4 day trip

A Cool Kodaikanal Christmas

Early the next morning, we drove towards Kodaikanal just over the state borders. Its quite a long drive at all of 5 hours but it’s ridiculously picturesque. Set aside time to enjoy it and take enough breaks to make the best of the drive.IMG_6530.jpg

Streams gurgling over boulders sprinkled over their path, sunrise streaming through the lush greenery, there’s a postcard view at every step of the way.

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The misty roads had a wall of jagged rocks on one side and numerous pink blooms softening the view of the sheer drop on the other. Amongst the sight of the green cover, one could see the Anayirankal dam – a turquoise blob in the distance.IMG_6541.jpg

Another stop at yet another spot leads us to a view of the Thalaiyar waterfall through the greenery- though narrow, the sight of it still tears through the foggy view of the forest around.IMG_6578.jpg

Just 8km before reaching Kodaikanal- conveniently right beside the highway are the Silver Cascade Waterfalls. It holds the overflowing water from the man-made Kodaikanal lake and is a good spot to stretch your legs and even buy some of the local garlic sold in bunches! The waterfall is truly picture perfect and munching on some corn with chilly and lime while watching it, only makes it better.IMG_6592.jpg

At the end of the long drive, was our reward, Kodaikanal– The Gift of the forests. Unfortunately, the whole great country of India with all its population seemed to have had the same idea that weekend and had landed there too- so our first view of the town when escaping for a bit from the bustle of Bangalore was – hold your breath- a traffic jam!

So we decided on plan B- that was less of a plan and more of a spur-of-the-moment decision- to head to the tourist spots in descending order of popularity. And it turned out to be the best decision ever- it instantly took us away from the crowds and breathe in what’s truly gorgeous about this little plateau on the Palani hills.

Tip: Kodaikanal is insanely convenient for the average tourist. All you need to do is get to the centre of the town and there are rows of taxis and jeeps offering to cover different sets of around 10 places for a fixed amount of money. Personally, I hate bargaining, so this is fantastic if you don’t want to be bothered by the local travel.

We first decided we wanted to stretch our legs a bit and made our way to the Bryant park despite the drizzle. Sticks of airy cotton candy accompanied our meandering stroll around the park with gorgeous, misty views of the town and the Kodaikanal Lake too.IMG_6608.jpg

From here we headed to the evocatively named Fairy falls, the source of the Pambar river. After parking, we entered with some trepidation into a gate that looked like it opened up to a Govt facility but a gentleman directed us right inside to a view of the lovely Fairy falls. It’s a relatively small waterfall but it perfectly delightful. It wasn’t bad at all that we were pretty much the only visitors during our time there.IMG_6636.jpg

Peeling ourselves from there we headed to what was called the “Liril falls” on the map. We’d strongly recommend skipping it (especially during winter) since its not much more than a not-very-clean stream unless perhaps you’re visiting during the monsoons. It’s surrounded by stalls selling all kinds of spices and oils with very talented salesmen so be aware of prices outside before deciding to pick up your favourites.IMG_6680.jpg

It was getting dark early due to it being winter but we weren’t ready to end our day as yet, so we decided to just drive further away from the centre of the town without realising we were heading towards the Palani Hills Forest Conservation Area.IMG_6687.jpg

We had to stop and park just to catch our breath at the stunning beauty of the place. A Christmas evening, an endless forest of pine trees with raindrops just dripping off the tree leaves- it was simply magical. We had to just wander around with smiles pasted on our faces- picking up pine cones and feeling blissfully lost in the green wonderland.

Tip: As often as “popular tourist places” are popular for a reason it’s also worth your while to take a step away from them, and take a bit of a detour, to make memories that are so much your very own- a snapshot of time for yourself without the world trying to burst in to your moment of calm.

Later that evening, we made our way back into town for dinner and the restaurant walked into was right in the middle of the vegetable market that was wrapping up for the day. We did get our seat but unintentionally, we had dropped into a popular choice that quickly had people walking in. Some chatter with a group of girls playing Jenga in the neighbouring table and we made our way back to our stay to get to sleep reminiscing about the day that was and looking forward to the one that was to come.

The next morning, we headed away from the chilly Kodaikanal to the warm embrace of the 2500-year-old city of Madurai with a 3-hour drive. While there’s plenty to see in Madurai, on this trip we wanted to take it slow. We headed to the iconic 6th century Madurai Meenakshi temple. I’ve been there just once before and find more joy in the markets around the east side of the temple. They are still very much housed within an ancient pillared hall- the sheer variety of items found in the narrow lanes is mind-boggling. From fabrics of all kinds, iron utensils and knives to ghungroos with rows of tinkling brass bells made from scratch.IMG_6729

IMG_6737.jpgWrt the temple itself, one can easily spend hours just wandering even from outside the temple to admire its 12 pillars in all the 4 directions. The mythological significance of this temple is that it’s believed the Goddess Parvati (Meenakshi) married Lord Shiva(Sundareshwar) in the location of this temple.  You can spend a whole day and not be done strolling around the mandapas(pillared halls) and shrines. The shrines are dedicated most notably to the 2 main deities and their son, Lord Shiva.IMG_6764.jpg

Of the mandapas, there are 4

  • Ayirakal mandapam: The one with 1000 (945 precisely) pillars with detailed sculptures of mythological creatures. Large colourful blooms grace the ceiling.
  • Kilikoondu Mandapam – believed at some time to have housed parrots trained to say the word “Meenakshi”
  • Ashta Shakti Mandapam – with shrines dedicated to 8 Goddesses.
  • Nayaka Mandapam– a hall with 100 pillars and an idol of Lord Nataraja (the dancing form of Lord Shiva)

The last is a personal favourite.

If not particularly religious and eager to stand in the endless queues to see the deities in the various shrines, what we’d recommend is that once you go in buy some prasadam (we like the puliyodarai) , sit on the steps of the Potramarai Kulam(the pond with the golden lotus) and enjoy the sheer level of artistry that has gone into every inch of the mammoth temple complex.

Note:

  • Photography is not permitted inside the temple. You are also not allowed to take in phones – so stick to your group once inside the temple or it’s easy to get lost in its vast interiors. However, they have a cloakroom kind of area at all gates where you can leave your belongings just outside the temple. Ensure you remember which gate you parked kept your things at.
  • Food (including offerings to the deity, like oil for the lamps) is not allowed inside the temple.
  •  Parking is not easy once you come very near to the temple. However, you can search for parking spots on google maps and it shows up some paid parking options a short walk away from the temple.

While my personal favourite is the panneer soda when in Tamil Nadu- you may want to try some of the numerous sodas sold in the stalls around the temple, to cool yourselves too.IMG_6753.jpg

We realised that the next place we wanted to visit-  the Thirumala Nayakar Mahal was just a short walk away from our car parking spot. So we decided to take to the streets on foot even passing a couple of men who were painstakingly dying thread by hand to be used in sarees.

The palace itself is relatively recent ie., from the 17th century and its pillars are definitely the memorable part of the structure. It consists of the Swarga Vilasam- that enclosed space that housed the throne and perhaps even court meetings and the Ranga Vilasam – the large open hall with high pillars that was built for performances.IMG_6801.jpg

After the hills and the plains, for some reason, we had an urgent wish to see the beach! And so a short detour later, we landed in the city of Chennai. We polished off our lunch at a charming Sri Lankan restaurant – that I promised myself I’d visit again just for their yummy seeni sambol.

Even though the sun was at its peak by now, we couldn’t resist walking up to the Besant Nagar beach and just taking a minute to mentally capture the scene of the endless waves, so we could revisit it when back in good old Bangalore. Topping off the day with some fun ice cream flavours from a place by the beach we decided it was just the right end to another lovely little journey.

5 day trip

A winter trip : meeting Munnar

During a winter weekend we decided to search for the cooler parts of the tropical south India- while my colleagues at Canada will pooh-pooh the temperature in winter here, we’ll still consider it cold enough!

We started off in search of the hills in Munnar through winding roads and waterfalls ever so often making an appearance it almost feels like you’re taking a peek into an unspoilt wonderland. For those feeling like they just need the water to shower on them, there are plenty more just by the side of the road too.

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The drive takes us through the Annamalai tiger reserve with the Amaravathi river, the longest tributary of the Kaveri river, providing an occasional view through the foliage. Our first waterfall of the trip was a distant view of the Thoovanam waterfall,  which even in the winter, was quite impressive through the lush green cover of the Chinnar wildlife sanctuary.

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Thoovanam waterfall

 

While we had stopped there mostly to have a bit of tea from the stall right at the entrance, the next waterfall, was much more accessible Karimutty falls which as we learnt later, supposedly passes over medicinal herbs and is believed to cure ailments.  The location of the waterfall is also amidst what’s known to be Kerala’s only natural sandalwood forest so we have plenty of stores selling sandalwood products ahead.

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Karimutty falls

 

Our next unplanned stop at Marayur was towards a board that called out the “Rajiv Gandhi Nature park” which is a relatively small park but under the canopy of a single large banyan tree with monkeys to keep us entertained with their antics. While smaller than a the big banyan tree in Bangalore, it’s still a pleasant pitstop to stretch your legs and take a break during the drive.

 

We had actually reached Marayur,  searching for the dolmens( table shaped stone structures which functioned as tombs) with rock paintings dating back to the Iron age but weren’t able to get directions from the locals while the ticket seller at the park simply said it wasn’t accessible (it was unclear whether that day or no longer accessible to the public). Maybe one of you will have better luck and let us know.

 

A little ahead and the ubiquitous tea gardens of Munnar began to make an appearance with tender shoots of green covering the hillsides with more views of waterfalls flowing into the Pambar river.IMG_5854.jpg

 

We actually got to the Lakkam falls just a few minutes before the staff’s  time of closing (5pm) , still being graciously allowed in as long as we came back in 10 minutes! Wading into the clear water and with the pebbles and rocks polished smooth by the stream over it made for quite a lovely spot to let the water droplets occasionally shower over us.

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We hope to return someday to the guided trekking they arrange by the side of the Eravikulam stream by the waterfall.IMG_5874.jpg

 

While it was getting darker now, we followed maps and wandered into a tea garden on Gundumalai road (where thankfully some workers were kind enough to stop us and inform us we were lost since it only got to a dead-end through the tea gardens). A few more gaffes due to the not-so-uncommon name of our Airbnb and some atrocious roads and we finally got there grateful for a warm bed and a whimsical space with antique cars and scooters displayed at the entrance! Mercifully a local hotel delivered food as long as we paid the autorickshaw fare – we gobbled it all and fell into a relieved sleep after some talk with the chatty care taker.IMG_5957.jpg

Early next morning, we were gently lulled out of our sleep by the chirping of birds and realised our stay was also amidst a tea garden. Our morning stroll around the neighbourhood let us see that the atrocious roads from the previous night, were now just meandering paths perfect for a walk on foot! We had our dose of interaction with the locals too – with a tiny grocery stall owner insisting we get a pic of me in front of his stall covered with brilliant orange creeper vines and Anand’s camera as always garnering the interest for the local kids.IMG_5939.jpg

 

A view of the Attukad waterfall in the distance and we drove to “The blossom international park ” for a healthy dose of Flowers. IMG_5965.jpgWhile manicured and curated, the place is admittedly beautiful with blooms in a riot of shapes and colors. After a stroll there we picked up some seeds for the green thumbs in the family and made our way to the Mattupetty dam.

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Despite the volume of tourists, Mattupetty dam makes for a lovely view of the calm water while munching on some fresh pineapples with salt and chilly powder. A short walk away to the Echo point, and one can get to another view of the lake.IMG_6037

A little away is the Kundala lake that shows up in an opening right through the grove of eucalyptus trees with their fragrance wafting through the air.IMG_6057.jpg

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On our way back through the tea gardens we stopped for a minute at the Honey Bee Tree– popular being the lone tree housing numerous bee hives in beautiful shades of brown , though there are none on any other trees nearby. It is easy to miss this one unless you’re looking for it so you’ll only have the odd informed tourist stopping for a bit to stop and stare.IMG_6068.jpg

More than 10 years ago, we had visited Munnar as part of a college trip and Anand could actually recognize the place we had stayed at. We remembered vaguely there was a hill in front of it , where our gang of friends had taken a walk and even visited a church atop it. There was also a waterbody by its side, with a ridiculously perfect reflection of the gorgeous trees around it. The hotel itself had developed to become a fancy restaurant  but unfortunately the beautiful hills in front of it had been razed to make way for more shops and hotels. I’ve always been conflicted about the prettiness of the tea gardens since they’ve only been possible with significant amounts of deforestation. We were getting late for our next stop but we had to take a moment to have some refreshments at the hotel just for nostalgia’s sake.

We rushed quickly to just get in time for the much awaited highlight of the day – a performance of Kathakali and demonstration of Kalaripayattu.

The Kathakali performance was a humorous depiction of a demoness attempting to woo a king. The spot-on expressions, colorful costumes, accompanying vocals and instruments were all a complete joy to experience as we laughed along and marveled at the energy and work that went into it.IMG_6110IMG_6124

The Kalaripayattu demonstration was a riveting performance of a martial art that’s rooted in tradition and still manages to stay relevant and have us at the edge of our seats. IMG_6192From the prayers before starting to the displays of strength and expertise to the jumping through hoops of fire every moment had us cheering on the hard work that had gone into it all.IMG_6352

An exciting finish to a calm day we could not wait to see what the next day would bring- this time in the town of Kodaikanal.

Up next : A Cool Kodaikanal Christmas

2 day trip

Vellore : Of captive royalty and Gods appearing in dreams

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.

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Jalakandeswarar temple Gopuram

Intricate sculptures, beautifully carved stone pillars with dragons, horses and yalis (lion like beings) jumping up.

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Jalakandeswarar temple

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.

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Kalyana Mandapam at Jalakandeswarar temple

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).

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Jalakandeswarar temple

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.

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Vellore fort moat

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.

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Vellore fort – imagine 1000s of crocs here!

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.

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A view of the Jalakandeswarar temple from Vellore fort.

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.

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Vellore museum
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Vellore museum

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.

 

5 day trip

Tamil Nadu: Of stops at palatial towns and sunlit courtyards

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.

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The town of Karaikudi

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.

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Athankudi palace

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

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Athankudi palace

. 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.

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Athankudi palace

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.

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Athankudi palace

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.

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Athankudi palace

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.

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Lord Sunderesawarar temple

Just outside the temple is a small temple tank too.

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Lord Sunderesawarar temple tank

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.

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5 day trip

Tamil Nadu : Of abandoned seaside towns and gilded limbs of a God

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.

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Thirumayam fort

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.

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Little steps atop the Thirumayam fort to the cannon

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.

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Thirumayam fort

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.

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Satyamurti Perumal temple

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.

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Satyamurti Perumal temple

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.

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The temple pond at the Satyamurti Perumal 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.

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Satyamurti Perumal temple

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.

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Our first stop- naval ships and azure waters

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.

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A single sailing boat afar

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. IMG_1006.jpgWe 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.

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Remains of the train station at Dhanushkodi

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.

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Remains of the train station at Dhanushkodi beside stalls selling trinkets

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.IMG_0022.jpg

As the evening descended on us, we reluctantly made our way back to see the Kothandaramaswamy temple we had noticed on our way in.

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Kothandaramaswamy temple

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.IMG_0104.jpg

Up next : Tamil Nadu: Of stops at palatial towns and sunlit courtyards

5 day trip

Tamil Nadu: Of a kingly love for books and a whale washed ashore

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.

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Saraswati Mahal Library

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.

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Art Gallery

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.

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Nayak’s Durbar hall

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. IMG_0823.jpg It is seemingly both off place and apt at the same time.

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Arsenal Tower

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.

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Tanjore Maratha palace

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.

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Collectorate museum

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.

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Atop the Collectorate museum

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. IMG_4224Follow 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

5 day trip

Tamil Nadu : Of 16th century granaries and Marathas in Tanjavur

Ramaswamy temple : IMG_0487 The temple walls themselves have scenes from the epic Ramayana painted all over them from Rama’s birth till his coronation.

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62 very large pillars right at the entrance that are a joy to behold(except for the ads)

The idols in this temple were found by the then King of Tanjore, Raghunayak  while digging the holy tank in Darasuram.IMG_4842

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.

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The 16th century granary is mostly ignored by the devotees

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.

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Sri Palaivana Nathar temple

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. IMG_0535.jpgAs 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.

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Maratha Entrance

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.

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No picture does justice to it’s massive size

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.IMG_0577.jpg

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.

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That ceiling

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. IMG_0638.jpgAs 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.

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Zoom into the patches on the ceiling and you’ll realise they’re frescoes depicting stories

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.IMG_0568.jpg

Up next : Tamil Nadu: Of a kingly love for books and a whale washed ashore

5 day trip

Tamil Nadu: Of cleansing holy dips and white elephants

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.

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If God is in the details…then this is a temple for sure.

 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).

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The streaming light on the intricate pillars

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.IMG_4140

We still tried our luck at the Arul Migu Sarangapani temple which was a Vishnu temple but its doors were closed for the morning.

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Temples have a lunch break too, folks

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.

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Visit for a quick sin-cleanse

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.

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Nandis all around

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.IMG_0410.jpg  The main shrine incorporates a chariot structure with horses and elephants giving it a grand touch.IMG_0389.jpg 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.

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The vast area and corridors around the temple

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.IMG_4156.jpg

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.

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Blessings

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

 

5 day trip

Tamil Nadu : Of still mangroves and the grandeur of the Cholas

Day 1)

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.

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Monsoons in the Eastern Ghats

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.

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Wading towards our ride

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.

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More green at every turn

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.

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A few of the mangrove islands also had plenty of egrets perched on the unapologetically green cover.

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.

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The Chidambaram temple

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.

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Deities with more than just one helping hand

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.IMG_0156.jpg 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.

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Shivaganga tank, Chidambaram

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.

Day 2

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.

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The impressive first view of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple

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.

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The Dwarapalakas

The name of this town came from the king’s title which meant the one who had conquered the Ganges.IMG_4803.jpg

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.IMG_0229

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.

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Smaller shrines and a lion well are recent additions in the 19th century.

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

2 day trip

The temple town of Thiruvannamalai

Thiruvannamalai is a temple town that we passed by before on our visit to Pondicherry. This time we re-visited it with Anand’s folks in relation to an NGO. We happened to land there on a Saturday evening during the 100th birthday celebrations of the late MGR and the whole town was lit up with extravagant lighting and decorations. This also meant that the hotels were completely booked for the crowds that had descended there for the event. We were lucky to be hosted in a couple of rooms linked to one of the NGOs in the area. And it was a blessing in disguise. We woke up to the view of the open space and the Thiruvannamalai hill early the next morning.

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It is customary for devotees to go around the hill on foot visiting each of the shrines around the Annamalai hill – Agni Lingam, Yama Lingam, Indra Lingam etc. It is a distance of about 14km and is referred to as Girivalam (circumambulation of the hill) that you’ll see on boards there. We decided to drive around it due to a paucity of time and the difficulty in walking for our co-travelers. The hill itself is imagined to be in the shape of the Shiva linga with a Nandi on one side. I just stopped at one small shrine that was seemingly abandoned and was startled by a sadhu sitting and reading silently within an enclosure. You’d find lots of them along the way sleeping right on the footpaths.

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Note: Avoid visiting the place during the Full moon day or during the Karthigai Deepam celebrations unless you’re willing to brave immense crowds. Up to 3 million people descend on the place then. To put it in perspective, the town itself has a population of 150 thousand.

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Thiruvannamalai Annamalaiyar temple- This is the most prominent landmark in the small town of Thiruvannamalai and you’d pass by it no matter what other places you had to see there.

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It is bordered by 4 Gopurams (temple gateway towers) one in each direction. It is considered one of the 5 manifestations of Shiva as the elements- this one being fire. It is also one of the largest temples of India occupying 35 acres. It has many shrines and halls inside the complex. The 1000- pillared hall is hard to miss. And opposite it is the large temple tank. On the walls, one can note the inscriptions in old Tamil regarding various offerings made to the temple by empires that had ruled over the place at different eras.

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Note: there is an option of a “Special Darshan” costing Rs.20 per person. It is a small amount to pay to skip most of the queue. Also, early mornings are the best time to visit to avoid crowds. We were there around 7:30 AM.

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We next headed to the Thirukovalur Thrivikrama Swamy Temple. While the story of Mahabali makes up 1 of the only 2 festivals celebrated in Kerala, this was the first temple I had seen of that manifestation of Vishnu in his giant form with his leg raised up measuring the heavens and earth. The idol by itself makes this place an interesting one for a visit. The large idol is housed in the sanctum sanctorum which the priest lights up as he describes each aspect of the statue.

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This is supposedly the place where the first 3 Tamil Vaishnava saints (Alwars) wrote the first of the 4000 hymns in praise of the deity after the Perumal appearing to them on a stormy night. Its colourful pillared halls are very reminiscent of the Madurai Meenakshi temple.

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Note: the town itself supposedly has numerous other temples built during the Chola era. It may be worth your time to try exploring a few more. We had about 1/2 day excluding our drive so this was what we were able to do.

 

Our next stop was the Ramana Maharishi Ashram that we re-visited just for the benefit of Anand’s parents. It is touching to see small tombs for a crow, a deer and a cow behind the ashram- they were supposedly treated as other respected souls (aatmas) by Ramana Maharishi with dignity. Even today it is possibly the very first place I’ve seen a dog in a meditation hall that was not being shooed away. Further behind there is a path uphill a walk of about 20 minutes but we choose not to climb up due to a paucity of time.

IMG_1600.jpgIMG_1606And this time we were lucky- 3-4 peacocks put up a show for us dancing and strutting around the place.We sat a while in the meditation hall after admiring them and then headed back to Bangalore.IMG_1593