With just half a day left before attending a friend’s wedding we decided to explore what we could of the town of Vellore. We don’t seem to be able to write about Tamil Nadu without evoking legends at every turn. The city Vellore itself is named after “vel” which is the spear of Lord Murugan who is said to have appeared here.
The Jalakandeswarar temple is an exceptional sample of Vijayanagara architecture. The very first thing one would notice is the 100ft gopuram of this 12th century temple.
Intricate sculptures, beautifully carved stone pillars with dragons, horses and yalis (lion like beings) jumping up.
We’d strongly recommend taking your time to admire them in all their finery. The kalayana mantapam on one side of the temple also has these pillars with artistic details and a variety of deities.
Legend : A Shiva linga was placed at some point of time in a stagnant patch of rainwater. The Vijayanagara chieftain- Chinna Bommi Nayaka had a dream that the Lord Shiva asked him to build a temple in that place. Since the Shiva linga was surrounded by water , the diety was referred to as Jalakandeswarar (the Lord Shiva residing in water).
Vellore fort : The fort though built by the same gentleman who build the temple, changed hands with the empires that ruled the area- everyone from the Vijayanagar kings, to the Adil Shahi Sultan of Bijapur, to the Marathas and finally as an English garrison.
The fort was also witness to the Vellore mutiny against the British that was triggered by the British ordering the soldiers to remove traces of religious symbols in their attire and including cowhide in their hats, both of which offended their sensibilities. The fort is surrounded by a large, deep moat that is said to have had 1000s of crocodiles guarding it. It is also infamous for housing the family of King Tipu Sultan and the last King of Srilanka Sri Vikrama Rajasinha in captivity by the British. A few of their graves are therefore in and around the fort.
The building that held them captive is closed to tourists today.The fort itself now houses the Jalakandeswarar temple, a mosque, St. John Church, a school , several quarters for the army personnel , a museum, and some government offices.
Vellore museum: has sculptures from times as far back as the 11th century and one can relax to stroll across its corridors reading of their origins and eras.
Note : One could visit the Golden temple complex inside Sripuram that has been gilded with 1500 kgs of gold in 2007 and built by a “charitable institution” when one visits Vellore. However at the entrance we were a bit turned off by the number of stalls selling tickets to various poojas and queues that we mutually decided to give it a miss.
We reached Karaikudi from Rameshwaram after a 3 hour drive and decided to stay the night there. Well-rested, we were checking out when we noticed a huge framed photograph of what seemed like a very ornate structure. On asking the disinterested receptionist, he said it was a palace at Athankudi. Our interest piqued, we decided to check it out. The last time I had visited Karaikudi was for a friend’s wedding 10 years ago. I had been charmed by the peacocks walking around, the humongous but elegant mansions with even up to 64 rooms in a house and the ornate exteriors of the homes. This visit didn’t disappoint- it was just as I recalled it.
The Chettiar community was one of sea-faring traders who dealt in salt and rice and were extremely prosperous during the time of the Cholas. However after a tsunami that destroyed their sea-side town, they moved further inland and settled in the present day region of Chettinadu.
We managed to find the palace after asking around since the board over it was in Tamil and the surrounding homes were almost comparably impressive from the outside. The keepers seemed quite surprised to have visitors. We were instantly besotted with the place
. It had what we loved in older, grander south Indian homes- 2 quadrangles with streaming sunlight surrounded by rooms, pillared corridors all around them. The courtyards for us made it classic Chettinad Architecture.
Additionally it had the most delightful use of tiles of different patterns and colors that were seemingly put together with a lot of thought to design. The top of each door in the palace had depictions of a story I wish I was familiar with. The ceilings closely competed with the artistry and brilliance of colors in the rest of the space.
Yet another area had light streaming in from windows with stained glass in varied colors. With 0 other tourists stopping by, it was the perfect wonderland for us to pretend to live in while walking by its corridors and admiring all its hues.
Note : One could visit the Athankudi tile making factories around for a view into how the beautiful tiles are handmade one at a time with patterned moulds placed over glass. Also there are other mansions that offer a guided tours and homestays within these gorgeous spaces that we’d recommend you opt for if you have both the time and the money to spend. Also more information here on other places to visit and an overview of Karaikudi.
Just behind this is the temple dedicated to Lord Sunderesawarar (Shiva) and his consort Meenakshi (Parvati). The temple celilings have images of the 64 exploits or stories of Shiva in relation to his devotees or other miracles.
Just outside the temple is a small temple tank too.
We had to finally make our way back to lovely Bangalore, now rich with memories of the colours of Athankudi, the magnificence of the Tanjavur temple and the stories of Gangaikondacholapuram, and the desolate beauty of Dhanushkodi.
After a day of man-made wonder we decided we needed a bit of the ocean and decided to drive to Dhanushkodi. On the way , we saw a fort alongside the highway that was in better shape than most we had visited, and to stay true to the name of this website, decided to take a detour.
It was the Thirumayam fort built by Sethupati Vijaya Raghunatha Tevan in the 1600s. A short flight of stairs up and one sees the 4 concentric walls of the fort. In addition to providing a 360 degree view of the town of Karaikudi, the top has a bastion with a cannon from time of the British who also used this fort.
On the south of a large boulder in the fort, a small shrine has been cut out of the stone and houses a Shiva linga.
To reach it however one must climb stairs which are less stairs and more a couple of ladders with narrow rods to place your feet on. It however makes for quite an experience to climb atop and enter the small space that can barely accommodate 5 people at a time.
From atop the fort, we noticed a temple a short distance away and decided to make a visit too. It was the Satyamurti Perumal temple built on the slopes of the Thirumayam hill.
What is striking in this temple are the depictions of beautiful men with very sharp features in what would traditionally be feminine poses.
We were not able to solve that mystery even after looking up information later. It has intricately carved pillars.
We walked in to the temple and by the time we noticed, there was a queue to see the deity, a lot of people were behind us in the queue and it was hard to escape it. That’s when we realized that it was the 1st of January so the locals probably wanted to start off the year on an auspicious note with a visit to the temple.
As it turns out, the reason we’d recommend this rock cut temple is the main deity. Inside a natural cave turned into a shrine is a figure of the Lord Vishnu reclining on his serpent bed with other deities and sages overlooking him. The forearms, hands, and the leg below the knee are covered in gold. It’s supposed to be the largest of its kind in India.
Legend : 2 demons tried to abduct 2 goddesses- Bhoodevi and Mahalakshmi while Lord Vishnu was asleep. While they sought refuge in his chest and at his feet, the serpent Adisesha – unwilling to awaken the Lord, spat at the demons instead to drive them away. The imagery is supposed to reflect this story.
A cluster of snake sculptures in the shade of a large boulder of the hill also makes for an interesting scene.
We next drove to a place that I was aching to visit in a long time- Dhanushkodi. The scenes of the place from the movie Kannathil Muthhamittal were carved into my memory with its haunting imagery. One would first reach Rameshwaram- Rameshwaram itself is a town located on the Pamban island which is connected to the mainland of India via the Pamban bridge. The views are breathtaking. There is even a train track that goes right over the water which is something we wish to experience too- maybe on another trip.The very first spot where we had a view of the ocean was a spot with a cluster of Naval ships.
We couldn’t help but stop and spend time on the waterline that was deserted in the peak of the noon heat. The blue of the water and the deceptively tiny waves by the shore is perhaps one of the most underrated form of therapy.
A few years ago, one would have to hire a local truck to take one to Dhanushkodi, however now there is a road in good condition that you can drive on to reach the very edge. It is an abandoned town at the south eastern tip of the island and is just 29km to the country of Srilanka by sea. We decided to first drive right to the tip of the land mass and walked around enjoying the place despite the tourist crowd. There are shacks that serve some seafood too. A short drive back and we were at the ruins of what was the village of Dhanushkodi. A cyclonic storm wiped it out the town killing 1800 people including 115 passengers the train that passed by it.
The stark remains of the railway station and the church seem out of place with the numerous stalls now selling handicrafts made of sea-shells and competing with each other to garner the attention of the tourists.
We decided to head back and instead decided to give ourselves some space, just along the same road but in a spot with just the water, sand, some birds and a couple of horses. The tragedy of the place wasn’t lost on us and yet it was easy to escape into the peaceful beauty of our surroundings. The water back to charming us and providing for the fishermen, the birds going about feeding their little ones, and the horses grazing on the pockets of vegetation on the banks.
As the evening descended on us, we reluctantly made our way back to see the Kothandaramaswamy temple we had noticed on our way in.
The temple itself is on a small island amidst the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mannar and is now connected via road while earlier one had to get on a small boat to reach it. It was the only structure to have survived the destructive cyclone.
Legend : This is supposedly the place where Vibhishana, the brother of Ravana decided to join Rama in vanquishing Ravana.
Since the presiding deity is Lord Rama with his bow (Kothandam) and the temple goes by the name Kothandaramaswamy temple. While the temple staff was announcing that the sanctum sanctorum would close at sunset, quite to the shock of the other hurrying devotees who were competing for a view of the deity, we completely bypassed it and headed to the back of the temple to witness our favorite view of all, in a viewpoint we had all to ourselves. The sun gently gliding into the backdrop of the sky that yields to welcome the night.
Up next : Tamil Nadu: Of stops at palatial towns and sunlit courtyards
The Thanjavur palace complex was our next stop not very far from the Brihadeeshwara temple itself. Do note that it too closes from 1pm – 2pm for lunch, so do plan your trip accordingly.
Saraswati Mahal Library : This is definitely a unique legacy of the truly interesting character the King Serfoji II seems to be. A collection of books, manuscripts, palm leaves of everything from the epics to botany books of the time, Chinese torture methods, physiology. Apparently when the English were taking valuables away from the palace, the King’s only request was to leave his collection of books right there in Tanjore for the future generations to read.It’s quite a fascinating. Colorfully decorated exterior make it an attractive pit stop even for the not-so-avid reader.
Just beside it is a small theater where the history of the monuments in Tanjore is shown every hour which is worth a watch for a short introduction to its grandeur of the architecture and legacy.
Art Gallery : A statue of the King Serfoji welcomes visitors at the entrance to this gallery of bronze and stone carvings from the Chola , Nayak and Maratha dynasties that ruled Tanjavur at various times.
Multiple areas in this palace complex are earmarked as museums/galleries and they are worth exploring and wondering about the lives and times of the past. The Nayaks Durbar hall now houses bronze images, a hall just for Nataraja depictions in bronze, and the Sefoji Museum found with some effort was one with the attire and weaponry of the Maratha royalty.
Despite all of these varied displays, perhaps the the most unexpected one was on the upper floor of one of the courtyards of the Arsenal Tower – a skeleton of a 32 ft long whale found washed ashore Tranquebar. It is seemingly both off place and apt at the same time.
The Tanjore Maratha palace was my favorite of the structures in this complex. It was a bigger explosion of hues though reminiscent of the Rangeen mahal in Bidar with exquisite colors , that could cheer up the most dreary day.
We made our way out and there was still daylight, so like we hadn’t seen enough museums we decided to stop at the Collectorate museum on our way back that we just happened to notice.
Something one can’t miss as soon as one enters is a spiral stairwell constructed more than a 100 years ago, which a handrail only on one side and a pole on the other- making it interesting and confusing as one climbed up.
It was more a museum-in-the-making with some items up for display in different halls – information on rice cultivation, a collection of musical instruments and even more stone sculptures. However the most interesting part of the museum was from the terrace, a view of the 3 towers of the Brihadeeshwara temple with which we had started the morning, and what will always be the grandest display of all – a sunset amidst the gorgeous backdrop of the sky. Follow that up with getting Anand to finally try the famed drink Jigarthanda, and one couldn’t expect a better end to the day.
Up next : Tamil Nadu : Of abandoned seaside towns and gilded limbs of a God
Ramaswamy temple : The temple walls themselves have scenes from the epic Ramayana painted all over them from Rama’s birth till his coronation.
The idols in this temple were found by the then King of Tanjore, Raghunayak while digging the holy tank in Darasuram.
Sri Palaivana Nathar temple : Interestingly we first headed here since the map showed an ASI recognised a 16th century granary which is now a protected monument. The temple itself is calm in the fading light of the early evening and only had a few local women with their children visit it. The name of the town – Palathurai comes from the Palm tree which is the holy tree of this temple.
Legend : The taluk itself is called Papanasam since it is believed that Lord Rama came here to pray to Lord Shiva and wash away his sin of having killed Ravana. It is also believed this was the town where Lord Shiva killed the man-eater sent to attack and used its skin in what is now pretty much the only attire we see all images of Lord Shiva. There is another small shrine beside the main one and we walked around the place reveling in its silence and calm.
After spending all day in the stories and structures of the past , a bit of rest later, we decided we had to also check out the Tanjore of today, and despite residing in an extremely busy area of the city, we decided to head out. We passed by the evening vegetable market with fresh produce and even dropped by a mela where we enjoyed the sight of kids being thrilled on the amusement park rides and icecream! So well, that wasn’t too bad a note to end a day on.
Day 3 :
The next morning we were to visit the place that was probably the piece de resistance of the whole trip – the Tanjavur Brihadeeshwara temple. It’s quite a hard to digest the contrast of the first view one has of it- from across a road with very heavy traffic. Once you enter the place is when you realise that it’s massive- all that we thought our recent blockbuster movie – Bahubali, exaggerated in terms of architecture, is pretty much realistic once you get here. As much as a good job Anand has done with the pictures, no picture can really capture the magnificence of seeing the place in person. One cannot help but gape in wonder at its colossal stature and see how well deserved its addition into the UNESCO world heritage site list is. Also the name that simply translates to the “Big Shiva temple” which seems apt once you see it.
It was embarrassing for us that despite having studied history in early schooling we didn’t realise that the Marathas ever ruled this part of India. Thanjavur itself was ruled by the Cholas, Pandyas, the Vijayanagara rulers, the Nayaks and then the Maratha kingdoms – many of who contributed to the Tanjavur temple.
The entrance to the temple is via 3 arches with ornate gopuras, the outermost one is the Maratha entrance, a relatively recent and simpler addition by the Marathas going all around the temple. The next one to commemorate the king’s victory over the Cheras of Kerala- therefore called the Keralantankan Thiruvasal. The innermost gate Rajarajan Thiruvasal had 2 huge dwarapalakas (gate keepers) depicted on either side.
The whole city of Tanjavur was designed with this temple as the ceremonial and sacred center.The inscriptions all around the temples on pillars and walls are the equivalent of account books that listed all donations and financial dealings related to the temple. The Dvarapalakas (guardians of the gate), some of which were upto 18 ft tall were my personal favorite to admire. It is one of the rare temples of the time that had depictions and motifs of Shaivite, Vaishnava and Buddhist legends making it a secular space at the time despite the main temple being dedicated to the Lord Shiva.
Nandi Mantapam : The 25 tonne Nandi is housed in an exceptionally beautiful platform with patters on the ceiling in the most brilliant shades of blue,yellow, green and white – one can’t help but stop and stare. It is said that this Nandi also grows in size with time similar to the Nandi in the temple at Yaganti and that a nail was driven into it so that it doesn’t get too big for the platform that houses it.
The main temple is of Shiva housing a 3.7 mt tall Shiva linga. The temple itself is built out of granite. Even in the 11th century its amazing how the Chola architects managed to build the 63.4 meter high vimana (tower) and managed to hoist the crowning shikara made of 8 pieces together weighing 81 tonnes atop the structure making it the world’s tallest. As massive as it is , it is said the structure itself is built with no binding material but only with the means of interlocking stones. It is believed that the 2 Nandis atop the srtucture were put up there by means of an inclined plans upto 4 miles away
There are numerous shrines in the complex dedicated to Varahi, Kuruvar Devar (the saint who helped the king in the installation of the Shiva linga in the main temple), Subrahmanya,Chandikeshvara and an Amman shrine. The Amman shrine had interesting sculptures in a style that was not typical to what we had seen in other temples in Tamil nadu.
They were also colored with paints made with natural ingredients all over the ceilings. The corridors around the temple area are covered in frescoes painted in the Chola and the Nayaka eras.
The Maratha King Seforji installed 108 lingas as part of his contributions to the temple. There are paintings all over the walls beside them depicting the 64 sacred sports of Shiva. He executed elaborate repairs and reconstructions of this temple too and built the Nataraja Mantapam which has depictions of the 108 poses in Bharatnatayam carved here. The shrines of Ganesha and Nataraja (the form of Shiva in his celestial dance) are also additions from the time of the King Serforji.
Up next : Tamil Nadu: Of a kingly love for books and a whale washed ashore
We made our way to the Sri Kampahareshwar temple next. It is what we’d come to expect of temples in Tamil nadu post this trip. Endless pillars, huge colorful and intricately colored gopuras, well- decorated ceilings and smaller shrines around the main temple. And ofcourse it had to have an associated story too.
Legend : A king accidentally killed a man while on his horse and couldn’t stop trembling with the guilt of murdering an innocent man. His trembling is said to have stopped by the grace of the Lord Shiva which leads us to the name meaning the one who relieved trembling. (kampa- trembling).
There is also a shrine here of a form of Shiva called Sarabeshwara – part man, eagle and lion, who is the mythical creature that calmed down Lord Vishnu in his Narasimha form after he had killed the demon Hiranyakashyap. Architecturally the tower over the sanctum being taller than the gateway tower is the distinct feature of this temple. We were just in time for the temple to close at 12:30pm and managed to get some time to walk around it.
We still tried our luck at the Arul Migu Sarangapani temple which was a Vishnu temple but its doors were closed for the morning.
The main shrine is supposed to have an interesting design of a chariot driven by horses and elephants landing on the earth to depict the story of Lord Vishnu visiting this place to marry his consort Lakshmi. So it may be worth a visit.
Note : Several temples in Tamil nadu function only during the morning and evening prayers and are closed for the rest of the time. It will do you well to check beforehand while you plan your itinerary. Also do note that internet connectivity was bad for a good part of our trip this time. We’d recommend you do your planning in advance.
With failing luck at the temples, we decided to head to the spot that showed up in most tourist recommendations of this place- the Mahamaham tank.
Legend: has this that in the end of the previous Hindu era (yuga) the Lord Brahma re-created the world and a divine pot was broken the nectar fallen into the Mahamaham tank and the Potramarai tank near the Sarangapani temple which we also had a peek at along the way. There are 21 spring wells inside the Mahamaham tank named after various deities and rivers. It is believed that on the festival once every 12 years, a dip in this tank equals the dip into all the holy rivers in India.
However on our trip, thankfully there was no festival and we got to see it in it’s everyday simplicity. A bus load of female devotees drying their flaming red saris by holding it at either ends and waving it in the breeze, after a dip in the tank added a splash of color at one end of the tank. Local kids jumping into the water from various heights to beat the afternoon heat. A handful of other locals sitting around the tank which is probably their space to catch up on conversation. The kids were very friendly and curious, especially to Anand with his camera.
We headed to the Airavateshwara temple in the town of Darasuram which is one of the Great Living Chola temples and deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having been to a few temples in the past this was the first one to have small Nandi figures all over the wall around the temple.
Another interesting detail we started noticing in the temples on this trip was that the Nandi statue always had its tongue out towards its nose! The pillars are extremely detailed and a joy to spend time admiring. The main shrine incorporates a chariot structure with horses and elephants giving it a grand touch. It was an ideal monument for us- spacious, untouched by paint and modern trappings, not very crowded and so many intricate details at every turn.
And how could I miss the legend associated with this temple.
Legend : it is believed that Airavat- Lord Indra’s white elephant took a dip in the temple tank here and was restored with clean white skin thus giving the temple it’s name. The tank itself has a channel connected to the river Cauvery.
Since we hadn’t taken a guide, we missed noticing something that sounds very interesting- the singing steps that produce a musical note when one walks on them. We did walk on it but maybe it needed a keener ear to hear!
Adi Kumbeshwar Temple – This is the temple that shares the root of the name with the town of Kumbakonam itself. The name Kumbakonam comes from the words Kumbha (pot) and konam(corner) due to the legend that the mythical pot that housed the seed of all living beings on earth came to rest here after being displaced. The pieces of the pot are said to have fallen in various places in the surroundings that are now temples. One would be welcomed by the tallest of the 4 gateway towers which is at 11 stories with a plethora of divine beings on it in myriad colours.
This temple is also dedicated to the Lord Shiva and the conical linga representing him is made, interestingly, of sand. The 16 pillared hall having all 27 stars and 12 constellations carved on a single stone is easy to miss here with people resting there and a temple administrator’s desk right in front of it. This was the first temple in Tamil nadu that had something quite common to temples in Kerala- a live elephant.
For a fee you could get blessed by the elephant who was then in turn rewarded with puffed rice by his mahout. It’s interesting how we treat those whose blessings we want – keep them standing all day and chaining their feet.
This entire temple complex covers an area of 30,000 sq ft in concentric compounds that are choc-a-bloc with vibrant stalls selling everything under the sun.
Up next : Tamil Nadu : Of 16th century granaries and Marathas in Tanjavur
On our drive to Tamil nadu, the route was by near the Eastern Ghats which meant that they had delayed rains in the monsoons Vs the rains in Bangalore meant that most waterbodies – ponds and lakes along the way were full of water and the greenery was at its most pleasing.
A 7.5 hour drive later our first stop was Pichavaram , the world’s second largest mangrove forest and is on the Killai backwater. We were accosted by a fisherman right as we were about to enter the area.
He had an ID card of a traditional fisherman which I assume does not allow him to take tourists, nevertheless he managed to have us confused with insisting he spoke to us in terrible Hindi despite us informing him we understood Tamil. He struck a deal for Rs.1500 to take us around the mangroves in his motor boat for 6km which he completed in less than an hour. The Govt boats cover the 6km in 3 hours and charge Rs.1100 as we later looked up.
The water depth is just of a few feet so you can see fishermen standing casually in the water at various spots and finding their catch for the day. It never gets boring to watch the roots of trees in a mangrove extend their arms longingly towards the water.
The water cover itself was calm, serene and quiet. Now if only our boatman was too. But well. The highlight of this boat ride for me was seeing numerous flying fish popping out of the clear water unexpectedly and taking us by surprise ever so often.
A 1/2 hr drive from here and one would reach the temple town of Chidambaram. A stark contrast from the pleasant lack of people in Pichavaram. A huge inflow of devotees there was due to the next day being Ekadasi which we didn’t realise when we decided to make our visit.
The unique aspect of this temple is that there is a worship of the Akasa Lingam, which is the worship of Shiva as formless space so the space with the main deity is just an empty space at the center of the temple.
There is a curtain covering it though and it is lifted up during the times of worship. The other areas of the temple are associated with Nataraja , or Shiva in his Ananda Tandava pose (the cosmic dance of bliss).The 4 gopuras on each of the 4 cardinal directions are about 250 ft and the towers in front of them have the 108 poses of the dance form, bharatanatyam. The temple tank is called the Shivaganga tank and the Nritta Sabha is a hall in the temple with 50 pillars where legend has it that the God Shiva and the Goddess Kali entered into a dance competition.
While I’m not a fan of carbonated drinks, I make a happy exception to something I’ve only seen in Tamil nadu called Panneer soda which is a soda that is rose water flavored. Do try it when there, especially in the humidity of the place. There was a dearth of available rooms due to the inflow of devotees meant that we got one that was quite sad 😐 thankfully we had carried an extra blanket that was some comfort.
The next morning we were glad to be rid of the hotel and made our way to Gangaikondacholapuram. This is probably the only capital city I remember from my school history text books since it was easy to remember- capital of the Cholas- Gangaikondacholapuram- what else could it possibly be called.
For those who are unaware, the Cholas were a great empire that had conquered most of south India, Srilanka, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Bangladesh in the 11th century, so much so that the Bay of Bengal was referred to as the Chola lake! While the Chola kingdom’s lifeline was the Cauvery river, the young Chola king Rajendra Chola defeated the Kalinga, Odda, Vengi and Pala kingdoms in bloody battles to finally get the water of the Ganges back home to set up the capital, Gangaikondacholapuram.
The name of this town came from the king’s title which meant the one who had conquered the Ganges.
As it often does, online maps led us to a side entrance to the temple when there was a perfectly good entrance at the front. However it was an impressive structure to behold- small shrines in caves, huge dwarapalakas (my favorite part) at the entrance of every door, an enormous nandi at the front of the temple and something new to admire at every turn.
Whether it is the divine couple Shiva parvati shown crowning the king, or the ardhanareshwar (half male-half female) form of Shiva or Shiva inside a linga. The main diety is Shiva represented by a 4m tall linga in the sanctum of the temple.
One could truly spend all day just watching the beauty of the structure and wonder at the effort and skill that had gone into its creation in an era so long in the past.
Up next : Tamil Nadu: Of cleansing holy dips and white elephants