Kumbakonam and Thanjavur: A trip down the Glorious Yesteryears of Indian Temples

Getting there (Kumbakonam and Thanjavur):

  • Bangalore to Kumbakonam: 410 kms 7:30 – 8:30 hrs by road, 10-11 hours by train
  • Kumbakonam to Thanjavur: 40 kms, 1 hr 15 mins by road

Visiting our Ancestral home in Kumbakonam

Over the years, visits to Kumbakonam have increased in frequency. Kumbakonam is the town where I was born. It is the where my father was born and where my paternal grandfather was raised. It is densely soaked in family history and stories.

Our Ancestral home
Our Ancestral home

Stories of my father frequenting the ghats of the Kaveri river during his childhood and taking a swim, or my uncles getting into teenage mischief or my grandfather catching my father and his friends red handed during some notorious childhood acts have been a staple conversation whenever we visit Kumbakonam.

Kumbakonam is now a commercial hub. The population has increased, the roads are busier, traffic in the rush hour comparable to cities, yet one things remains a constant — the temples. Kumbakonam is a temple town. Over 170 temples call Kumbakonam and its precinct as their home. Arguably, Kumbakonam has higher density of temples that many cities have ATM density.

Kaveri, the mythology and memory

Chanchal and I took an early morning walk in the streets around our ancestral home. Within minutes we were at the banks of the Kaveri river. Or perhaps what was once the Kaveri. The river bank retains its old charm, temples, small houses and dhobi ghats. The only thing missing is water. Climate change, deforestation, indiscriminate use of water, rising number of check dams, burgeoning concrete constructions around the river have resulted in the Kaveri river being reduced to a seasonal affair.

Kaveri River Bank
Kaveri River Bank

River Kaveri finds mention in the oldest of old scriptures and literature of India. Now it is battling for survival. Modernity is taking its toll. Sustainability is a fancy word that finds little expression in the ‘practical’ and ‘expansionist’ mindset of the world today. We will leave an ugly and depleted legacy for the next generation. Our generation perhaps will drive the last few nails down the coffin of our glorious planet.

Hotel Krishna Bhavan, a hole in the wall that leads to heavenly food

Just a few houses away from our ancestral home is Hotel Krishna Bhavan. A literal hole in the wall eatery. It serves piping hot tiffin — morning and evening. The taste is to die for. Or perhaps to live for. The prices are absurdly low and the generosity of the serving staff amazingly high. Mid-way through your food, you forget that you are not at home. Everything in Krishna Bhavan feels like a village home.

Amazing food at Krishna Bhavan
Amazing food at Krishna Bhavan

We had amazing breakfast, Idlis, Rava Onion Dosas, Pongal and much more. If you are in Kumbakonam, do track down this nondescript joint and indulge. You will not regret.  

Walk down Kumbakonam main market

We took a walk down the busy and buzzing Kumbakonam main market. Both in the morning and evening. The modern has displaced the traditional in form and shape, yet when you interact with shopkeepers you feel that time has moved ever so slowly in their minds. The market is buzzing with old-world shopkeepers selling new-world stuff.

Streets of Kumbakonam
Streets of Kumbakonam

Streets of Kumbakonam

My mother would stop at some alley and reminisce about a shop she remembered from decades ago. She would leave the spot with mixed feelings as her memories and current day realities betray each other.

Kumbakonam degree coffee

Kumbakonam Degree Kapi

A must try and have while in Kumbakonam is the famous Kumbakonam Degree Coffee. Wonder why it is called so — Degree Coffee! Well, here are some plausible explanations offered by people.

Chanchal wanted to try and we did. Breaking our no coffee and no tea routine, we indulged.

The day of the mangoes: Rumani, Mulgoa, Padari

After having indulged in a lot of South Indian cuisine, we wanted to have a fruity dinner. We decided it was going to be day of the mango. We bought different varieties of mangoes. Each with their own fragrance, taste and texture. Very different from the standard affair of mangoes we have been used to back home.

Padari was succulent and sweet, while Rumani was tangy and Mulgoa, the largest of the three, was juicy. Our taste buds had a field day. We also followed up with red banana and jack fruit pulp.

Our supposedly light fruity dinner turned into a fruit festival. If you are in Kumbakonam, do try out all the fruit varieties.

 

Our very own Temple Run

Darasuram Temple, A UNESCO heritage site

First on our list was Darasuram Temple –  a recommendation by my colleague Karthik Rangarajan. Actually called the  Airavateswara temple it is one of the three living Chola Temples. The sculpting work is intricate, the geometry mesmerizing, the detailing inspiring.

Darasuram temple
Darasuram temple
The musical steps
The musical steps

At the entrance, is an architectural marvel. A series of stone steps carved and placed in a precise manner to reproduce the seven svaras. You could throw a coin on the top most step and as the coin tumbled down it would produce a svara at each step and thus seven svaras Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Nee Sa on its descent. Wow! Talk about extracting precise musical notes coming out of a stone.

Uppiliappan Temple, a famous Vishnu Temple

Next we were off to Uppiliappan Temple. One of the famous Vishnu temples with an interesting and famous folk lore. The temple dates back to 8th Century A.D. with inscriptions still intact from that era. I have memories of visiting this temple every other year during my school summer vacation. I used to remember my experience as extremely distressed due to unbearable summer heat – owing to the time of the year we would always visit. This time, the weather was cool and comfortable.

Temple elephant
Temple elephant

The temple elephant carefully trained by the mahout to accept fruits and ingest and to accept money at pass it on to the mahout. Most big temples in South of India have a temple elephant. 

Nageswaran Temple

By late afternoon we were back in Kumbakonam and decided to continue our temple run into the heart of the Kumbakonam town. We visited the Nageswaran Temple – a Shiva temple. What a huge complex it is of stone and motifs.

Colorful Festive Idols
Colorful Festive Idols
Colorful Festive Idols
Colorful Festive Idols

The raw grandeur of scale and size is impressive. The ustava murthis or festive idols were colorful and enchanting. Just standing there in the courtyard, you could imagine what it would have been in 9th Century when the temple was built. Temple festivities and daily devotional and traditional rituals were the commoner’s entertainment back in the day.

Kasi vishwanadar temple

Next we visited the Kasi Viswanathar Temple. This temple finds mention in the revered Hindu Epic – The Ramayana (of events dating back to 7,400 B.C.) as well as in the 7th Century Canonical work named Teveram.

The Holy Mahamaham Tank

Next in line was our visit to the revered Mahamaham Tank in the heart of Kumbakonam. The water body is spread over six acres but woefully lacks water for most part of the year now. The famous and sacred Mahamaham is celebrated every twelve years here by taking a dip in the holy waters and performing certain rituals. This is considered at par with the Maha Kumbh Mela held every twelve years up north in the country.

Mahamaham Tank_Not a drop of water
Mahamaham Tank_Not a drop of water

The Mahamaham Tank is now empty. On speaking with my extended family living in Kumbakonam and some other locals, we learnt that whatever little water used to swell up through the ground is now being sucked up by near by hotels that have come up. A culprit in particular is allegedly the Hotel Raya’s Grand whose super powerful water suction pump has dried up the sacred tank. Apparently, the local administration is hand in glove so no questions are asked.

Adi Kumbeswarar Temple

So many childhood memories flash by when I visit the Adi Kumeswarar Temple. As a child, my parents always nudged me to pray and I was always only attracted to the architecture of temples. After all these years, still nothing has changed in that equation. My parents, now old, still kept giving me side glances to see if I was praying. I still am keenly observing the architecture, the motifs, the storytelling art forms depicted on the temple walls.

The temple complex is so huge that it has its own bazaar inside. Can you imagine that? These temples are not just places of worship, they were and are a lifestyle, they are centers of economy and wheels of commerce.

Thiruvadaimardur, Mahalinga swamy temple

We always visit, the Mahalingeswarar Temple in Thiruvidaimarudur. It is one of the seven major Lord Shiva temples in the world. Built over 2,000 years ago, the temple had a history of abundance and wealth. It was center of revenue collection and administration under many kings. So much so that special armies were deployed at the temple over centuries to safeguard the temple precinct.

Temple courtyard                                                                            Temple courtyard

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The periya praharam (outer periphery) of the temple is nearly three fourth of a kilometer long. The temple has five tanks or water bodies inside the complex. Towering Gopurams, vast open courtyards, deeply aligned geometry of the temple architecture and mythological significance of this temple make it one of those rare combination of scale and subtlety.

My mother grew up here

My mother looking longingly into the house she grew up inThe amazing part is my mother was born and raised four houses from the temple. She spent her childhood playing in the vast and majestic courtyard of the temple. My eldest uncle worked at the temple for years. My mothers, who is in her late sixties, becomes a five year old whenever she visits this temple. She fondly and longingly remembers the house she grew up in. While the house was sold off many years ago, she insists that she be taken to front gate of the house every time we visit.

Look at her, with yearning of trying to grasp the time gone by, looking into the house she grew up in. She was once a native of that house and this village and now she is an outsider. Time changes perspectives.

 The Yaali is also a secret tunnel    

The mouth of the Yaali used to be the gateway for the kings to escape in times of turbulence or insurgency. They used the secret pathway through the shallow water tunnel to whisk themselves away from danger.

Yaali

The secret tunnel through the Yaali's mouth

As a child, I remember sitting outside this very Yaali and waiting for the escaped king to return. I would wait for an hour or so and then get bored and run back to my Maternal Grandma’s home. The sheer nostalgia makes it difficult for me to move away.

Seethaka maganalam, old ancestral temple

This time we were taken to an old ancestral temple in Seethaka manganlam. I learnt that my paternal family was involved over the generations with the temple. It is not uncommon for families in the olden days to adopt or associate themselves with the village temple. My father was visibly moved and emotional as we spend the afternoon around the temple precinct.

 

The village guardians

The Guardian Diety

Always a sucker for folklore and stories, I interacted with a few locals and started to understand the depictions through the temple idols and murals. The rough life of village results in people revering aspects of the divine that are more powerful and forceful. You can see it in the way the idols are designed with big protruding eyes, with sharp weapons in attack ready pose, display of power and force.

Drive to Thanjavur

After lunch, we drove to Thanjavur. The drive was pleasant with paddy fields on both sides and the sky gathering some clouds. We were six of us, Chanchal and I, my parents and my cousin Ganesan and his wife Akila.

My Cousin Ganesan, an encyclopedia of Temples

I, My Cousin Ganesan and my Mother
I, My Cousin Ganesan and my Mother

My cousin Ganesan has been the pivot of our temple run. He is a old-world, down to earth temple aficionado. He has so much knowledge about temples, their folklore, backstory and relevance. It is as if he was there when these millenniums old temples were built. At each turn within a temple, he will come share a story or a folklore that is relevant to a particular statute or a certain courtyard.

I made a mental note. Someday I will collaborate with him to write a book on temples of Kumbakonam. May the day come soon.

Glimpses into South Indian Tamil Brahmin wedding

We spent the evening and the next day morning attending a family wedding in Thanjavur. In the rich and diverse cultural fabric of India, you have wedding rituals that differ by state, religion, sects and denominations. One thing remains a constant. The generous dash of colors and tradition.

Sri Brihadeeswarar temple or the Big Temple of Thanjavur

Built by Raja Raja Chola in 1010 CE, the Brihadeeswarar temple is one of the three living Chola temples and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer size and extravagance of this thousand year old temple is breathtaking. Your mobile phone will fall woefully short of capturing the entire temple landscape in one clear good shot. Yes, it is that huge – wall to wall. I had to pull out my GoPro and set the resolution to SuperView to cover it nearly edge to edge.

The monolithic Nandi
The monolithic Nandi

The fascinating part of the architecture is that no binding material is used to keep the structure in place. It is just interlocking panels and plinths of granite. No mortar and glue to bind. Just pure geometry and precision of grooves.

We chance upon a Meditating cat

A Meditating CatJust outside the sanctum sanctorum on the left entrance, we saw a cat that seemed to be meditating. Yeah! The feline sat there calm, eyes half closed, being still like a wood and yet not sleeping. It didn’t move for the time we were there (at least for about thirty minutes). Everyone walking out of the temple saw it, some people even tried disturbing the cat by making weird cat sounds or trying to shoo it away. It just sat there absorbed yet alert. It is a myth that around many Shiva temples, you can attain states of deep meditativeness if you so desired.

Chanchal and I said to each other. If a Cat can do do this, why can’t most humans. A thought worth considering. With so much conflict in the world, we all could benefit from some thoughtfulness and meditativeness.

Spotting a Flying peacock

Peacock in Flight

On our way out of the temple, I managed to click a peacock in flight. How majestic it looked against the backdrop of twilight sky. The colors of bird and the sky seamlessly blended into each other. What a majestic bird to have as the National Bird of India.

Chasing Thanjavur Dolls

Perhaps the last things to do was to shop for the famous Thanjavur dancing dolls. Made out of mud and paper mache they are quite a rage. If you are in Thanjavur and you decide to go back without buying one of these, perhaps not too wise a decision. You could find a beautifully made doll at an artisan’s house or at a doll emporium or buy one of the street vendors that may be not as well finished. Irrespective of which ones you buy, you will walk away with happiness.

Other interesting temple runs:

In 2010, I had visited the Patteeswaram Temple and wrote about it. It is about eight kilometers from Kumbakonam. Another beauty.

I do hope to cover many more of these temples and uncover their stories and folklore in my future visits. One could live a lifetime around these temples and still need a lifetime to truly understand their myths and realities.

2 thoughts on “Kumbakonam and Thanjavur: A trip down the Glorious Yesteryears of Indian Temples

  • July 11, 2017 at 8:34 pm
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    Excellently​ written ….Well done Balaji 👌

    Reply
    • July 18, 2017 at 6:10 pm
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      Glad you liked it 🙂

      Reply

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