Suchindram is a popular place in any religious travel circuit of the far South. Being only 12 kms from Kanyakumari, it is an easy detour for many pilgrims. But for me arrival into Suchindram is quite different. Today there is a statewide strike in Kerala. There were no buses from the capital. It didn’t matter since I had planned on catching a train. I got a passenger train from Thiruvananthapuram to Nagercoil, where I dumped my backpack at the station’s cloak room. From Nagercoil, Suchindram is a short bus ride.
Suchindram is one of those little towns of Tamil Nadu that hold little interest to a tourist except for one magnificent temple. Such places are what I would call temple towns. While places like Bhubaneshwar or Khajuraho are packed with temples, a temple town of Tamil Nadu is a special place. It preserves much of its medieval appeal. I have come to savour a little bit of that.
I have never heard of the temple’s name. It is enough to called it the ‘Temple of Suchindram.’ It is only later I learn that the temple enshrines Thanumalayan, a linga that can be considered to be a union of the Hindu Trinity – sthanu for Shiva, mal for Vishnu and ayan for Brahma. If this be the case, it is surely one of the rare shrines of India giving due importance to all three.
The bus drops me along the main road. The journey by train and then this bus ride have been delightful. The sky is crystal blue. The sun is out. It is a short walk from the road into the town of Suchindram. I pass under a colourful painted gateway. Deities sit in canopied aedicules over the gateway. A mini-gopuram in traditional Tamil style crowns the gateway. There is no traffic, no bustling movement of pilgrims in their hurry for darshan in a never ending ritual of temple hopping. A bright yellow auto-rickshaw waits for business. A cyclist pedals so leisurely that I feel his rhythm is in tune with the mood of the morning.
I spot the temple’s seven-tiered gopuram from a distance. The gopuram is whitewashed without highlights. It is packed with details. Although it stands on a stone base, I find it difficult to make out if the rest of it is made of stone or cement. The distemper hides its real character but maintains the impressive structure well. It would take hours to appreciate all the scenes on the gopuram. It is really a representation of heaven itself. The gods and goddess, and the stories they play out, dramatize familiar tales of Hindu mythology. Dwarapalakas guard the seven entrances on the broad faces of the gopuram. Mount Meru plays anchor as gods and demons churn the ocean for nectar. Indra rides on his elephant. Other deities sit majestically on their respective vehicles. Multi-headed and multi-armed deities are simply a window to the vast imagination and beliefs of those who collectively created Hinduism.
Everything around the temple is so still. I feel I have come at the best possible time. I am seeing Suchindram in its essential element without intruding tourists, passing pilgrims or itinerant vendors. Clouds drift leisurely. Often they seem to hover in the distance as they pass the gopuram. The gopuram dazzles the eye in its brightness in the harsh sun. A lone coconut tree near the gopuram sways in a steady breeze. With each movement of its fronds it highlights the solidity and loftiness of the gopuram. Outside, a large stepped tank lies quietly. The breeze ruffles the water’s surface. At its center is a pillared mandapa, crowned by a vimana in Dravidian style. Women are washing clothes or bathing in the margins of the tank. Houses crowd the tank on two of its sides. The temple wall, coloured in vertical bands of white and red, lines the tank on the third side across a narrow road.
I walk around the temple passing many traditional houses. It is a common Tamil ritual to draw floral or geometric designs in front of houses. In the mornings, the space is swept clean and sprinkled with water. With just white rice powder, Tamil women expertly draw these complex designs in a matter of minutes. On special occasions, bigger and more colourful designs may be created. These are called kolams. I pass some of these on this short walk. I glimpse into the living room of one house. A row of six couples, framed black-and-white photographs spanning a few generations, hang neatly on a wall, supported below by a thin wooden ledge. On other walls, more recent family portraits hang. My memory jogs back to my grandfather’s house in Bangalore, its walls packed with large portraits of his parents, sons, daughters and grandchildren. In those days, no one cared to hang Picassos or Ravi Vermas in their living rooms. Such days are still alive in this little town of Suchindram.
‘Is this Vishnu?’ a tourist from North India quizzes me. From the markings on his forehead and the prasad in his palms, I notice that he has already finished his darshan without really knowing who or what.
‘That was Ganesha,’ I tell him. ‘They call him Neelakanta Ganesha,’ I elaborate based on what I heard from the presiding priest.
In front of this shrine dedicated to Ganesha, is an intimate mandapa housing the Navagrahas. The mandapa ceiling is panelled and each panel has beautiful reliefs symbolic of the nine planets. I find many devotees going round the images of the Gods who personify the nine planets.
The main shrine is dedicated to Shiva in linga form. Behind this is another shrine dedicated to Vishnu. Outside the main mandapa is a shrine dedicated to Brahma. I am informed that the Creator’s shrine is woodwork gilded in gold. Nearby is a wonderful sculpture of Garuda. One pillar relief is a beautiful image of Vigneshwari, Ganesha in his female form. In another part of the temple is an 18-foot black stone idol of Hanuman. He appears to be a popular object of worship. Devotees offer oil lamps. Butter offerings are heaped by priests on his head. These are scooped up later and distributed.
Among the artistic wonders of this temple are the cloisters, so similar to those of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram that the resemblance is clearly not coincidence. What to us may appear as simply a pillar carrying beautiful reliefs, is really a combination of art and science. Every part of the pillar has a name, purpose and meaning. Every pillar is designed and crafted based on rules and principles, many of which contain much religious symbolism. The mouldings of lotuses are exactly the same as those in Thiruvananthapuram. Another thing to note is that Suchindram was in fact part of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. The same artists may have worked on both the temples. Even today, I find many people speaking in Malayalam. Even those who speak in Tamil, have an accent that bears similarity to Malayalam.
This temple is famed for its musical pillars. These are two composite pillars facing the Shiva shrine. Elsewhere are four composite pillars collectively defining a space called the Alankara Mandapa. These composite pillars contain slender stone columns that produce distinct notes when struck. I give it a try. No sound comes out. A priest comes along with a band of tourists. I see that to produce any sound one has to hit hard, hit it with the bone. In one composite pillar, I count as many as 12 slender columns. Some of these pillars are caged off to preserve them from vandalism.
In one corner is the Oonjal Mandapam. The pillars contain wonderful reliefs. A few pillars in the Chitra Sabha near the exit have equally fascinating stone sculptures. This gallery contains modern paintings on its walls. The paintings depict different forms of Shiva’s cosmic dance, the Tandava. The usual pose of Shiva is the Ananda Tandava but this gallery tells about fifteen other types of tandava poses. Elsewhere are wall murals in the Keralan style. They are however very few in number and not well-preserved as in the temples of Kerala.
One of the historic treasures of the temple are some Pali inscriptions from the 3rd century BC. These are sure proofs of the vast extent of the Mauryan Empire. In my excitement with the sculptures and musical pillars, I completely forget about these inscriptions. Had I remembered, I would have asked one of the priests to show me these stone writings of ancient India.
The same garrulous priest with his band of obedient tourists comes around again. He takes them to a tall dwarapalaka sculpted in stone. He takes a thin stem of a coconut leaf and threads it right through from one ear to the other. It highlights the artistic excellence of the sculptor who created it. The dwarapalaka does not listen to these trivialities. His job is only to guard the entrance.