Kumbakonam is a large town. The place looks busy during the day. Shops are plenty and they are making good business. The bus station is packed with buses leaving for countless destinations. Accommodation is plenty near the bus station. This is an old town and there are no large hotels spread across acres of land. Rather, there are some tall high-rise hotels packed together into small spaces. I am given a room on the top floor next to an open terrace. From my room, I have a great view of Kumbakonam.
I have to come up with some sort of a plan to see the temples of Kumbakonam. There are so many of them in and around town. It would take weeks to visit them all. I have to pick and choose. I may miss a few good ones but I hope to go away with memories of the best of them. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day.
Adi Kumbheswarar Temple
The first temple I choose to visit is the Adi Kumbheswarar Temple. It is a quiet a long walk from the bus station and I take a local bus instead. By eight, I am near the temple. There is a large stepped tank nearby. A pillared mandapa stands as an island in the middle. Across the tank, a few coconut palms are nodding against the morning sky. The clouds are parting in the glow of the morning sun. In the calm scene, I can see at least six temple gopurams decorating the sky, some reflected in the still waters of the tank. Today the beauty of this scene is a little marred by modern buildings crowding the tank; but it is easy to imagine the rural beauty of the place not too long ago.
A long pillared corridor announces the outer limits of the temple. The pillars are distempered in cream colour. The shops filling the spaces between these pillars are all closed at this early hour. The ceiling is painted in colourful floral patterns. I pass under a gopuram and enter another pillared corridor. Three women are sitting here with bags and baskets of flowers. It is their early morning routine of weaving these fresh flowers into garlands. Whites, pinks, yellows and reds take their place. The woman make light talk as their fingers deftly loop, pull and knot the threads around these colourful flowers.
The pillars of this mandapa are plain, devoid of decorative sculptures or eye-catching reliefs. In one sense they are interesting because they depict the most common idiom of temple pillar construction. From square bases rise 16-sided shafts that join octogonal ends. Plain rectangular blocks, obviously designed to contain reliefs but never completed in that manner, break the rise of these shafts. Octogonal bands go around the 16-sided shafts in some places. The alternating placement of these shafts and blocks gives the pillars a unique combination of light and shade, no matter what time of the day you look at them. It is easy to appreciate this in a perspective of some fifty pillars stretching the length of the corridor.
I walk along this corridor and reach the main mandapa of the temple. The place is empty. I am reluctant to leave my boots unattended. I look around. I find a man who will do just that for me. There is no telling if he will disappear with my pair of boots but the token he gives me is assurance enough.
Inside, beyond the tall dwajastambha, are some superb sculpted pillars of yalis, horses and warriors. Some are reminiscent of sculptures in Madurai. Main mandapa has good sculptures. The perspective of pillars in the Mangalambika (consort of Lord Kumbareshwar) shrine is spectacular. I find some pillars containing two yalis, at right angles to each other on the same pillar. I consider these as unique masterpieces of South Indian temple art.
A painted wall tells the story that gives this temple its name. It tells of how when the flood came to wipe out one age and begin another, the kumbha or pot containing the elixir of all life floated down in the flood; how Shiva as a hunter put a bow through it; how the drops spilled at three places which are now three famous tanks; how this temple is one of them.
From the Kumbheswarar Temple, this is a short walk. I am lazy to wear my boots; so I carry them in my hands and walk on the streets. Some people find this weird but most are busy in their own lives to give me a second look.
One thing I realize about Kumbakonam is that it has the feel of an ordinary temple town in traditional South Indian style. The streets are narrow. The shops are small. Very few of them are fanciful. Most stick to selling traditional Indian stuff rather than mimic Western styles. I haven’t come across any large shopping malls yet.
I leave my boots at the entrance doorway by the road. It is surprising to find large temples as this one hugging the road. There is no elaborate principled layout as in Madurai or Srirangam. There is no open courtyard from where you can look at a far view of the temple, take in its scale and let yourself be pulled by its allure. No. The temples of Kumbakonam are grand but don’t project that grandeur. They are down to earth. When you enter, what may seem like a temple down by the street where you live, you are immediately surrounded by everything that South Indian culture, tradition and temple building have ever stood for.
As the name suggests, this is a temple dedicated to Lord Rama, a unique temple of Vaishnavaite faith. In the innermost courtyard where the sanctum stands, sheltered within the pillared corridors lining the courtyard, are wall paintings narrating the story of Ramayana. I wouldn’t rate these are masterpieces of painting but they do make an interesting study. With each picture, the scene is briefly described in Tamil script. For someone with lots of time on a longer visit to Kumbakonam, it might be worthwhile to read the entire epic on a long morning.
I don’t remember what I saw in the sanctum. I don’t even remember having darshan. All I recall are the stone sculptures on pillars at the entrance mandapa. There are nearly 75 masterpieces here, built at the time of the Nayakas of 16th century. Each one of these deserves study. On one pillar, almost life-size forms of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman are sculpted. These are not mere sculptures but decorated idols to which devotees offer their prayers. Pink blossoms decorate Rama’s bow while an oil lamp steadily burns to his right. Sita is anointed with turmeric paste and red dots of sindhur. Above her is a floral canopy flowing out of an open-mouthed kirtimukha. A woman strikes a pose as if she is lost in love. A parrot, a symbol of that sweet love, is perched on her right hand. Richly decorated creepers on which other parrots nibble, frame her face beautifully.
Near this parrot-woman, on another pillar, stands one of Vishnu’s avatars, Vamana in his form of Trivikrama. This is a common scene in Indian iconography but what is interesting in this scene is the way King Mahabali is depicted in his final fall. Vishnu’s left leg is raised to the sky. His right leg is supported by two hands that are fast disappearing into the ground.
I move on to admire Krishna playing on his flute. Busty damsels adorn themselves or play music. The prabhavalis that frame these figures are fluid works hung with flowers and tassels. Lord Vishu rides majestically on Garuda on one pillar. On another, primate king Sugriva is crowned. Elsewhere, Lord Vishnu is seated royally on five-headed Seshnag as attendants offer him abhisekam. I see some devotees prostrating before one of the pillars. On closer look, I see a group of saints in conversation with what appears to a king, perhaps the Nayaka king who sponsored the building of this temple. He may have been an ordinary king but in the minds of people here he has merited the status of worship.
I take lots of picture but finally get bored of it. I sit down to draw a sketch of Vishnu riding Garuda. It is a neat composition. There is energy in the pose of Garuda, the way he looks up to the Lord and bears his weight without sweat. The Lord has eight arms, each with its own mudra or holding a weapon. It isn’t an easy sketch by any means. I make a mess of it but the effort has enabled me to notice every little detail. I just wonder about the hands that made them.
When I come out, a woman sitting next to my boots demands ten rupees for looking after them. She wasn’t there when I left them. I pay her two rupees. She complains but I can sense that she is satisfied with two.
Kumbakonam is one of those old towns where there is temple to be seen at every corner and in every street. I pass the Someshwarar Temple but I decide to skip it. I head straight to the Sarangapani Temple. I take a few minutes to admire a wooden chariot used for temple processions. It is eleven and the sun is high in the sky. Painted wheels reflect their colours brightly. Symbols of Vishnu decorate the chariot – shanka, chakra, nama. Blooming lotuses are crafted in metal with their pointed petals. Krishna plays on his flute or dances on Kaliya. Even elephants proclaim their devotion with the nama on their foreheads. The chariot stands on three tiers. It is packed with wonderful wooden sculptures in miniature.
From here a little street leads to the temple. A mandapa faces the eastern gopuram which rises in 11 tiers. Erotic images adorn the lower levels. Dwarapalakas guard the gateways on each level. Kirtimukhas pour out chaitya motifs from their sharp-toothed mouths. Gods and goddesses pack the gopuram in various faded colours.
‘Srirangam le eppidi irukko athe mari,’ says the priest in the sanctum as I approach him for darshan.
Indeed, the similarity is striking. Lord Vishnu is reclined at the back. His consort Sridevi is to left, near his head; and Bhudevi to the right, near his feet. All are wonderfully decorated for the occasion of prayer. The Lord’s head and hands are covered with thin plates of silver. His nama is inlaid with resplendent diamonds that outshine everything else in the dim sanctum. He wears thick silver anklets. Another trio of idols cast in bell-metal or brass stand quietly. The will go out in procession to bless all devotees in person when the time comes.
The priest hands me holy water in little spoonfuls. I gather it in the cusp of my palm, gulp down a little and sprinkle the rest over my head as is the custom. He then blesses me with the Lord’s silver crown, briefly placing it on my head. He gives a few flowers as I leave.
I take note of the wonderful sculptures in the mandapa facing the sanctum. This mandapa and the inner sanctum are on a higher level from the spaces that surround them. Some eight feet high dwarapalakas stand in all magnificence. The mandapa and inner sanctum are sculpted as a chariot drawn by horses or elephants. Stone slabs stick out of walls as yokes attached to chariots. The spokes of the wheels are an interweave of maces and dancers or musicians. The aedicules on the outer walls of the sanctum contain beautiful idols – Narasimha seated majestically, Narasimha in the act of killing the demon and a superb scene of Gajendra Moksha.
As I walk around the inner sanctum, I see a priest taking a break. He is leaning against a sculpted pillar. Sunlight streams through an iron grill above, casting its shadow in neat repetitive lines. Specks of dust linger in the light. Light falls on the elephant and the chariot wheels at an angle. The reliefs are brought out in spectacular details. I stop to admire the pillars and open-mouthed lions at their bases.
‘Come. Have darshan,’ says the priest. He has woken himself up for my sake. There is no one else around. I follow him into another sanctum. We go down a few steps. The shrine is a small one, almost in an underground corner.
‘This is Pathala Perumal (Subterranean Perumal),’ says the priest. It does sound funny when I try to translate his words into English within my head.
‘Avarukku kalyana ayduchi. Ivuru kochikitu keezhe vanthutaru,’ says the priest pointing to the Lord in the main sanctum. He means that when the Lord god married, Pathala Perumal sulked and came to reside in this dungeon. Apparently he is a powerful god, very much like the one in Tirupati. The priest leads me to pray for marriage, kids and promotion. I pray for nothing in particular, accept his prasadam and give him a donation.
Sculptures of Nandi decorate pillars in reliefs. In a central open space, the ceiling has a lotus bud. Its beauty reminds me of the Hoysala style temple of Somnathpur. On my way out I take note of a goshala. A priest is feeding the cows and a few calves. These are the images of Sarangapani Temple with which I leave.
It is said that many rivers join this tank. A dip in this tank is said to absolve one of all sins. A mela is celebrated every 12 years and crowds congregate at this tank in great numbers for that holy dip.
After a nice lunch, I arrive at the tank for the simple reason that all temples are closed in the afternoon for visitors. Most temples close at noon but I learn that on Fridays some close at 1 pm. So I have to kill three hours till the temples reopen at 4 pm.
Women are washing clothes by the lowest steps of the tank. Some men are bathing. Women are bathing in another corner. Some garbage floats on the margins elsewhere but generally the tank is clean. There are as many as 16 pavilions on the edges of the tank. I don’t find the place very interesting and I move on quickly.
Near one of the pavilions is a mandapa. It stands facing the entrance gateway to the temple of Kasi Visvanatha. The gateway is a modern one and it states the names of nine rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Saraswathi, Kaveri, Godavari, Tungabhadra, Krishna, Sarayu. Above each name is an idol of the river goddess. Lord Vishnu stands to the right. Two cows sit at the two ends. These rivers must be the ones that find their way into the tank and grant devotees the fruit of their cleansing powers.
The mandapa that faces this gateway is quite a work of art. It is rich with sculptures on pillars and ceiling. In a unique fashion, a scale is sculpted in stone in the central ceiling. It hangs a few inches from the ceiling. A human figure is seated on the right scale and the weight balanced by an offering on the other scale. This might have once been the mandapa for performing tulabaram. The architraves are packed with reliefs. A woman stands with graceful poise. Another plays the veena. A warriors weilds his sword and shield while riding his fearsome lion. The lion itselfs seems ready to leap out of the pillar’s stone cage any moment.
I had come here in the afternoon when the temple had already closed for the afternoon. So I come back here in the evening. This is the hour of prayer. A guy is readily waiting at the entrance to keep store of my boots. I collect the token and make my way to the entrance. I have to walk around since I have entered by the back entrance. The walls are not painted in stripes of red and white as is common but left to reveal the bare texture and colour of stone. What is wonderful here is the landscaping. Decorative hedges growing beautifully along the walls. On the other side of the neat walkway is a line of coconut palms. These are underplanted with the same leafy hedges. The hedges are not clipped but let to grow in nature’s will.
The temple has some good sculptures sheltered in aedicules around the inner sanctum or on the vimana – Ardhanari, Dakshinamoorthy, Brahma. These are fine sculptures but really nothing when compared to the wealth of masterpieces seen earlier today at the Ramaswamy Temple. The sculptural idiom of horses drawing chariots is seen here, like at Darasuram or at Sarangapani Temple. I attempt to make a sketch of one of the wheels but I am troubled by mosquitoes. I move on. The light is failing quickly now.
I approach the sanctum dedicated to Amman by a wonderful mandapa decorated with chandeliers and old lampshades. It seems strange and out of place for a traditional temple but it does give this mandapa a certain uniqueness. In the same space, is a closed room, rather enigmatic by its strange presence. It see that it’s named “Palli Arai.” The door is closed but I manage to peep through the many holes on it. The interior is lavishly decorated. Painted glasses and mirrors covered all walls and even the ceiling. The goddess sits on a swing, amidst embroidered cushions and bolsters. She is flanked by attendants. This must be the idol taken out for processions. It is a bright and colourful room. The door jambs are decorated with little paintings on glass.
Another unique mandapa is across the courtyard from here. A couple of students are studying or attempting to study. Their lack of concentration is obvious in their playful fights and frequent talk. The ceiling has beautiful wooden vaulting. Horses or yalis rear up boldly on their brackets to support the beams. The arches curve beautifully on many levels. In this mandapa are some exquisite pillars, the kind of pillars I have come to admire lately. This type of pillar is also found in the Meenakshi Temple of Madurai, in Darasuram, in the Kumareshawar Temple and in the Sarangapani Temple. A pillar of this type rises tier upon tier supporting miniature columns at the corners, miniature yalis at the corners, aedicules on the sides with deities enshrined in miniature and beautiful vimanas in relief. Each of these pillars is a masterpiece. From the distance they don’t look much but upon close inspection they contain worlds of their own.
I pick up my boots. As I step out, a flower seller shouts out, ‘Malli, mullai, jadi.’
She is busy weaving these loose flowers into garlands. Some of these garlands are rolled and stacked up, either as offerings at the temple or as decorations in a woman’s tresses. Her words refer to the three types she sells – full-bodied jasmines, thin white buds with streaks of maroon, wide open flowers with long petals.
I have chappati for dinner as meals are not common like they are at lunchtime. I buy some fruits and bottled water. I walk back to my room for a much needed rest. It has been a long of temple traipsing.