ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover a heritage trail around the temple town of Kumbakonam visiting Chola shrines, weaving villages and bronze casters
In a corner of the 30,187 sq ft compound of the town’s largest Shiva shrine, Mangalamba, the 40-year-old temple elephant was being scrubbed and bathed by four men. Outside, the canopied market bristled with the sale of religious trinkets at dawn while the aroma of coffee wafted from roadside cafes. Rajagopuram, the majestic 128 ft high eastern gateway soared skyward like a multi-hued pyramid. In the sanctum of Adi Kumbeswara in the temple town of Kumbakonam, the Lord was ready for the day’s stream of devotees…
Set in the rice bowl of Central Tamil Nadu, Kumbakonam has been revered since ancient times. According to mythology as the end of an epoch drew near, Lord Brahma approached Lord Shiva for divine counsel. He was instructed to worship the celestial kumbha (pot) containing amrit (nectar) and the seeds of creation and place it atop Mount Meru (Himalayas). During the Great Deluge, the floodwaters displaced the pot and carried it southwards. Guised as a kirata (hunter), Shiva shot an arrow at the pot and released the nectar, which formed the sacred Mahamaham Tank. Mixing broken pieces of the pot with nectar, he fashioned a lingam and merged into it. Ever since he is worshipped as Kirata murti, Amrudeswara or Adi Kumbeswara and the place was known as Kumbakonam or Town of the Celestial Pot. The seeds of creation thus dispersed sprouted new life again, symbolically represented as a hundred Shiva shrines in and around town.
As per Kumbakonam’s creation myth, when Lord Shiva broke the pot after the flood subsided, its contents were scattered across the countryside. The spot where the bilva leaf came to rest became a Bilva-vanam at Nageswara temple, where the yagnopaveetham (sacred thread) fell became Yagnopaveeteswara or Gautameswara, the coconut took root at Abimugeswara, the string securing the pot formed the linga at Someswara while the place where Shiva’s baanam (arrow) landed became the Bana Pureeswara temple.
Kumbakonam temple tour
In the Adi Kumbeswara complex, colours of the temple’s gopurams (gateways) leapt out like vibrant parakeets as we absorbed the fascinating detail of sculptures. Pilgrims wound their way past the flagstaff and silver chariots towards the sanctum. ‘No abhishekams (libations) are offered to the lingam’ the priest hushed. ‘It will get destroyed since it is made of earth’, he added conspiratorially. ‘So it is coated with punagu, the dark scented secretion of a civet cat!’ The principal deity Sri Kiratamurti held a bow and arrow.
The temple also had a resting chamber for the Lord and his consort Mangal Ambigai besides sub-shrines for Adi Vinayaka and Lord Subrahmanya, who wielded different weapons in six hands, instead of twelve. The Navarathri Mandapam was a monolithic wonder displaying 27 stars and 12 rasis (moon signs).
Nageshwara Swami Temple nearby, the town’s oldest shrine, was a fine example of early Chola art with painted ceilings and exquisite bronze sculptures of dancing deities and rich patrons. There were stunning shrines to Lord Vishnu as well – Ramaswamy Temple depicted scenes from the Ramayana and Sri Chakrapani Temple helped remove the malefic effects of planets.
The 150 ft tall rajagopuram of Sarangapani Swami Temple was suffused with erotic sculptures, erected by Lakshmi Narayana Swami, a staunch Vishnu devotee. He died on the holy day of Deepavali but being a bachelor he had no heirs, so the lord himself is believed to have performed his funeral rites. Even today, priests perform shraadh for him on behalf of the Lord on Diwali!
Swamimalai, a short drive west of Kumbakonam was the site of Lord Murugan’s sacred shrine atop a malai or rocky hillock. It recounted the tale of how Murugan or Swaminathan took on the unconventional role of a ‘swami’ or teacher to expound the meaning of Om, the pranava mantra to his own father, Lord Shiva. Lending credence to the myth, Murugan’s shrine enjoyed an exalted position while the lower temple was consecrated to Lord Sundareswara and Goddess Meenakshi. After a luxurious veg thali meal at the heritage resort Indeco Swamimalai, we witnessed local craftsmen at work.
At Nachiyar Koil, around 10 km from Kumbakonam, we discovered that the main shrine was dedicated to Vanjulavalli or Nachiyar, Vishnu’s consort whom he married as a commoner. To give her due prominence, devotees first visit her shrine before praying to the Lord and her idol leads the procession on a swan during festivals. To ensure that Vishnu trails behind on his Garuda, a mysterious phenomenon slows down the lord’s swift mount. When the deity is taken out, only four people are needed to carry it out of the sanctum, but as the procession continues, the Garuda progressively doubles its weight till 8, 16, 32, 64 and 128 persons are required to bear it. Strangely, the reverse takes place on the return trip!
The great living Chola Temples
Besides Thanjavur, two UNESCO world heritage sites near Kumbakonam showcase the zenith of 11th -12th Century Chola architecture. At Darasuram the intricate carvings of Airavateshvara temple complex could be seen in the trellis screens of the Alankara Mandapam, the wheeled stone chariot drawn by horses and elephants and the 108 pillars depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati at Rajagambhiran Mandapam.
As per legend, once Sage Durvasa, notorious for his fiery temper, gifted a celestial garland to Lord Indra passing by on his royal mount the white elephant Airavata. Indra placed the wreath on the elephant’s head. Irritated by the bees attracted by the garland’s heady aroma, Airavata trampled it and incurred the sage’s wrath. Cursed that he would lose his pristine colour, Airavata performed a penance to appease Lord Shiva at Darasuram to regain his former glory. The lingam worshipped by Airavata was thus known as Airavateswara.
The magnificent replica of the Brihadisvara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram, the victory capital of the Cholas, marked their successful northward expedition up to the Ganges. King Rajendra Chola returned with holy water from the river and had it poured into the temple well. As a symbolic gesture, the leonine sculpture of Simha Kinaru, a representation of the imperial crest of the Cholas, stands guard.
Yet, Kumbakonam’s fame went beyond its shrines as we discovered its other secrets – the house of Math genius Srinivasa Ramanujan turned into a museum, shops selling fresh-roasted coffee and artisans handcrafting brass and bronzeware! Just beyond the Periya Nayaki Amman shrine at Darasuram, skeins of dyed silk hung like garlands in the bylanes of the weaving village. Interestingly, the weavers traced their ancestry to distant Saurashtra and almost every household wove traditional saris that could be bought off the shelf!
The famed Mahamaham Tank spanning 6.2 acres and circled by 16 pavilions is the venue for the Mahamaham festival occurring once in 12 years. The tank’s sanctity is proved by the belief that nine river goddesses come during the festival to cleanse themselves of the sins they washed off their devotees. Lakhs of people will converge at the next festival (Feb-March 2016), dubbed as the Kumbh Mela of South India.
Sitting on the steps of the mighty Mahamaham tank we watched people washing clothes and bathing themselves in its green waters. The city skyline was a broken circle of temple towers and buildings jostling for space. History, myth and modernity melded together to create a strange alloy of architecture reflected in the waters. In the lanes, cows ambled among shoppers as men and women sat down to gossip as they mechanically strung flowers in radiant colours for gods and mortals. When the temple priests sang lullabies to put their deities to sleep, Kumbakonam slept as if anointed from head to toe, by the Kaveri River to the north and the Arasalar River to the south.
At a Glance
Hailed as a seat of culture and education from the Sangam period, Kumbakonam came under the sway of formidable dynasties like the Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas, Vijayanagar kings, Nayaks and the British. By 7th century Kumbakonam was the capital of the Chola Empire, which at its peak (9-12 century) extended from coast to coast. The town, built around the Adi Kumbeswara Temple, bustles with weavers, potters and metalsmiths still practicing their centuries-old crafts and temple towns like Darasuram, Swamimalai and Gangaikondacholapuram nearby.
Things to Do
Try Kumbakonam’s degree coffee
The town’s signature brew was the brainchild of Panchapikesa Iyer of Laxmi Vilas, who transformed a cup of coffee into an art form. Though today’s variants are either too milky or diluted, saccharine or bitter and too dark or light, only Murali’s Café promises a cup that is closer to the original – a dabara-tumbler with decoction made from freshly ground roast beans, the perfect bittersweet blend of chicory, a whisk of frothy fresh milk and just a dash of sugar. Narasu, Santhi and Padma are leading brands of Kumbakonam coffee available locally.
Visit a weaving village
Villages around Kumbakonam like Darasuram and Tirubhuvanam reverberate with the rattle of looms where the family tradition of weaving has continued for generations. Weavers are happy to display the entire process of spinning and weaving vibrant traditional and scarves, often selling their products directly, at a discount.
Brass and bronze manufacture
While Kumbakonam’s Pottramarai South Street is crammed with retailers like Sri Meenatchi Vilas Pathura Maligai, Cholan Vilas Pathiram Maligai and Gomathi Vilas selling a wide range of metal artifacts, idols and vessels, the process of watching metalsmiths at work is more rewarding. Ramakrishna Metal Works near Kammala Street at Nachiyar Kovil is popular for brass ornamental lamps, Rajan Bronze Arts in Swamimalai is renowned for its bronze idols while some resorts like Indeco Swamimalai and Paradise have in-house craft centres.
Driving Tour of Navagraha temples
The Navagraha Temple Circuit is a popular tour covering a 60km radius around Kumbakonam. The devout believe that the worship of shrines dedicated to the nine celestial planets will remove doshas (malefic effects) and impart benefits. One can cover the temples leisurely over a few days or opt for a guided 1-day tour (5am-10pm, Rs.2,500/head, inclusive of meals and transport).
When to Go
Avoid April-June as summers can be very hot and dry. October to March is an ideal time to visit Kumbakonam, when the weather is pleasant and the town comes alive with various festivals – Deepavali (Oct), Makara Pongal (Jan) and the Maha Sivaratri and Magam festivals (Feb–Mar).
By Air: Trichy International Airport (Ph 0431 2340551) is the nearest airport, around 90 km from Kumbakonam via SH-22.
By Rail: Catch the daily Trichy Express (daily 8:15am) from Chennai’s Egmore station, which takes about 6 hrs to reach Kumbakonam at 2:10pm.
By Road: Kumbakonam is 40 km northeast of Thanjavur and 285 km south of Chennai.
Though pre-arranged cabs are convenient, auto-rickshaws are more economical and practical for negotiating the busy streets. Bicycles are also available on hire. The state highway enters Kumbakonam from the east via Tirubhuvanam and merges into NH-45C that exits from the west towards Darasuram and Swamimalai. Buses to Darasuram, Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram ply regularly from Kumbakonam bus station north of Mahamaham tank.
Kumbakonam is packed with small restaurants and the ubiquitous South Indian mess. Hotel Venkatramana at Gandhi Park North (Ph 0435 2400736, 9486433736) has been serving traditional meals prepared without garlic for six decades. Local favourites include rava dosa with gosthu (spiced lentil-eggplant gravy), thirumal vadai, kadappa (potato moong dal kurma) and kothumai (cracked wheat halwa). Meenakshi Bhavan at Nageswaran North Street (Ph 0435 2430749) offers dosas, uthappams and appams, besides unusual items like paal paniyaram, veetu (oats) dosa, idiappams (string hoppers) and milk periyada (mildly sweet ball of black gram bean flour). Mami’s Mess off Periya Theru (Big Street) is a hole-in-wall shack dishing out home-made snacks besides full meals for lunch on banana leaf. If you’ve overdosed on south-Indian veg fare, head to Aathurar Restaurant (Ph 0435 2427666) or Hotel Chela (Ph 0435 2430336, 99443 04657) on Ayekulam Road which has a North Indian restaurant serving tandoori items, naans and kebabs.
No.1 Bagavathapuram Main Road Extn, 536/537A Sri Sailapathipuram Village, Veppathur 612 103, Kumbakonam
Ph 0435 2462261, 2460141
www.mantraveppathur.com Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000 (30 rooms)
This eco-friendly resort wears its Tamil tradition proudly with a welcome fanfare for its guests, a drink of panakam (jaggery and ginger) or nannari sherbet and a soothing foot massage. Stay in Agraharam-style cottages embellished with Kanjeevaram silks, Athangudi tiles and Tanjore dolls and enjoy tasty veg cuisine. Rejuvenate at Punarjenma Ayurvedic spa or play traditional games like daayam (dice), palaanguri (cowrie) and parama-padam (snakes and ladders). The rustic charms of Mantra Chai Kadai and bullock cart rides to old Chola temples of Kalabhairava and Karkadeshwar add to the magic.
3/1216, Tanjore Main Road, Darasuram, Ammapet, Kumbakonam 612103
Ph 0435 2416469, 3291354, 9943311354
www.paradiseresortindia.com Tariff Rs.4,400-7,500 (43 rooms)
A heritage resort on the banks the river Arasalar, Paradise offers a delightful blend of South Indian hospitality and modern comforts. Relax after an Ayurveda spa in renovated town houses, pool view heritage rooms or river view heritage row houses with antique doors. Dine in thatched tree huts or try Chettinad food at the restaurant. Walk in the garden with guinea fowl for company, learn pottery and metal casting at the craft centre or take an ox-cart ride to quaint villages and Ayyanar shrines.
6/30 B, Agraharam, Thimmakudy Village, Baburajapuram Post, Kumbakonam 612302
Ph 0435 2480044/385/406, 94444 10396
www.indecohotels.com Tariff Rs.3,000-6,700 (28 suites)
Set in a 5½ acres site of an old 1896 Brahmin village, Indeco Swamimalai (formerly Sterling Anandham) is a unique theme-based heritage resort. It bears the imprint of Chairman & MD Steve Borgia’s vision to showcase a fascinating collection of antiques. Besides heritage rooms, an Ayurveda centre, a temple tank-shaped pool and elaborate thalis served at the restaurant, the resort has its own farm, cowshed, deer park and units for bronze casting and pottery. Every evening the Noor Deepam Mantapam is lit up with a hundred lamps and the village centre thrums with cultural programs.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of Time Out Explorer magazine.