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Ancient Heritage sites of Tamil Nadu

Author: Indiana
Date of Trip: July 2008

A sudden heavy downpour brought the temperature down on our way to Kumbakonam, where we were booked at the Hotel Rayas. We were given a large, comfortable room overlooking the sacred Mahamaham Kulam tank in the heart of Kumbakonam. Once in every twelve years a Mahamaham festival is celebrated, drawing millions of pilgrims for a holy dip. The last was in 2004. Kumbakonam is a veritable Temple City. There is a temple at every street corner; some big, some small, but all distinctly unique. Sarangapani and Kumbeswarar are two of the larger temples within the city. Kumbakonam is an excellent base for visiting Swamimalai and the celebrated Navagraha temples in the surrounding areas. More temple information at: www.kumbakonam.info

After a delicious meal and a good nights rest, we set off the next morning to visit the UNESCO heritage site of Darasuram, barely 4 km away. It is a partly ruined mini citadel encompassing a working Airavateswarar [Shiva] temple. More details at http://www.tamilnation.org/culture/a...darusuram.htm; http://www.kumbakonam.info/kumbakonam/darsuam/index.htm

Durai, an ASI employee, was our knowledgeable guide. He first unlocked the doors to the musical staircase next to the Nandi bull. Each step emits a separate tone when lightly tapped. It is locked to prevent vandalism, of which there is ample evidence in all the monuments. 4 hours went by in no time, admiring the exquisitely carved panels, pillars, idols, halls, roofs and staircases. Outside, beyond the presently standing entrance gopuram, are the ruins of the original ramparts with several sculptures still intact. Hoopoes and drongos flew in and out of the surrounding Tamarind trees. Darasuram has a very inviting, Hampi-esque effect but on a smaller, yet much grander scale. One could easily spend a few days at this splendid open air gallery of masterpieces. We were glad we had taken the effort to visit. A local silk weaver invited us to visit his cottage workshop where he had silk saris for sale, but we had no time to spare.

From Darasuram, we headed back through Kumbakonam, to Konerirajapuram, to see the world's largest bronze Nataraja idol at the Thirunallam Uma Maheswarar temple built by the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi. http://www.indiantemples.com/Tamilnadu/s157.html

Konerirajapuram is not on the regular temple circuit, and we had to seek directions every now and then, even though it is barely 15km away. Basically, you take the A22 bus from Kumbakonam, or by car - the Karaikal road upto S. Pudur village. A potholed country road on the right, goes through the paddy and sugarcane fields of the Cauvery delta for approx. 2km. At a cement bus stop shelter here, is a good road to the left. Konerirajapuram is 1km down this road. At the entrance to the temple, is a conspicuously large dried out square water tank.

Thirunallam temple is nondescript from the outside. A "feeding of the poor" (Annadanam) was in progress. The friendly young priest, perhaps curious about us outsiders, warmly welcomed us and took us along for a darshan of the main Shivalingam. At our request, he gladly opened the locked shrine to reveal the ancient bronze idol of the Nataraja, and kindly permitted us to take photographs. The exquisite idol is 8ft high and 5ft wide. The chamber is constructed around the Nataraja, such that the idol can never be removed. We were then shown several more beautiful ancient bronze idols of smaller Natarajas, Parvati and other deities, in an ante room off the main Nataraja shrine. This is a rare experience, especially in a South Indian temple. These are the most beautiful bronzes we have ever seen.

After this, the priest led us into the Parvati shrine, where he performed a small aarthi. Thereafter, he pointed out some ancient inscriptions on the walls which record that the bronze idols date back to at least 981AD. More information at http://www.whatisindia.com/inscripti...roduction.html

Thirunallam temple also houses a Vaidyanathar shrine which is famous for its healing powers for skin diseases. Our friendly priest Gnanaskandan proudly showed us a large Nayaka period wall fresco recording a colonial English officer making an offering to the temple, after being healed of leprosy. We also admired the beautiful roof frescoes above the main temple hall.

Gnana wanted his photo taken and promptly gave his mobile number in case we returned and the temple was locked. He never asked, but we gladly made a small donation. This less visited temple retains its ancient aura, remaining much as it would have been in days gone by. I do not know what drew us here. Having read about the big Nataraja, we just had to see it, and we did. This Nataraja bronze is bigger than the more famous one at Chidambaram.

It was time to return to Kumbakonam and the brassware stores opposite the Kumbeswarar temple. A satisfying purchase followed, of a beautiful Kumbakonam Paavai Vilakku lamp - in the shape of a lady with a parrot on her shoulder - a replica of the original lamp standing at the nearby Thiruvidaimarudur temple. The temple lamp image is at http://www.pradosham.com//images.independenttraveler.com/thir...vaivilakku.jpg

Kumbakonam is well known for its metal castings. Nowadays most brass and alloy temple items come from mass production manufacturers at Moradabad in U.P.. Some unique pieces such as the Paavai lamp, the Nataraja, etc., are still meticulously handcrafted in Kumbakonam. Kumbakonam is also justly famous for its excellent coffee, and tasty Cauvery delta rice delicacies. We partook abundantly of both. The rice is similar to the tasty Wada Kolam variety grown near Mumbai. There is something very pleasing about Kumbakonam. It is a small town with old world courtesies still intact. May it ever remain so.

After lunch, it was time to move on to our next destination, the UNESCO heritage site and erstwhile Chola capital of Gangaikondacholapuram.

Gangaikondacholapuram was established by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja. It also has a Brihadeeswara [Shiva] temple. The main Vimana is a replica of the Thanjavur Big Temple, but is not quite so tall. As with all the other Chola masterpieces, GKC has its fair share of superb carvings, sculptures, pillars, mandapams, panels, inscriptions and frescoes. However as our guide aptly put it, Thanjavur Temple is Big; GKC is Pretty. It took about two hours to go around. Restoration work continues with excavations regularly yielding new finds. The sanctum sanctorum of the main temple is surrounded by a very dark square enclosure [parikrama] about 5ft broad, without any windows or air vents. It must be even more claustrophobic on the days when pilgrims converge. This temple's mandapam is the only one we saw that was completely enclosed.

Not surprisingly our local guide eagerly offered us an 'expedited' darshan, which we politely declined. Apparently, most visitors engage a guide only for a speedy darshan.

The history and art of GKC is detailed in: http://tamilartsacademy.com/books/gcpuram/cover.html http://www.kumbakonam.info/kumbakona.../info/arch.htm

Thanjavur and GKC are undoubtedly magnificent, but Srirangam and Darasuram have an aura that beseeches the visitor to linger.

Onward to our next night halt and the UNESCO heritage site of Mahabalipuram. The route from GKC is along the Kumbakonam-Chennai highway upto Vadalur, then right through Cuddalore and Pondicherry upto Mahabalipuram.

The rice fields of the Kumbakonam region soon gave way to extensive casuarina plantations. Wonder what they are grown for. Paper pulp perhaps. It was 9pm by the time we reached Mammalapuram. Our preferred hotels, the Mahabs and the Tamil Nadu were full, so we ended up reluctantly at the Veeras. Dinner, especially the local seafood, was excellent - far superior to the quality of the room. Food apart, I would not recommend the Veeras for more than a days stay.

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