hands and anxious faces searching for a place to spend the night.. It was almost dawn by the time we settled down in the alternate accommodation provided.
2. We can’t blame anyone for this one- there was nothing else for us to expect while being stranded in the middle of a winter trek and the night temperature at 25 below zero!! We were at Leh town in Ladakh. No plumbing would work in that part of the world in that season for obvious reasons. We found ourselves in a homestay where we had to fetch water to do our daily chores. We had to break through the frozen layer of ice just so, that we could get half a bucket of hot (warm) water from the bottom of the same drum placed on fire. The bathroom waste was collected in containers which would overflow now and then making us want to throw-up very often.
3. The overly broken plumbing of the Chidambaram lodge is something that tops the list. It was a place that changed my mind to cutting-short my week long trip on just the 2nd day and making me want to go back home ASAP.. As if the stench from the nearby gutter, the smell of alcohol from the adjacent rooms and the super dirty bed covers weren’t enough, the washroom was moss covered and the faucet rusted as if it would break if operated… And to top it all, We stepped on someone’s barf that was spewed up on the stairs.. YUCK!! This has really given me strong reasons to have apprehensions towards online hotel booking based on guest reviews..
4. This one was a highly recommended budget stay option at Panchgani. It used to be a school hostel until being converted to a hotel which has hosted several movie shoots in the past. After hearing positive reviews, we two girls were surprised to find that the property seemed rather deserted when we arrived there. We were the only guests and that too on a weekend.. Although the room seemed decent for the tariff quoted, we still had some apprehensions for being the only people and our safety.. Just when we were in the process of decision making, both our eyes were caught by some strange thing just a little outside our hostel room.. Some white fur like stuff hung out of a large boiler sort of an equipment. We kind of panicked and asked the warden what that was. He told us it was a water boiler and the hard water had deposited along with some insulating material on the top. It definitely looked strange and scary. We did feel that it was a dog inside the boiler and it was their long furry tail hanging out of the barrel.. If it was our imagination, it is so not possible that both of us had the same thought.. We stared at each other and rushed out of the place without any further discussion..
5. So after a nightmare-ish pursuit of an accommodation, we finally checked into a hotel that evening at Panchgani. Everything was fine until my friend came out running from the bathroom. When asked what happened, she anxiously pointed out at the bucket placed under a running tap with a blood red liquid! The bucket was half full already with what seemed like blood.. I ran down to the reception and they came upstairs to check for facts from our bathroom :p They realized that it was rust particles from the overhead metal tank and pipes due to hardwater being constantly heated. We were somehow convinced with the explanation given, but I had no courage to continue to bathe in that water. However, to our rescue the water from other taps seemed to have a normal colour and we completed our basic chores…!!
Do not suggest hotels, places and dishes/food to anybody. The choices and preferences vary from each person based on their character, mood, budget etc. Avoid being blamed later!
Under the influence of watching Tamil movies, my friend and I had sufficiently heard about the mansions of Chettinad. Further, our curiosity was piqued when we heard stories about how rich a land this region had been around a century ago, how the native people were involved in a lot of trade between Chettinad and Burma (present Myanmar). There is a Tamil settlement in modern day Myanmar consisting mainly Chettiars who decided to settle there. Burma Teak is still a word that is abundantly used for those familiar with timber and carpentry, primarily adorning these mansions of Chettinad. With that, we wanted to visit this region over a weekend and worked on our google research to set our travel plan.
The native community inhabiting Chettinad are the Chettiars. Well-educated, affluent, entrepreneurial are some adjectives that are synonymous with the Chettiars. The region comprises of 73 villages and spans over two districts of Shivagangai and Pudukkottai. Since we couldn’t be driving down, our usual resort for commutation was public transportation. Given that we had only a weekend’s time in hand, we wanted to plan our itinerary well and be able to make the most use of whatever time and resources we had.
The stay options on the other hand were limited to just a couple of Chettinad houses that have been converted to luxury resorts or heritage homestays. Although we wished that we could stay at one of those palatial mansions, we were restricted with our budget (we had just started to work after graduation from college). There were no budget stays anywhere in the region. So that was something we wanted to figure out after reaching there. In the worst case, we wanted to find at least a floor space where we could lay our sleeping bags.
Day 0: Leave from Bengaluru (Overnight bus to Karaikudi) Day 1: Explore Karaikudi- Koviloor, Devakottai & Pallathur (Night’s stay at Kaanadukathan) Day 2:Explore Kaanadukathan- Aathangudi (Return to Bengaluru by overnight bus from Trichy)
Upon reaching Karaikudi on Saturday morning, we freshened up at a nearby hotel. Our day started with a delicious south-Indian breakfast with aromatic ghee roast masala dosa and idiyappams served with coconut milk sweetened to perfection. A piping hot cuppa filter coffee topped it up. Meanwhile, we worked out our options of commutation as we got taking with a very friendly waiter at the hotel. We figured out that hiring an autorickshaw was the best way if we had to get to the remote villages and unexplored lanes of Chettinad. The local bus or even a self-driven car wouldn’t be of much help as it needed someone familiar with the streets to wade through and the hot summer sun would just add up to our woes. After finishing our breakfast, we struck a good deal with an autorickshaw guy who would show us around and help us do a bit of mansion hopping.
Part 1:Exploring Karaikudi
Ariyakudi Perumal temple:Following the plan on our list, we decided to visit the temple first as the temples in South India close by 11.00.a.m. The history of this temple mentions it as an alternative Tirupati. Unfortunately, the temple remained shut at the time of our arrival due to the demise of the temple priest that morning. We spent some time photographing random things around the temple before heading to our next destination, to see the Chettinad houses in Karaikudi.
Ayiram jannal: This was our first tryst with the palatial residential structures of Chettinad. The name that literally translates to “mansion with 1000 windows”, this Chettinad house in Karaikudi is a common shoot location for those familiar with South Indian cinema. Much to our disappointment, tourists do not have access to the inside of this house as the people still live in this house.
Meenakshi-Sundareswaran temple: We were surprised to see the assembly of 108 idols of lord Ganesha at this temple. He is seen in rare avatars and seated on vahana that are usually considered as the others. We had visited this temple on the outskirts of Karaikudi, while on our way to Devakottai. It was a bumpy auto ride with the stiff tarmac having been withered off at several places and a lot of dust entering our ears, eyes and nose.
Koviloor Shiva temple:This beautiful little temple is set in a very pleasant location and is surrounded with mansions. We had gotten busy clicking photos.
Koviloor antique museum: Excitement was at its peak when our entry into the first stately house happened. It was a strong structure built of granite blocks facing the temple. One part of it has been converted into a museum of antiques that were used by the Chettiars, one part has been converted to a government office while another part is used by some self-help groups for basket weaving, coconut de-husking etc. A few localites had gathered for the afternoon prayers in the two temples housed inside the mansion -one dedicated to Shiva & Parvathi each which had served as personal prayer rooms for the family in the yester years. We envied the people who lived there a century ago thinking of how peacefully they could decorate their own temple with flowers and lamps and celebrate the festivals without the interference of random people in their way of offering prayers.
Memorials built for the famous Tamil poets: Since we weren’t keen on visiting memorials, we gave it a miss to visiting the Kamban Mani mandapam & Kaviarasu Kannadasan Mani Mandapam.
Nagara Shivan temple: This temple stop happened by chance as our auto-driver cum guide stopped for a break at a random place after a short ride. We walked into this temple where a sumptuous lunch was served as part of donations from the devotees and that kept us full for the rest of the day.
Devakottai: We had read that this village has some of the well-kept mansions in the region. By now, our driver had a good understanding of our interests in exploring the region. Over the course of the day, he was very accommodative and stopped at several mansions thereby letting us admire and awe at the vast and artistic dwelling places. He even spoke to a dozen of localites to permit us inside their houses as this would help our studies (We never mentioned we were architecture students though!!) Although a couple of mansion owners were kind enough to entertain strangers like us to have a look at their magnificent mansions, we got shooed away at the gate by several others.
There was one such incident where the proud caretakers gave us a guided tour of the entire house and we were even greeted by a colony of bats flying past our heads when one of the most unused parts of that mansion was opened just for our academic purpose! We climbed up the guano filled wooden stairs leading to an attic where hundreds of bats roosted. We ducked down as we further walked across a wooden bridge opening out into the terrace to be treated with an amazing view of the overstretching lanes of Devakottai filled with mansions.
Kandadevi temple: We stopped at this temple on our way back to Karaikudi from Devakottai. The temple pond is spread across 2 acres and is believed to be the largest in Chettinad.
Alagappa University & the Annavar memorial: Originally, these were not in our list. But we visited these places as our enthusiastic auto-driver wanted us to see these landmarks named after prominent personalities who have contributed in the development of this region.
After an exhausting day exploring the streets crammed with Chettinad houses in Karaikudi, we were dropped at the bus stand to board the local bus to our next destination. The bus snaked through the narrow lanes and we craned our necks out of the window to stare at a few bungalows along the road at Pallathur before we finally alighted at ‘THE’ destination of our tour- Kaanadukathan.
The first thing that hits your mind when you hear this city’s name are its Silk sarees. The Kanjeevaram or Kanchi silk sarees define a sense of style, gorgeousness, elegance, classy and royalty. But what goes rather un-noticed is the fact that Kanchipuram is also called as a ‘City of temples’. Despite, being the erstwhile capital of the Pallavas, the influences of Pandyas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagaras can also be significantly observed in the artistic structures constructed across the city. Also, it is noteworthy that the influences in temple architecture are across different sects of faiths. The City of Kanchi can be broadly classified into three- Shiva Kanchi-the holy land of the Shaivaites, the Vishnu Kanchi- the holy land of the Vaishnavaites and the Jaina Kanchi- the holy land of the Jains. Kanchipuram is known to be a land of 108 ancient temples, all unique in their own way. Beyond its world-famous handloom, the sculptures, architecture, classical dance, music and all those traditional art forms of Kanchi puts up the city high up on centers of history and heritage on the map of India. That’s why I like to call Kanchipuram as ‘an abode of the trio- Art, culture and history’.
When my mom planned to buy some drapes from the local weavers of Kanchi, I chanced upon the opportunity to explore this city, beyond its sarees and handlooms. Obviously, one day wouldn’t be sufficient if I had to visit each of these 108 temples and hence, made a list of 10 temples based on their mythological importance. Given that I’m mostly a public transport dependent creature, the ease of commutation was also a factor considered while making my list. We boarded on an overnight bus from Bangalore to Kanchipuram.
As we alighted at Kanchipuram bus terminus, we were greeted by the drizzling rain. Usually, the autorickshaws work this way in this city. You tell them the purpose of your visit and they will plan and handle the entire itinerary for you. Thus, we hired an autorickshaw and that sorted our transportation for the entire duration of our visit around the city. Our auto driver took us to a travellers’ dormitory where we freshened up quickly and then headed to the first temple on my list.
1. Kanchi Kamakshiamman temple: The timing of our visit was important and we wanted to reach there before sunrise. This is one of the Shakthi peethas in India. The prayers in all other temples in Kanchi starts only after prayers are offered here. Unlike any other temples in India, the first pooja to the presiding deity is offered by an elephant and a cow in the sanctorum here. The positive energy we felt in witnessing the ritual was enough to keep us going for at least another week ahead.
2. Next up was a quick visit to Adi Kanchi temple, a relatively smaller of the 3 main temples dedicated to Parvathi in Kanchi. But, this place is considered a must if one is on a pilgrimage in Kanchipuram.
3. Adjacent to the Adi Kanchi temple is the Kumarakottam- Murugan Swami temple. It is believed that Lord Bramha was imprisoned by Murugan at this place and later released with Shiva’s interference. The temple is known for the idol in the Soma Skanda posture.
4. Ekambareshwara temple: This is the biggest temple in the city. I’d need a separate post altogether to write about the significance of this temple alone. But, the primary reason for me to include this temple in my itinerary is the fact that this is one of the Panchabhuta sthalas of Shiva’s manifestations. The linga here is made up of sand and hence represents Prithvi or the element ‘Earth’. This majestic temple complex houses a very sacred mango tree at its centre, whose 4 branches are believed to represent 4 vedas that gives its name to the temple. Each branch bears mangoes of four different tastes(sweet, sour, bitter and spicy) in the 4 seasons. The special souvenir that I take back from Kanchi was not a saree, but a priceless green leaf that withered off from this holy tree right there, as if the tree was communicating with me.. I was quick to pick it up and wrap it carefully to be kept in my handbag.
5. Next was the Varadaraja Perumal temple. We had to stand in a really long queue to get a glimpse of the main deity seated atop the elephant hill. As if this wasn’t enough, another long queue to get to touch the sculptures of the holy lizards. These metal lizards are believed to have been installed by lord Indra after he was released of the curse by goddess Saraswati. It is also believed that people who touch these 2 lizard sculptures (Golden lizard representing the sun and the silver lizard representing the moon) will be relieved of all sins that are associated with lizards. Another specialty of this temple is the fact that the wooden idol of lord Vishnu is kept deep down inside a 3 tiered well that in turn is in between a large pond at the temple entrance. The idol is taken out only once in 40 years for pooja offerings. (The latest, this festival was held was in 2019). I would recommend you to hire a guide at this complex so that you can get a better insight into the intricacies of the ornate pillars adorning a 100 pillared hall. You can find sculptures of vivid yogic postures, representation of usage of arms and ammunitions in ancient battles, musical pillars etc. which explains the rich heritage of Indian art, history and science.
Thus, with Kamkshiamman temple, Ekambareshwar temple and the Varadaraja Perumal temple, we had completed the mumurthivasam- or the abode of the trio in Kanchipuram.
6. Just a few meters away from there is the Ulagalandar temple, primarily constructed by the Cholas. Here, Vishnu is celebrated in his Trivikrama pose or the Vamana Avatar. The main idol is a massive 30+ feet tall and the devotees can see only the legs of the Vamana moorthi. The temple itself is small but an important one for pilgrims on the Divyadesams circuit.
7. Further from here, is the Kacchappa Eshwarar temple. Here, Vishnu is seen in his Kuruma avatar or the Tortoise form, worshipping Lord Shiva.
8. We did a quick stopover at Vaikunta Perumal temple or the Tiruparameshwara Vinnagaram, another among the 108 divyadesams. The temple houses lord Vishnu in 3 different postures- sitting, lying and standing. The corridors are decorated with fine carvings from Ramayana and Mahabharatha and fine stone pillars around the sanctorum.
9. The Kailasanathar temple needs a special mention. This temple dating back to the Pallava period, is located slightly on the outskirts and hence away from the regular tourists / pilgrim circuit. It is an entire complex of intricate artwork sculpted on limestone. Although a board claims it to be a protected monument, most of the statues have eroded over time and needs maintenance. Yet, this place has a very powerful force to draw art lovers and travelers looking for an offbeat experience. One really needs to spend lot of time here to appreciate the intricacies with which legends and mythological episodes have been carved out. Don’t miss to spot the statue of laughing Parvathi and Shiva performing the thandava here.
10. There is also the Vijayaraghava Perumal temple at about 7kms from the city center. It is one of the 108 divyadesams of Rama where he is believed to have performed the funeral rites of Jatayu- The vulture friend. Since the vulture(Pul) was burried in a pit(Kuli), this place is also called Thiruputkuli.
Not only Hinduism, the city is an important place for the Jains too.. Bonus for your temple tour, if you have some more time left with you. You can include the Trilokyanatha & Chandraprabha twin temples dedicated to lord Mahaveer at Tirupparuthikkundram. It has inscriptions belonging to Pallavas, Cholas and the Vijayanagara periods. I’m told that the place houses beautiful paintings of these periods but lies in utter neglect. The place is frequented by fewer tourists and more vandals, gamblers and hawkers.
Enroute, we passed through ‘Kanchi Kudil’- an old traditional house that has now been converted to a museum that exhibits the rich Tamilian tradition.
But well, Saree shopping was why the entire visit to Kanchipuram was prepensed at the first place. Hence off we were, on a handloom ciurcuit. Our driver took us through the narrow bylanes of Kanchi to some of the finest weavers and their handloom workshops. A spectrum of colours, heavy brocades, golden zaris , heavy pattu sarees… we were spoilt for choices… We thanked our driver Mr.Ravi heartily for taking us around the city and bearing with us so patiently as we hopped from one shop to another. We picked up some beautiful sarees in silk and cotton and returned to Bangalore in an evening bus.
This trip was part of a backpacking by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bangalore
As per this, we left Bangalore on a Sunday night in a bus and decided to explore further at our own pace, using public transport and staying at places with bookings made on the go. Plan was all set. But well, with a small glitch. We assumed that the monsoon season was the same in the entire southern India. But what we hadn’t taken into consideration was the fact that Tamil Nadu doesn’t come under the south-western monsoon. Hence, the monsoon peaks (with north-east winds) after the season ends in its neighboring states. So, we were now on an exploration of Tamil Nadu in October, during the peak of its monsoon season! Anyway, with its share of travel miseries, poor planning gave us the benefit of experiencing a different kind of backpacking.
Firstly, we explored Kumbakonam, a place which is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. It was a wonderful experience to explore a place that is soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage, mostly from the Chola era. (This is elaborated in a separate post, click here to read). From Kumbakonam, our next planned destination for a major halt was the place that’s is often referred as ‘a city of eternal bliss’. But our experience was as unblissful as it could get, even as we wished to get a glimpse of the deity of a temple whose manifestation is revered to be as one of the five elements of life- ‘Space’. I would like to elaborate this trip for my readers to get a wholesome idea of our visit to this city was like for us!
With incessant rains, our mobile-phone network had been patchy. On day 2 at Kumbakonam, we received a call from our parents who had been trying to get in touch with us since the previous night. They informed us about the alert issued by the Met. Department. We checked online and confirmed the news about the weather forecast of cyclone- Roanu and a deep depression in the Bay of Bengal. We were asked not to venture near the seacoast. Our intended trip itself was supposed to be along the Coromandel coast- including Cuddalore and Pondicherry. Since the day was bright, we did not take our Met.dept. seriously and decided to take a chance by continuing with the plan from Kumbakonam.
With a visit to the Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram (another of the three living Chola temples), we boarded a bus to Mannarkudi. From Mannarkudi, we were supposed to take another bus towards our next planned destination: Chidambaram. However, the conductor informed us that the road beyond Mannarkudi was blocked since the previous night due to an uprooted tree. Although the tree was cleared, he wasn’t sure if the route was worthy for us to go. Without really understanding the seriousness of his advice, we boarded an overly priced private bus which ferried us to Chidambaram. Our road was flanked by the Kollidam until most stretch. Last time we had seen this part of the state was with our family, during our quest to see the end of river Kaveri. The dam was empty and dry back then. Today, she was flowing in full spate and the Grand Anicut was filled till its maximum limit. Kaveri looked beautiful with her brown waters reflecting back the sun rays that sneaked from amid the thick grey clouds. That was the point from where, the real saga of our road trip started.
As we covered a little distance ahead of the dam, the river began to touch the road around the corners at most turns. Gradually, the river started to spill over the road at some stretches. Instead of plying on the road, it seemed like our bus was driving over the river at these junctions. Further into the journey, the water level increased. Several stretches (in kilometers) of the road was submerged by the river. Our driver was a real super star- who could figure out exactly where the road laid in the ground in spite of the water being above the tire height. Even a slight slip in the road only meant death and nothing less. The entire bus with about 25-30 passengers could have been washed away by the currents of the spiteful river. I had only seen such things in the news. Now I was right there, experiencing a flood scene, firsthand.
Stretches of villages laid submerged ahead. At some places, the thatched roofs and the hay huts had given away. We could see utensils floating around on the road, helpless villagers wading across the (once existent) streets, even as the flood water stayed above their waist level. Their plight was heart rendering to see, even as the rest of us inside the bus continued to wonder if we were going to see a safe arrival at our destination at all. The rain of just one night had wreaked so much havoc across the state of Tamil Nadu. However, our driver remained focused and drove us across to reach the safe harbor at Chidambaram by around 03.00.p.m.
My brother and I decided to drop the luggage at the hotel which we had booked online and find some food for ourselves. We hadn’t eaten anything since that morning. On arrival at the hotel, we were a little perplexed to see our room. The bedsheets looked extremely old, torn and dirty. The bathroom was a disaster. The toilet floor was covered with a thick layer of algae, slush and mud, all that had accumulated over years without washing it. The flush lever was broken, the taps rusted and a crazy layer of deposits on the bucket and the mug. The nasty smell of alcohol hit our noses from outside through the opened door even as we continued to feel suffocated inside that room. My brother and I looked at each other’s face- and both of us knew what was running in each other’s mind. In spite of being exhausted and hungry, we decided to leave the place and find some other place to stay. Just when we started to descend the stairs and as if the injury (of finding a bad room online) wasn’t enough, I happened to step on a large mess of barf, thrown up by some drunkard on the stairs and slip down a couple of steps.
Until this moment of our day, I had managed to keep my calm, but my brother gave up. He wanted to end the trip right there and return to Bangalore. While he found no buses that would leave Chidambaram immediately to Bangalore, I managed to convince him to stay calm until we boarded a night bus at least. I found a place near the ‘Nataraja temple’ where I could clean myself and headed to get the darshan of the lord. The visit was peaceful, maybe I will write about in another post someday.
After finishing the evening prayers, my brother booked our tickets to Bangalore for the same night. Since my holidays were still not over, somewhere deep in my mind, I still wanted to complete my trip. I didn’t want one bad experience of the day ruin the entire holiday for us. But, given the weather condition further ahead in our planned route, I couldn’t rule out my apprehensions of getting stranded in the cyclone at Pondicherry as well.
But right now, our priority was different. We had been starving since morning and had to find something to fill our stomach. In spite of walking the WHOLE of Chidambaram town, we couldn’t locate a single place where we could find food. Thanks to the day of Deepawali festival- there were absolutely NO eateries open! Also, the entire town was SOO DIRTY with garbage littered everywhere. After a long search, we finally found ONE supermarket in the entire town. And what did we get to eat there? Just a cup of sweet corn to sate our hungry bodies.
Our city woes did not end after eating the steamed corn. It was still 07.00.p.m and we had three hours more to kill. On enquiring with a few locals, we were told that we would find a decent restaurant near the bus stand. And so as per the recommendations of the local people, we found this AC luxury restaurant called ‘Vandayar- Southern Spice’.
When we arrived there, the waiter informed us that they served only fried rice for the day. The waiter came to our table thrice to take our order (for the only dish available) and after two hours of waiting for food, there arrived a convoy of VIP customers at the restaurant. Bonus for waiting: A feast was set for this VIP family that comprised of all dishes from the menu. Even while all the tables were occupied with middle-class customers including my brother and me, there was no one from the restaurant that cared for our existence that day. Wondering if we were waiting for any free food to be served at 09.00.p.m. several customers grew furious and started to walk out of the restaurant. It was also time for us to board our bus. As we too walked out of this VIP restaurant, there was power cut in the town.
In a dark and dingy bus-stand, we spotted the only stall that served tea and some biscuits. The little candlelight was just enough for the tea-stall guy to reach out to things in his kiosk. We were essentially scared of stamping some more muck that could’ve been laid in the littered path. As we dunked the last biscuit into our chai, we had yet another surprise for us. Our bus to Bangalore was delayed by 2 hrs.!!! As we waited there in the dark platform of the bus stand, some drunk men started to throw glass bottles at the crowd there. Luckily no one was injured, but the downpour of bottles and splatter of glass pieces continued for a while. Our bus arrived after a while and we boarded at 10.00.p.m.
With all the crazy stuff that happened that day, we fell asleep quickly… Only to be woken up at sunrise. That’s when the rain was battering outside, and our bus had broken down on the highway. Although we were given an alternate bus in a while, our anxiety continued until we reached home.
Conclusion Remarks: The people on the east coast are god’s chosen ones to have a grand celebration of festivals. Tsunami for Christmas. Cyclones for Diwali…!! One cannot sit in a place, hear stories and imagine of places and people. You need to move yourself to places to experience and explore. This trip was one such experiences where I got a first had experience of braving a flood and starvation of food. Also, this is a trip where I managed to find a place in India that I wouldn’t want to return.
This was part of a backpacking trip by my brother and me with an original itinerary to cover Bangalore- Kumbakonam – Gangaikondacholapuram – Chidambaram – Pichavaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Bengaluru
Although being located in the same district, soaked in history and RICH architectural heritage from the Chola era, Kumbakonam is a place that is mostly overshadowed by its counterpart at Tanjavur town. Hence, it is a place that is often spoken less about on a typical tourist’s circuit. I was curious to cover this city and absorb as much of it as possible. While I embarked on a weeklong backpacking through some parts of East-coast road, I had enlisted the temples that seemed culturally important and hoped to visit them while I passed through the city of Kumbakonam.
As you may know, most of my trips are by availing public transportation. During this trip, all the places within the city were covered by walk. (you can alternately hire an autorickshaw to show you around and save some time). All other places located on the outskirts were explored through public/ local buses that are very frequent and extremely lighter on the pocket. If you are using this blog as a reference to explore this ancient city of the Cholas, you can plan your commutation accordingly. Places to visit in Kumbakonam city largely comprise of temples and can be broadly grouped into three categories depending on their location and proximity of accessibility.
a. Temples within a cluster within the city (temples 1~5 and 11~12 in my list) b. Temples within a cluster on the city outskirts (temples 6~8 in my list) c. Temples located on separate locations on the city outskirts (9~10 and 13~18 in my list)
It was raining cats and dogs when we alighted at Kumbakonam bus stand in the morning. We had pre-booked a hotel in Kumbakonam city through an online portal. But after reaching the place, we realized that there was a mistake from the portal and the hotel was closed for Deepawali vacation. We sat there and browsed through websites to find alternate accommodation options. Meanwhile, the pounding rain had mellowed down to a drizzle. We finally managed to find a hotel nearby where we dumped all our baggage, freshened up and ventured out to explore. Bonus for the online goof up by the website: We had a room upgrade.
So, here are the places we visited during our short stint of 2 days at this historical city of Kumbakonam in the order of our travel.
The Nageswara temple: A sizably big temple dedicated to the Snake king Adishesha who is believed to have offered his prayers to Lord Shiva here. An interesting part in this vast 1000years old temple premise is the kalyana mantap. The Cholas have sculpted this stone structure in the form of a chariot being drawn by life sized elephants and horses with the suspension technique.
2. Sarangampani: We reached this temple that follows the Vaishnavism cult after wading through a flooded road. Notable contributions have been made by Cholas, Vijayanagar, Madurai Nayaks etc. to the overall architecture of this temple. A temple tank is located on the western side of this temple.
3. Someshwar temple: This is located adjacent to the Sarangampani temple. We skipped an exclusive visit to this temple after getting some photos from the outside of the temple. From there, we continued through the busy shopping lanes of the town to reach our next landmark.
4. Adikumbeshwara temple: It is believed that Kumbakonam gets its name from this Shiva temple. Legend has it that lord Brahma’s pot (Kumba) containing nectar of worldly lives was rolled down and stopped at this town after being hit by Shiva’s arrow. The sculptures at the temple are interesting where a 16-pillar hall built by the Vijayanagar kings has all the 27 stars and 12 zodiacs sculpted on a single stone. Also, the piped instruments(nagaswarams) etched out of stone and the cattle-shed are noteworthy. Today, this vast temple premises are also used for commercial purposes with several shops and restaurants setup in this complex.
5. Ramasamy temple: A place dedicated to lord Rama; it is believed to be the only temple which houses the idols of Rama & Sita along with all his brothers inside the sanctum Sanctorum. The entire story of Ramayana has been painted on the corridor walls of this temple. And hence, for someone interested in art and beyond just checking places, it would require at least a day or two to observe the murals here.
Obviously, we did not have the luxury of more than a couple of hours to spend, and hence our visit was limited to just a quick brush up of whatever we could understand of the images there.
6. Mahamahan tank: We timed our visit to this place around noon, when all temples in South India usually close down. This mythologically important tank is spread across 6 acres and is believed to be created out of the nectar that was spilt from Brahma’s pot.
7. Kashivishwanathar temple: This is located at the entrance of the Mahamahan tank. It is believed that the navakannigas or the 9 maidens of Shiva (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswathi, Kaveri, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabhadra & Sarayu) representing 9 rivers visit and bathe in this tank once in 12 years. A day when lakhs of devotees flock here. It is believed that people who cannot make it to Kailash / Manasa Sarovar visit this temple as an alternative to wash off their sins. Though the temple was closed when we reached there, we were very fortunate to get the prasadam that made a nice filling lunch.
8. Abhimukeshwara temple: Located nearby, on the other side of the tank, we only walked past this place as it too remained closed. From there, we boarded a bus to our next major landmark on my ‘to visit’ list.
9. Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram: We visited this temple, on the outskirts of Kumbakonam (one of the three living Chola temples) when No-one else would! By the time we walked from the bus-stop to the temple, our umbrellas were flipped by the heavy winds and the pounding rain had battered and gotten us drenched till our bone. The entire temple complex was FLOODED (with knee-deep water). It was an insane visit where my brother and I both decided to go ahead, wade through the water, and have the entire place for ourselves. We climbed up a ladder (placed by the temple priest to perform the daily rituals) to reach the temple corridor. It was BEAUTY, up there! Bonus: The sight of the entire temple complex in a reflection in the accumulated water. (I know this photo is not its best, but still the best memory that our mobile phone camera could capture to for our grandkids when we would tell them about this place!).
After getting some nice shots, we made our way out to the main road to catch a bus to our next destination. The short journey thereon reminded us of Sebastian Vettel cruising on narrow countryside tarmac amid overflowing potholes and LOUD tapangucchi music in the background. With nothing to hold on to during the frequent braking by the driver to stop the bus for passengers to board/alight, got the bus to screeching halts from a revving speed. It was a fun ride that ended in few minutes as we alighted at our next planned landmark.
10. Pateeswaran temple: This is originally a Shiva temple, but the goddess has been given prime importance here. It is said that the Cholas offered prayers to the goddess Patti(daughter), calf of the sacred cow Kamdhenu here before proceeding for any battles during their reign. However, when we arrived here, it remained closed only to open again at 05.00.p.m.
As the rain gods again took over the silent skies, we decided to head back to the city. After reaching Kumbakonam city, we looked out for a place that served the trademark ‘Kumbakonam degree coffee’, our piping hot cuppa filter coffee to warm ourselves to some extent from the chilling rain. It was only 06.00.p.m but dark already. As planned, we set out to find our way through the super crowded street of the city to find the remaining two temples from our list.
The main bazaar street is a state highway- All thanks to the festival of Deepawali, it seemed like the entire district had come down to one street in Kumbakonam for shopping. The street was jam-packed with not even an inch of breathing space. We somehow managed to get out without actually facing a stampede. Albeit the heavy rain, we closed our umbrellas and stood amid the crowd. The crowd pulled us along to reach the exit of the street from where we walked to the next temple on our list.
11. Chakrapani temple: Here, Vishnu is worshipped in his sleeping posture holding his ‘Chakra’ on one finger. We witnessed the last pooja of the day after which we were wondering if we had to continue to the next temple or not since all the nearby temples had started to close down. Anyway, we had a lot of time to kill and walked across to take a chance.
12. Brahma temple: We considered ourselves to be fortunate to have decided to take a chance and arrive here. The temple was still open, and we had made to the last pooja at this temple as well. The priest was ecstatic to greet us who went on narrating us stories from mythology and depicting the importance of this otherwise small temple in Kumbakonam. We were told that it was 1 of the only 2 temples in all of Tamil Nadu that are dedicated to Lord Brahma. We were happy to savor the prasadam, which was very unexpected.
We then had a sumptuous supper at a restaurant before we called it a day. It took the same amount of pain to cross the crowded bazaar street to reach back to the hotel and catch some good night’s sleep.
On the following morning, we were early risers to catch up with our planned itinerary. We boarded a 07.00.a.m. bus to our first destination of the day, situated on a small hillock on the outskirts of Kumbakonam.
13. Swamimalai: Abode of one of the six important murugan temples in Tamil Nadu, Swamimalai is also an important destination of idol making in India. A limited number of artisans who all live in clusters around the temple here, have carried along a science and art of bronze idol making from the Chola period. The technology used in the ‘lost wax method’ of metal casting is practiced as per the Vedas and is something that needs a more elaborate citation, in another post.
After offering our prayers, we decided to head back to the city to get buses to the other places on our list.
Meanwhile, we couldn’t locate any restaurant that was open for breakfast even at 08.00.a.m. Hence, we decided to have lunch once and for all at wherever we would reach. If one had the convenience of an own transportation, there are several other ancient temples that I would recommend for visiting. It would be ideal to have an additional day in hand and make Kumbakonam the central place as all these recommended places are located in different directions, forming somewhat a radius around this town. Local buses are available from Kumbakonam to each of these places, but it would be very time consuming to come back to Kumbakonam to change a bus to every time. Hence, we decided to skip the below places and head to our last major landmark.
17. Thiruvidaimaruthur etc.
18. The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram: We reached this yet another magnanimous temple after changing two buses (A change of bus at Kork road / GK cross). The biggest (of the three-great living Chola temples enlisted by UNESCO), this structure stood right adjacent to the national highway enchanting every tourist with all its might. The 3 living temples are together called so because the prayers, festivities followed thousands of years ago, during the Chola period are still being followed religiously till date and have stood as true testimony of time and Tamil culture.
From here, we continued our backpacking into another territory within Tamil Nadu. From Tanjavur district, we were thereon heading towards Chidambaram via Pichavaram. Backpacking trips and road trips always carry elements of surprise and they are supposed to be like that. They can never be planned precisely. These trips always carry scope for making impromptu changes in the itinerary and taking on new adventures. That’s what was awaiting us on the next leg of this weeklong trip, far away in the southern-most state of India. Click here to read more on my journey to Chidambaram.
I had seen the name of this place on the boards of inter-state private buses plying in the roads of Bangalore. On a little bit of research, I came to know that it was a popular summer destination of the British which has twin hills called Devarabetta, with a good view point.
One day, when my friends and I were looking for a destination for a random ride to kill time, Thally popped up in my head. In what was meant to be just a ride to kill time on a weekend, turned out to be a discovery of a new hideout to escape the frenzy of the city..
We used google maps for navigation. A small ride through Jigani, past Chandapura town lead us to a small barricade that marked the Karnataka- Tamil Nadu border. There was a sudden drop in temperature leading to a rather pleasant ride than expected, in an otherwise hot Tamil Nadu.
Brick making kilns and artistically structures built with raw bricks and tiles dotted some stretch of the bordering village. We proceeded through the serene greens of vegetable farms and yellow blossomed mustard fields to reach the junction of Thally town. The temple fair seemed to be happening beside the huge Thally lake. We thought of giving it a miss owing to the village crowd and proceeded towards our next destination: ‘Devarabetta’.
We were excited as we spotted the twin hills from a distance. We passed through rough countryside terrain and kaccha roads that finally lead us to the temple at the foothill of Devarabetta.
Since our stomachs were growling and there were no hotels nearby to sate our hunger, we decided to head back to the city.
The Vishnu temple enroute to Devarabetta from Thally
But on our way back, I found an interesting piece of architecture, I wanted to explore more. We parked our bike and walked into this old temple complex. The door to the sanctum was closed. There was no one around who could throw some light about this place. However, the design looked liked a scaled down version of the temple at Tirupathi, suggesting that it was dedicated to Lord Vishnu. There was an old well, a wooden temple car and a dilapidated mantap adjacent to the temple. Further, with my little knowledge of temple architecture, I recognise that the art had some relevance to the Chola style of architecture (the stairs had resemblance to the Varadaraja Perumal Temple at Kanchipuram & the Big temple at Tanjavur).
I would be really happy if someone could help me out in knowing the actuals about the history of this temple. The map of the temple is shared below.
Thereafter, we continued our return journey to the city. This place makes for half a day’s outing if you are looking for some solace with nothing much to do, at a stone’s throw away distance from the city. You can make a full day outing if you combine it with a tour to hosur, Denkanikottai fort in Tamil nadu or the pearl valley in Karnataka.
Summary: Not a great place to plan an exclusive trip, you can consider it only if you’re planning for a random ride on a weekend to get away from the Bangalore chaos.
This visit to Trichy was a part of our family’s backpacking trip, mainly conceptualized to cover a portion of the Coromandel coast during this trip. Our itinerary for this trip was Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.
After a long day exploring Tanjavur, we boarded an evening bus to Tiruchirappalli. Trichy is a name given by the British, perhaps the shortened version of the original used for the ease of pronunciation. After reaching the town, we checked into a lodge in front of the central bus stand, had a sumptuous meal and retired early.
It was day 3 of our backpacking. The places covered in our Trichy day trip were:
The island town of Srirangam
St. Lourdes’s church
The visit in detail:
Since this was not the first visit to Trichy for my parents, this plan was just a Trichy day trip. They wanted to just go around the major landmarks that are typically frequented on a traveler’s circuit. But Trichy is beyond just pilgrimage and ours is a family of explorers. So, in spite of covering these popular landmarks, we still added a few elements of history and architectural explorations into it to make it more meaningful than just going around these places. In fact, as someone who views places from a historian’s perspective, places are usually recognized by a specific dynasty that had an influence in its overall culture. For example, Mahabalipuram is associated with the Pallavas, Tanjavur or Kumbakonam is a major territory of the Cholas, Madurai with the Pandya and so on. But, when it comes to Trichy, this town was never a capital of one particular kingdom. However, it has remained a very important place throughout history and across timelines, thereby picking up influences of all major dynasties that ruled over this region. Hence, it is safe to say that Trichy represents a confluence of all south-Indian architectural styles. I would like to elaborate on the places we visited to give my readers a brief idea of these places when they plan their trip to Trichy.
Landmark 1: Srirangam
We got ready early next morning and boarded a local bus to Srirangam- the abode of Sri Antya Ranganatha Swamy. This is the Tamilian counterpart of AdiRanga at Srirangapatna and MadhyaRanga in Shivana Samudra (All three are island towns formed by river Kaveri). Srirangam is an important place of worship for the Vaishnava sect of Brahmins or the followers of Lord Vishnu. When we arrive there, there was a long queue and we managed to get a glimpse of the historic idol of Sri Ranganatha sleeping on a serpent after a long wait in the queue. (There is a long history of how this idol came into being, worth a read).
But pilgrimage aside, we were there to enjoy the architectural marvels of the city. If you are someone who loves to walk and explore a place by foot, it would take a good 2-3 hours to simply walk around the main temple complex. Although the main gopuram or the outermost tower is the latest among all the towers in this temple complex, it is the largest temple tower in the world. With a spread of 156 acres, the temple complex itself is believed to be the largest functional temple premises in the world.
The complex consists seven rounds of walls/fortifications before you reach the sanctum sanctorum. Each wall was added by the successive dynasties that reigned in this town including the Pandya, Cholas, Hoysala, Vijayanagar, Pallavas and the others. The art specific to each of these eras can be noticed in the complex. The entire complex has 21 temple gopurams where one could easily get lost in the vastness of the complex if attempting to see each of them individually. After entering the main complex, a ticket of Rs.10 per head took us through narrow stairs leading to the roof of the temple. This is called the temple viewpoint, from where all 21 temple towers could be seen from a single spot. There is also a 1000 pillar hall which was earlier used as a venue to host dance events, now remained locked. We admired the fine sculptures on these pillars through the bars of the closed gates and continued our walk further.
The banks of river Kaveri is just behind the temple, which can be accessed by walking through the rear door of the temple. With blazing sun even at 10.00.a.m, the sand and the asphalt road were already heated up. Hence, our barefooted attempt to walk to the riverbank was less a walk and more a run. Hailing from a place where the holy river originates and flows gracefully with water all through the year, it was unexpected and disappointing and to see her riverbed running TOTALLY dry in this part of her journey. But after talking to the localites, I cheered up a bit as they were looking forward for a good monsoon in the coming month. We were told that the river would flow almost in spate during the monsoons (Even submerging the very place that I was standing at). We came back to the temple again, had some fresh fruit juice from one of the stalls outside, wore our footwear and took a walk around the temple.
Big houses, with very small entrance, compactly built next to each other, allowing no or very less ventilation inside was the trademark style of Srirangam. These streets take pride in being home to one of the highly educated communities of the country- the Iyengar Brahmins.
Oh yeah…!! It was BURNING hot and I was pretty sure I’d go back home like a grilled chicken after this walk. But then, we wanted to make the most of the visit because life is uncertain, and no one knows for sure when we would be visiting again.
Landmark 2: Thiruvannaikaval
Though the population of Srirangam mainly comprises the Iyengar (the followers of Vaishnavism), the then rulers have also built temples for the Iyers (the followers of Shaivism). Hence, our next destination was to see the temple built for Lord Shiva. We boarded a bus to Thiruvannaikaval. This temple is as beautiful as the Ranganatha temple, however, the history behind the latter has made it more prominent. Though many people visiting this city give a miss to this temple, it should be noted that this is one among the five temples built for Shiva representing the five elements of life. This one represents water or Jala Linga. One of the residents in the complex noticed our interest in exploration and suggested us to visit the Amma or Parvathi temple, another beautiful ancient temple usually missed by visitors. It is located right behind the Shiva temple.
Landmark 3: St. Lourdes’s church
From the temple, we had a nice south Indian meal at a nearby hotel after which we headed back to Trichy town. We visited the St. Lourdes’s church in the city. The Gallo-Catholic design of the church architecture and the neo-Gothic spires are beautiful in this early 2 centuries old heritage structure.
We did a bit of shopping in the by lanes and the Trichy market around the Teppakulam (Temple tank) before we started our ascend to our next destination.
Landmark 4: Rock Fort
This single projection of land in an otherwise low/Flat Trichy town dates back to the pre-historic era. It is beyond words to describe how in those days, could someone has created such beautiful structures out of a hard monolith. What appears to be just a random protrusion of earth from outside, is in fact a haven for the art lovers in the inside. There are stairs, numerous temples, artistic pillars and idols carved out of the same rock all the way up. There is a Ganesha temple at the summit from where one can enjoy the view of the entire Trichy town, the Kaveri river flowing around Srirangam, the temple gopuram, the rail lines traveling in and outside the city. The fun was doubled by the cool but strong winds that blew taking away all the tiredness from our minds.
As we decided to descend down, we realized that a door that had remained closed during our ascent was now wide open. There were some beautiful paintings peeking out of the door intimidating us to go inside and see what was there. We stepped inside and it was amusement that followed. It was a vast hall carved out inside the same rock with beautifully sculptured pillars and amazing paintings adorning the walls. A priest noticed our interest and started explaining the story depicted by each painting. He then told us to hurry up and walk inside through another door. There, the maha mangalaarthi (the last pooja of the day.!!) for goddess Parvathi was just about to begin. Just as we reached there, they unveiled the curtains for us to get an eyeful of the beautifully decorated goddess.
Just while we were sipping the holy water, we were again asked to rush through another door, cross a narrow chamber that led to the Shiva temple. The deity was getting ready for the final pooja of the day. Prayers are offered only thrice a day: During sunrise, at noon and before sunset. And we were lucky for being there for one of these (the last one). The curtains were parted from the deity and the huge idol was being bathed in the pancha-Amrutha. Then, he was neatly dressed in dhoti, decorated with fresh flowers and the pooja culminating with Arathi. The curtains were back signaling us that the god would then go to sleep. We felt truly BLESSED…!! by the end of this, I could see my mom weeping in joy for being lucky to witness this Pooja. We had witnessed an event that was so unexpected.
Again, the presence and strong hold of almost all major south Indian dynasties could be felt there with the exquisite designs present in the art there. We thanked the priest and took leave to descend the stairs leading us down to the market.
Landmark 5: GR restaurant
A final destination to our tour: a local recommendation for an evening chai. GR restaurant is housed in an old building in the heart of the city (enroute to Rock fort). The Valli appam is a must try here. The interiors of the hotel are commendable which has rock pillars, structures & collectibles that reminds one of the grandeurs of temple architecture that this region is renowned for. A cup of piping hot filter coffee was a grand ending to our Trichy day trip! There are many lesser known temples around Trichy and equally beautiful with rich artwork which takes up another full day. But one day was all the time we had with us before wrapping up trip in Trichy to Bangalore. So, I shall come back soon.
This was a family backpacking trip, mainly conceptualized by my dad and had been long due. He wanted to see how the end of River Kaveri; our family deity looks like. Accordingly, we made an itinerary and a route map. Our family of four backpacked with the below itinerary:
Day 0: Depart from Bangalore (Travel mode: Overnight train to Mayiladuthurai) Day 1: Visit Poompuhar, Tarangambadi, Karaikal, Nagore and Velankanni (Travel mode: local bus; Stay: Church run lodges at Velankanni) Day 2: Explore Tanjavur (Travel mode: local bus; Stay: Hotel at Trichy) Day 3: Explore Trichy (Depart to Bangalore by overnight bus)
The first day of our backpacking is presented here, which took us across three important landmark destinations along the east-coast, covering all three prominent faiths in India. That’s why I call this part of the trip as a ‘secular trip’ with of course covering the intended destination: Poompuhar, the end of the River Kaveri or the point where this Holy river meets the sea.
Destination 1– Poompuhar
The name reminds one of the arts and crafts of Tamil Nadu while Cauvery emporium strikes a similar bell back home at Karnataka. The link for both the names is common. While the latter relates to Tala-Cauvery, the birthplace of river Cauvery at Karnataka, the former marks the end of the same river at Tamil Nadu. Both being holy places for the Hindus of South India. We were welcomed by a stretch of fishermen selling salted/seasoned & dried fish at the shore of this historic beach. There is a sculpture art museum on to the right side, at the entrance. To the left is Ilanji Mandran, a bathing place said to have had mysterious powers of curing health ailments that dates back to the Chola era. A walk for about a kilometer along the roaring sea leads us to the river mouth. It is believed that river Cauvery (a female) runs towards the sea (a male) at this point. If one stands and watches the river mouth at this point, the rapids of the river joining the calm sea can be seen quite evidently. The calm sea lashes her back towards the land with his waves side by side. A dip at this juncture is believed to be very holy (Hailing from a community that worships this river as a family deity, at least this is what I have grown up listening to). This place is also called Kaveripoompattinam as called by the Cholas and is a place of importance to the archaeologists.
Apart from the river mouth and a walk through the historical monuments mentioned above, there is nothing much to do at Poompuhar otherwise. The Kethu & Budha sthalams among the Navagraha temples are close by- I will save them for another article.
With that, we boarded a bus to our next destination- Tarangambadi. Then from there, to Karaikal beach.
Destination 2- Nagore
The little town of Nagore is known for the Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah of the Islam faith. We were welcomed warmly by the priests there who helped us with the procedures of offering our prayers. Going by history, this dargah stands as a symbol of peaceful co-existence between the Hindus & the Muslims as people from all faiths come here for worship. There are 5 minarets out of which the tallest one was built by a Maratha King of Tanjavur for being cured of his ailment by the miracles of Shahul Hameed. From there, we headed to our last destination of the day.
Destination 3: Velankanni
It was sunset time when we arrived at the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Good Health. We walked through the lines of stalls bustling with activities, pilgrims, tourists, hotels and other urchins to reach the seashore. This place is so crowded almost all through the year, that if one just stands in the crowd, the crowd will take you forward without you actually having to try to walk. We walked back to the Basilica of the Arogya Matha as she is fondly called to offer our prayers. The history dates back to 3 events occurring from 16th century onwards where Mother Mary appeared to a milk vendor, a buttermilk vendor and the Portuguese sailors who survived a severe sea storm. There is Matha Kulam / the holy pond and 2 chapels built at the respective places of the above occurrences.
We then took a brief walk at the donation’s library where all the gold, silver & other expensive offerings made by the devotees are kept for exhibits.
With that, a tiring, yet a pleasant journey in quest of god ended in a peaceful slumber at a Church run lodge… The following morning, we board another TNSRTC bus to our next destination: Tanjavur.
This visit to Tanjavur was a part of our family’s backpacking trip covering the route: Bangalore – Mayiladuthurai – Poompuhar – Tarangambadi – Karaikal – Nagapattinam – Velankanni – Tanjavur – Trichy – Bangalore.
Following a long day of a secular pilgrimage in the Coromandel coast, we boarded a morning bus to Tanjavur. Tanjavur, the cradle of Dravidian culture and a hub of the Chola art and architecture needs no introduction. There’s no dearth for information on the internet. A visit to this land was on my parent’s ‘bucket list’ and this was a trip planned for its materialization. With a day’s time at our disposal (VERY short for a slow traveler like me), we decided to cover the major landmarks that a typical tourist would want to see in the capital of the Cholas.
It was the second day of our backpacking. The places covered in Tanjavur were: • BIG temple (Brihadeesvaran temple) • Saraswathi Mahal complex • Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam
As in case of every other civilization, a river holds all the life. In this case, Tanjavur was born on the fertile delta created by river Kaveri. This is the land that has nurtured and held on to the Dravidian culture till date. Apart from this, its local economy has largely been agrarian based ana is rightly called as the rice bowl of South India.
Landmark 1: The Big temple
The iconic monolith of this land was spotted even as our bus was still pulling off at the bus station. The monolith seated gracefully atop the ancient temple with a weight of 800 tonnes was still far away. As we reached, we stood there in awe, gazing at the vast premises of the mighty temple. The temple tower is the tallest in the world and stands testimony to the Cholas’ love for art and fine engineering skills even in the iron age. It is believed that a ramp was laid from about six kilometers to facilitate the placement of the monolith Kalasha atop the tower. The walls of the corridor are adorned by fine paintings that were done with a mixture of limestone and organic extracts. The temple walls have sculptures of numerous mythic animals which is the highlight of the Cholas’ temple architecture.
‘The Great living Chola temples’ is a group of three Chola temples located across Tanjavur district. Together, these three temples represent an architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravidian style. The Tanjavur Brihadeshwara temple is the most easily accessible of them all and is located in the heart of the city. (The other two temples are the Airavatesvara temple at Darasuram and Gangaikondacholisvaram). Although the Brihadeshwara temple is fondly called as the Big temple, it has multiple names. With a simple translation of the name into local language, it is called Thanjavur Periya kovil. The great Chola king Raja raja named this temple as Rajarajesvaram and the deity Shiva in Linga form as Peruvudaiyar. A few people also refer the temple with the name of its deity as Peruvudaiyar kovil.
Landmark 2: Saraswathi Mahal complex
We took an autorickshaw ride from the Big temple to Saraswathi Mahal. This is reckoned among the oldest functional libraries in the world and was patronized by the Tanjavur rulers. One can find some very old, rare and original copies of important manuscripts, scientific research publications etc. here. Adjoining it, is the palace of the Marathas of Tanjavur. The palace is partially used as the residence of the descendants and remaining portion is converted into a museum.
Behind this building, is the art museum which houses some rare and famous bronze idols created during the Chola era. The Cholas were the earliest people to have used the lost wax technique to create the bronze idols with a very scientific approach (as per the documented procedures in the Vedas).
Just outside the museum, we picked up a pair of Tanjavur bommai from the souvenir shop. These famous Tanjavur dolls are colorful handcrafted figurines where the head is suspended on a pivot which gives a dancing/swinging movement to the doll. Hence, they are often referred as the Tanjavur thalayatti bommai or the dancing headed dolls. Another artform you cannot ignore or miss while in this city are the Tanjavur paintings. Considered as a divine artform, with gold embellishments, Tanjavur paintings are considered as a symbol of royalty.
Landmark 3: Grand Anicut / Kallanai dam
From there, we boarded a local bus to reach Grand Anicut (as called by the Britishers) or Kallanai (the local name). This is a standing example of the engineering marvels constructed over 2000 years ago by the Cholas (later modified by the British). This oldest functional water regulation structure in the world is a dam constructed with uneven stones / random boulders across river Kaveri with a desperate intention to divert the water before joining the sea so that it can be used for irrigation around the delta region. This dam divides the river into four streams known as Kollidam Aru, Kaveri, Vennar and Puthu. Later, the Lower Anicut/ Kollidam was constructed by the British before the water actually joins the sea.
With this, our time in Tanjavur had almost come to an end. On the other end of the dame, we sat inside a local bus and waited for it to start to our next destination on our trip: Trichy.