Two years after In India..In God's Own Land, I was back in the same parts of the country. This time in beautiful Alappuzha, a surprisingly not-so-crowded tourist destination. After a memorable time on the clean and secluded beach with my cousins, my family headed towards Kumbakonam, another paradise for temple lovers. We visited 21 temples in a span of two days, each of them unique, and the youngest of them being at least 500 years old. Each of these temples also have very interesting stories(Sthala puranas). For the temples that I already did not know the stories for, I requested the head priest to enlighten us.
The trip started with our customary visit to our family deity at the Vaitheeswaran Kovil, a massive temple over 1000 years old, and dedicated to Lord Shiva as "the God of healing". Among other numerous deities, it is also known for its unique deity of the planet Mars (Angaraka). We reached the temple town Mayavaram that morning at 5, and were ready to leave by 11 AM. There are numerous buses that one may ride from here to Kumbakonam, or there are free lance vans willing to drive you there. We were a party of five and paid 2000 Rs for the four hour drive to Kumbakonam. While this may seem excessive, Rs.400 per head to ride comfortably in Indian summer (first week of June) seemed acceptable. Along with this was the driver's added consideration that he might have to drive back alone if he did not find another customer.
Once we reached Kumbakonam and refreshed ourselves, we set out to explore the temples in the main city itself. While there is literally a famous temple at every street, and the city by itself deserves a four-day stay, we contended ourselves with picking a handful of the most illustrious temples to visit that evening. We bargained with a driver of one of the more spacious auto rikshaws to drive the five of us to seven temples around the city for Rs.300.
2. The first of our stops was at the Nageshwaraswamy temple, dedicated to Shiva as the serpent king. It was build by the Cholas in the 12th century AD.
3. Our next stop was at the Adi Kumbeshwarar temple, the 1400 year old temple from which the city derives its name. Built by the Cholas in the 7th century AD, this temple in the heart of the city is spread over 4 acres, and houses a massive water tank. One aspect that stood out in my mind however was the deity of Goddess Durga. The tall and imposing form was also starkly feminine. Unlike other deities of Durga, her long flowing hair that reached below her hips were braided in traditional South Indian style and adorned with jasmine flowers. That is one sight I cannot forget.
4. We next visited the Sarangapani temple. The central shrine of this temple is in the form of a chariot driven by elephants and horses. The carving on the chariot, Lord Ranganatha in his reclining pose and the divine deity of Mahalakshmi are all equally unforgettable.
5. Our next stop was at the Chakrapani temple. The temple is noteworthy for its massive pillars. The other unique feature is the deity of Lord Vishnu which is in the form of a Chakra.
|Chakra Ayudha Purusha(Courtesy :Wikipedia)|
6. We then visited the Vyayan Someshwarar temple. Shiva is the principal deity as the lord of "Soma". Goddess Durga was equally scintillating in the form of Padaivetti Mariyaman.
7. Our next stop was at the Ramaswamy temple. This is a relatively new temple, constructed in the 16th century, and dedicated to Lord Rama. The temple pictorially depicts the Ramayana, but it is the principal deity that left its imprint on my mind. The central shrine depicts Rama on his coronation day at the end of his exile. He and Sita are surrounded by life size deities of his three brothers in various postures; Shathrugna is holding a fan, Bharatha an umbrealla, while Lakshmana is holding a bow and arrow. Hanuman is on his knees and reading Sundarakanda. This is the only temple which has deities of all four brothers with Sita.
8. Our last stop for the evening was the Kasi Vishwanath temple. The name is derived from the fact that Lord Shiva at Kashi (Benaras) directed nine rivers to wash their sins at the Mahamagam tank at Kumbakonam. This temple encompasses this wondrous and massive tank, and I believe it is also the only temple where we can see life size deities of nine rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada, Tungabhadra and Sarayu). The tank itself merits a visit to this temple.
We were satisfied with our coverage on the first day, and were making plans for day two over dinner. While, there is no dearth of temples to visit in the area (Kumbakonam being in the heart of Tanjore district), we kept in mind the fact that our return train journey was booked from Tanjore. On hindsight, it would have been more prudent to have booked it from Kumbakonam itself. The train starts at Tanjore and passes through Kumbakonam on to Chennai, but we could not risk losing our seats on account of our absence from the train. Thus, our planning for the next day involved choosing temples on the road from Kumbakonam to Tanjore. We rented the same car that we came in from Mayavaram for the next day.
9. Our first stop the next morning was at the Thirunageshwarar temple, one of the famous navagraha shrines. Shiva is the presiding deity, and Goddess Parvathi is in a deep penance posture as "Giri Gujambigai". The deity of Rahu has a serpent over its head, and people offer milk to the deity to appease the effects of Rahu in their lives.
10. The next stop was at the nearby Uppiliyappan temple. The deity of Vishnu is imposing, and the sthala puranas interesting, but a note to devotees, that the prasad from this temple is cooked without salt. Lord Vishnu in the story had sworn to eat only food offered to him without salt. Nevertheless, the prasad is very tasty. One can also seek blessings from the temple elephant.
11. Our next halt was at ThiruBhuvanam, a town famous for silks. The temple is spread over acres, as typical of Chola temples. The presiding deity is Shiva, but there is a separate shrine for Lord Sarabheshwara, a fusion of man, eagle and lion. It is believed that regular offerings to this lord will relieve people of chronic diseases.
12. We next made our way to Thiruvidaimaruthur, a temple with Shiva as the presiding deity. The memorable feature of this temple is the tale of Brahmahathi. The tale is of a sin that followed a king wherever he went, but he could not enter the temple and waited at the gates. the king was relieved of his sin when he enters the temple by the main entrance and exits through another. Thus, all devotees are advised to take the circumlocutory path to avoid Brahmahathi that is waiting to latch on to you once you exit. The temple also has deities for the 27 stars in Indian mythology.
13. The next temple on our list was Thirumanancheri. This was not strictly in the vicinity, and was a bit of a drive, but we wanted to visit it nevertheless. The temple is believed to have been the venue where Lord Shiva (Kalyanasundereswar), and goddess Parvati (Kokilambigai) had an earthly wedding. Devotees believe that praying here will ensure that men and women who want to get married will soon find the right consort.
14. The next temple Kanchanoor, is another famous navagraha temple. This one is dedicated to Shukra or Venus. It is very fascinating to see the knowledge our ancestors seemed to have of planets and their positions with respect to the Earth and the Sun. This is evident from the navagrahas in every South Indian temple, but more so in the the next temple on our list.
15. The last temple that we visited that morning was Suryanaar, a temple dedicated to Surya, or the Sun God, and the navagrhas. The main deity is Surya, dressed in glowing red. The path around the central shrine is occupied by the other deities of navagrahas in their characteristic clothing and positions. It may well have been coincidental, but I wondered about the irony later on. It was close to noon when we visited the temple, and we struggled to walk barefoot in this temple. While other temple premises were also very hot, Surya seemed more unforgiving with his heat.
We returned to Kumbakonam for lunch and a few hours of rest. The temples usually close around noon, and do not reopen until 4:30 or 5:00 PM. At this time, we also checked out of our rooms, and intended to make our way towards Tanjore to board our train at 10 PM.
16. Our first stop of the evening was Swamimalai. It is a temple devoted to Lord Muruga, and is one of the arupadaiveedu. The temple pillar, dome and the deities armor are all adorned with gold. To reach the presiding deity, one has to climb a stretch of steps on a hill. The deity is 6 feet tall, and is as beautiful as any deity I have seen. One interesting memory of mine at this temple relates to my sister in law. She had a dark mole-like object on her face for a few months, and she could never get rid of it no matter how hard she tried. Just as she finished praying to Muruga, the mole fell off, leaving absolutely no mark on her face. Needless to say, she had a glowing and excited smile on her face!
17. The next temple was unplanned, and not on our list, but even a wayside temple in Tanjore district will be a thousand years old, and have an interesting story to tell. The presiding deity at this temple is Thiruvalanchuzhi pilayar. The story goes that the gods forgot to worship Lord Ganesha before the historical churning of the ocean. As they realized their mistake, they made this deity of the foam that was forming from the churning. Hence, this deity is white in color, and there is no "abhishekam" for this Ganesha as it is formed out of foam.
It is known as "valam suzhi" as the trunk of Ganesha is twisted to the right instead of the traditional left.
18. Our next stop was at Patteeswaram. I had heard so much about this temple, and felt blessed that I was actually privileged to have the opportunity to visit such a holy place. This temple has several sthala puranas associated with it. One of the legends is that Lord Rama had performed three sins when he killed Ravana. While Rama was God incarnate, he was an avatara purusha, and the purpose of his incarnation was to show people the right way to live, and the need to adhere to Dharma even in the most conflicting and hard situations in life. He led by example. The killing of Ravana had brought upon him three sins: Brahmahathi, the killing of a Brahmin; Veerahathi, the killing of a warrior; and Chayyahathi, the killing of a great artist( Ravana was a wonderful player of the Veena). To expiate his sins, Rama installed ramalingams at Rameshwaram, Vedaranyam, and Patteeswaram. Patteeswaram is also the place where Patti , one of the four daughters of Kamadhenu (the divine cow) was believed to have worshipped Lord Shiva.
Another interesting aspect of the temple is the deity of Nandi. As we all know, Nandi, Lord Shiva's bull always sits right in front of the Lord making it impossible for devotees to see the God unless they cross the bull. However, at Patteeswaram, Nandi is shifted to the right side of the Lord enabling devotees to Darshan even from the main road. The story behind this is that when Thiru Gnana Sambandhar, a great devotee of Shiva was approaching Patteeswaram from a neighboring town singing hymns, the Lord was impatient to see his devotee and asks Nandi to move aside and not obstruct his view. I thought it was a beautiful story that taught that God himself comes to the true devotee.
19. The next temple we visited was Thiru Shakthi Mutram. The unique feature of this temple was that the deity of Shiva is hugged by Parvathi. An offering to this deity is also believed to bring marriage to unmarried people.
20. The next temple was once again a longer drive of about 40 minutes, but Goddess Parvati (Garbarakshambigai) at this temple is supposed to be very powerful, and we were determined to pay her a visit. This was the temple of Thirukarugavur. Repeating the story we heard at the temple in words from Wikipedia : Legend has it that a sage by name Nithruvar once resided in the place with his pregnant wife Vethigai. Once when Nithruvar was out, another sage Orthuvapathar visited the hermitage. He requested for food, but due to her tiredness, Vethigai did not respond in time. This resulted in Orthuvapathar getting angry and cursed Vethigai to have a child with handicap. Vethigai begged the deity in the temple and as a result got a healthy infant. When Vethigai narrated this to her husband Nithruvar, he was surprised. He prayed to the deity in the temple to save all the pregnant ladies who worship in this temple. The temple is hence famed for saving pregnant women to smooth delivery.The worship of the deity is believed to provide cure to all pregnancy related issues. The deity here is termed Garbharakshambigai, meaning saviour or pregnant woman. This place has been referred to in thevaram written by Saint Poet (7th Century AD) Thirugnana Sambanthar and Sundarar.
21. The last temple we visited was the famed Ramalingaswamy temple at Papanasam. This is the only temple where there are 108 Siva Lingas inside a single temple. They are believed to have been installed by Lord Rama. The overwhelming feeling of walking among rows and rows of Lingas cannot simply be put into words, but is an experience by itself. The main deity is Ramalinga, and the 108th linga known as Hanumath linga is separately installed in a shrine outside the temple. The story is that Hanuman went to Kailash to bring a linga for Rama's worship, but before he returned, Rama had already made 107 lingas. When Hanuman was disappointed, Rama gave his linga from Kailash a separate spot away from the rest to be worshiped by all who visited the temple. The other interesting aspect is that Kamadhenu, the divine cow has an equal spot along with Nandi.
We were running out of time to visit Brihadeeshwara temple, and unfortunately could not fit it into our schedule. I was fortunate however to have visited that temple a few years ago.(My ode to the temple). It is noteworthy that every single temple built by the Cholas are built on multiple acres of land, with huge pillars and amazing sculptures. However, it is also disheartening to see that temple patrons are dwindling, and it is increasingly difficult for the temple authorities to maintain all these huge temples, and the surrounding lands. While the more famous ones are likely to survive a few more decades, I really hate to think how long the other ones will last. I found it very hard to walk away from any of the temples that I visited without making some amount of a donation. They are not just places of worship, but glorious threads of our history and culture.
This was a very memorable trip, and even recounting all the stories seem to bring back the strange inward joy that I had experienced then. Tanjore is a very wonderful place to visit, and a pilgrimage in South India can never be complete without a trip to Kumbakonam.