Tracing the Cholan trail- Kumbakonam

At work, it was a week-long plant shutdown for Diwali. Taking this opportunity, I decided to close my travelogues along South India with the last 4 places left- Kumbakonam, Chidambaram, Pondi and Tiruvannamalai. On a Sunday night, my brother and I set out on the bus journey from Bangalore to Kumbakonam. This was part 2 of my exploration in Tanjavur district.

It was raining cats and dogs when we alighted at Kumbakonam bus stand on the 9th morning from where we hired a rickshaw to the hotel that was pre-booked online. Though we had a confirmed room, only after reaching the hotel did we get to know that they were closed for festival holidays and we had NO information from the website. However, the caretaker at the hotel was courteous by giving us 30mins to use a room to freshen up and vacate. Meanwhile, the pounding rain was replaced by drizzle. Both of us decided to walk the town exploring and visiting all the temples that were all nearby and located in a cluster. After a neat South-Indian breakfast with Rava Dosa and filter coffee, we headed towards the first place of visit following the directions given on a map- The Nageshwaran temple. It was a pretty big temple from the Chola period dedicated to Adishesha who offered prayers to Shiva at this place. The kalyana mantap has been interestingly designed in the form of a chariot being drawn by life sized elephants and horses with the suspension technique even 1000 years ago.

The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil
The Kalyana mantap at Nageswaran Kovil

Next, we waded through the flooded roads to reach Sarangampani- A Vaishnavite temple. Notable contributions have been made by Cholas, Vijayanagar, Madurai Nayaks etc. to the overall architecture of this temple and there is a temple tank located on the western side. Someshwara temple is located adjacent to the Sarangampani temple which we skipped after just getting some photos from the outside.

The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil
The Rajagopuram at the Sarangampani Kovil

We continued through the busy shopping lanes of the town to reach Adikumbeshwara temple. The premise is vast and now used for commercial purposes with several shops and restaurants that have been setup. It is believed that Kumbakonam gets its name from this Shiva temple. Legend has it that lord Bramha’s pot (Kumba) containing nectar of worldly lives was rolled down and stopped at Kumbakonam 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 on a single stone. Also the piped instruments(nagaswarams) etched out of stone and the cattle-shed are noteworthy.

After a detailed observation of the art, we proceeded towards the next destination: Ramasamy temple- A dedication to lord Rama. This is the only temple which houses the idols of Rama & Sita along with all his brothers inside the sanctum Sanctorum. The place requires atleast a day or two since the entire story of Ramayana has been painted on the corridor walls of the temple. Obviously we did not have more than a couple of hours to spend given the tight schedule we often travel with. We did a quick brush up of whatever we could understand of the images there. Meanwhile, my brother’s phone beeped on a receipt of a SMS. The website guys had given us an alternate stay option. We decide to locate the hotel which was round the corner and drop our luggage there. To our surprise, our room was upgraded to AC-luxury!!

The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple
The Ramayana painted on the corridor walls of the Ramasami temple

We freshened up again and continued with our exploration without really thinking about our lunch. By noon, all temples in the South close down and open again only in the evening. So we thought a visit to the Mahamahan tank was a good idea to use up the time. The tank is spread across 6 acres and is believed to be created out of the nectar that was spilt out of Bramha’s pot. At the entrance of the tank, Kashivishwanathar temple is located. It is believed that the navakannigas or the 9 maidens of Shiva (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kaveri, Gidavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabadra & Sarayu) representing 9 rivers come to this tank for bathing once in 12 yrs. On this day, 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.

We walked past Abhimukeshwara temple located on the other side of the tank and was closed too. From there, we boarded a bus to Darasuram, a temple listed in the UNESCO’s world heritage sites (1 of the great living Chola temples). Very few fortunate people (like US..!!) get this view of the Airavateshwara temple- This majestic structure was partially submerged in water owing to the heavy rains.. Ofcourse, it’s not a good thing to cheer about but then the reflection of the entire temple in the water beneath just doubled the beauty of the sight (quite literally!!) We climbed a ladder to walk up the corridor and then got down to wade across and reach the temple porch. It was BEAUTY up there..!! This temple is aesthetically different from the other 2 counterparts. We had a feast for our eyes soaked in the rain 😛 After getting some nice shots, we made our way out to the main road to catch a bus to our next destination.

Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram
Airavateshwara temple at Darasuram

Our umbrella flipped to the heavy winds and the pounding rain got us drenched till our bone by the time the bus arrived. The short journey thereon reminded us of Sebastian Vettel cruizing on narrow country side tarmac amid overflowing potholes and LOUD tapangucchi music at 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 the Pateeswaran temple. Originally a Shiva temple, the goddess has been given prime importance. It is said that the Cholas offered prayers to the goddess Patti(daughter), calf of the sacred cow kamadhenu here before proceeding for any battles during their time. However, the temple still remained closed till 05.00.p.m. Since the rain had taken a break, we decided to cover Swamimalai in the remaining time. Again the rain gods took over the sky and so, after waiting for more than an hour for a bus, we decided to head back to the city.

We found a place that served piping hot filter coffee near the city bus stand that helped us to warm ourselves to some extent from the chilling rain. It was only 06.00.p.m but dark already.. We then walked back to our hotel room to warm ourselves and continue the temple hopping after an hour’s rest. As planned, we set out finding our way out of the super crowded street of the city to find the other 2 temples that we had left out. We just had to close our umbrellas and stand amid the crowd and the crowd would pull us along to reach the exit of the street. The main bazaar street is a state highway- thanks to the shopping mela that was set there for Deepavali, people flocked to buy stuffs for festival not minding the heavy rain and the jam-packed road with not even an inch of breathing space. We somehow managed to get out without actually facing a stampede and reached the 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 the temples had started to close down. Anyway, we had a lot of time to kill and walked across to take a chance. Again, we were very fortunate that the preist was happy to greet us for the last pooja of the Bramha temple. There are very few temples for Bramha and this is 1 of the 2 in all of Tamil Nadu. We were happy to get the prasad which was unexpected. We then had a sumptuous supper at a restaurant called Dosa plaza- a must try while you are in this city. 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.

Day 2: As planned, we woke up early and boarded a bus by 07.00.a.m. to Swamimalai. The temple is located on a small hillock and is among the six holy shrines dedicated to lord Murugan. We finished our prayers and had to head back to the city to get buses to the other places. We couldn’t locate a restaurant that was open for breakfast even at 08.00.a.m. We decided to have lunch once and for all as we would be back by noon.

Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan
Swami Malai- One of the six holy shrines of lord Murugan

Next on schedule was Gangaikonda Cholapuram- the 3rd of the living temples of the Cholas. There are other temples at Uppiliappan, Thirubuvanam, Thiruvalanchizi, Thiruvidaimaruthur etc. All located out of the city in different directions. They could be covered in half a day’s time if travelling by own vehicle. However, it still can be done as the local bus service in Tamil Nadu is very convenient, frequent and cheap. We decided to skip all of them.

We got a bus to Kork road / GK cross after an hour’s wait at the wrong bus stop from where we had to take another bus to reach this world heritage site and so we did.. The Brihadeeshwara temple stood right there adjacent to the national highway enchanting every tourist with all its might. A much wished tour of all the 3 Cholan temples enlisted by UNESCO was fulfilled right there (The 1st one being the Brihadeeshwara/Big temple at Tanjavur). Hmm Bliss..!! The architecture of all the 2 Brihadeeshwara temples is more or less comparable. The 3 living temples are together called so because the prayers, festivities followed thousands of years agon during the Chola period are still being followed religiously till date and have stood as true testimony of time and Tamil culture.

The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram
The Brihadeeshwara temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram

The next plan was to go back to Kumbakonam and take a bus to Chidambaram via Pichavaram. However, the latter was closed due to the cyclone alert that was issued in Cuddalore and Pondi. On some research, we got to know that GK-Cholapuram was indeed halfway to Chidambaram. Hence, we decided to continue on the same route although it required for us to change 2 buses. So, here ended our tour of Kumbakonam and Tanjavur district as a whole from where we began another new journey towards the Cuddalore district.

Summary:

Max. time to cover ALL temples with own transport- ONE day

Max. time taken to cover all temples with local transport- 1.5 days.

Food: the trademark Dosas at ‘The Dosa Plaza’- a must try

Buy: hmm.. Nothing really..!!

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