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