Within town, Kumabakonam has many temples on its own. Equally famous are temples around Kumbakonam. If a tourist resolves to visit each of them, it may take a week to see them all.
At Darasuram, just on the outskirts of Kumbakonam is the 12th century Airavateshwara Temple. It is from the Chola Period and in the same style as the bigger temples at Tanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. Frequent buses ply from Kumbakonam bus stand to Darasuram. I take a room at Kumbakonam, dump my stuff and hurry out to the bus stand.
I get off by the main road, cross a river by a bridge and enter Darasuram. It doesn’t look like a big place. It may even be considered as a suburb of Kumbakonam. Like Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram displays its temple as the last evidence of its medieval glory.
There are in fact two temples here, standing close to each other in separate walled courtyards. The first temple I visit is the Deiviyanai Amman Temple (aka Periya Nayaki Amman Temple), apparently dedicated to the consort of Lord Airavateshwara, an aspect of Lord Shiva. The proportions of its architecture are beautiful. The temple has a wealth of wonderful sculptures. The walls show traces of colourful murals. The pyramidal vimana may be small but it is packed with sculptures. Pilasters stand with wonderful bulbous capitals, inverted lotuses and raring lions sprouting creepers and garlands from their open mouths. Pedestals have superb lotus motifs. Balustrades are richly carved. Pillars of the mandapa inside are masterpieces.
Sunset has started. I may have good light for another hour. I hurry to the bigger temple next door. A few foreign tourists are being led by a guide. Some local tourists are being guided by a professor of history. The professor explains to them details of the temple in Tamil. I tag along for a while.
It is not possible to describe the wonders of art present in this temple. From basic tasselled motifs on stone steps to complete pillars sculpted out of single stone, everything here deserves praise. Wheels and horses suggest mandapas as chariots. There are narrative pillars showing the penance of Pravati who eventually wins the hand of Lord Shiva. The marriage procession of this divine match can be seen. This procession is led by Agni on his ram, Indra on his elephant, Brahma on his swan and Vishnu on his Garuda. The scene of marriage follows on another face of the pillar.
‘This is Somasundar,’ tells the guide. ‘It cannot be Somaskandar since Skandar is yet to be born.’
The pillars of the mandapa occupies me for minutes. Some of them have lion or yali bases and the shafts rise beautifully from the animal heads to bulbous capitals and wide abacus. Some square pillars have the tiniest works of art worked in great detail. One relief of Gaja Samharar has the same dynamism of a bigger sculpture at the Tanjavur Art Museum. The ceilings are pannelled and packed with reliefs. Though dedicated to Airavateshwara, I don’t see any depiction of this legend, Indra’s elephant making puja to a linga.
An old priest climbs the small steps on all fours. When he reaches the mandapa landing he pauses to catch his breath. He has a hunchback. He is topless except for the holy Brahmin thread that runs across his chest. His white dhoti is folded up and tied around his waist. He has smeared his arms, chest, forehead and body with three stripes of holy vibuti. A beautiful voice fills the silence of the mandapa. The singing is coming from the main mandapa facing the inner scantum.
‘Who is singing that? It is beautiful,’ I ask the old priest.
‘He lives around here. He comes here every evening and sings for an hour,’ replies the priest. ‘He has been doing this for a year.’
I linger around in the mandapa admiring the sculptures. The singing from the sanctum seems to complete the silence within me. By now it is dark. I have to come back here another day.
That was two days ago. Today I am back at the temple. It is mid-afternoon. Every other temple is closed except this one at Darasuram.
‘No photos inside,’ cautions me a woman sitting at the entrance. She has no authority to say this. I simply nod, leave my boots with her for safekeeping and walk inside.
In a different light, the same sculptures take on different forms. Things I had overlooked two days ago pop out from a myriad sculptural details. The vimana is under scaffolding but the engineering feat in its construction is lost among the artistic wonders of the temple. The balustrades are beautiful. Mandapas projecting from pillared cloisters bear superb reliefs. Acrobats and contortionists decorate pillars as reliefs set within circular medallions. The outer walls of the temple show stories from the lives of 63 Nayanmars. I see a woman’s hand being chopped off. A boy is being rescued from a crocodile. A standing figure of Ardhanareshwar has three sculpted faces.
I sit down to make a sketch of a pillar. Progress is slow because every inch of the pillar is sculpted to fine detail. A hour passes by quickly.
Apparently there are six abodes of Lord Murugan. Thiruchendur, which I visited about a week ago, is one of them. Swamimalai is another. Swamimalai is just a few kilometers away from Kumbakonam. So yesterday afternoon I arrived at Swamimalai at about 3 pm. I was forced to wait around till 4 pm for the temple to reopen.
‘Malai’ in Tamil means hill. The temple at Swamimalai is on an insignificant hill. The bus drives on a flat road and drops me off at the bridge spanning river Cauvery. The scenery is green. A few local boys are jumping off the bridge into the fast flowing river. Many fine specimens of Brahminy Kite are gliding high up in the sky. I cross the bridge and walk to the temple. Only at four, when the temple opens, I climb a series of steps. It is a short climb.
One of the walls inside is lined with framed pictures of all the six deities of Lord Murugan. The Lord at Swamimalai is credited to have instructed his own father, Lord Shiva, in the meaning of Om. The temple has some wonderful reliefs. The mandapa that faces the inner sanctum reminds me of the one at Thiruvanaikkaval. There are some beautiful pilasters, sculpted with a variety of motifs, many of which are derived from the lotus. In one case, a pilaster is split vertically into two halves and separated by distance to form an aedicule.
Somewhere old Tamil songs are playing out loud. The ambience of any town in Tamil Nadu is not complete without loud music. Other than the temple and some traditional village houses, there is nothing of much interest at Swamimalai.
With so many temples to choose from, I guess where I go today will depend on the buses I get. I get an immediate bus to Mannarkudi. The distance is only 35 kms but it takes me 75 minutes to get to my destination. It is a slow ride past green fields and across rivers or canals. The day is pleasant with shady cloud cover that does not threaten rain. At Mannarkudi we pass by a huge stepped tank. A little later the main temple of Mannarkudi appears. I get off at the next stop and walk back to the temple.
A road leads from the main road to the temple. At the intersection a huge stone pillar stands with an abacus on top. A little shrine stands on the abacus. This sort of a pillar is reminiscent of many old Jain temples. This pillar along with a mandapa face the temple gopuram on the east. The gopuram stands on 11 tiers. Most are plain except for the top five which are sculpted with gods, goddesses and dwarapalakas.
Upon entering, I find a beautiful processional chariot. The miniaturized woodwork is superb. The chariot stands on many tiers with leaping brackets and friezes of floral motifs. Lotus flowers open up their petals and they feel real. Panels contain wonderful narrative scenes – Krishna killing demon elephant, Krishna climbing a ladder and reaching for pots of butter, Krishna stealing the clothes of the gopis, Krishna killing Puttana, Krishna lifting Mt Govardhan, Rama anointing Sugriva, Hanuman peeping at Sita from the trees and many more. Deities are seated in their spaces – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Varahi, Brahmi.
I pass the temple elephant to my right and enter the inner spaces. I notice mandapas and pillared corridors with yalis, elephants and vines sprouting out of the mouths of lions. Further inside, modern paintings hang neatly in their frames. The theme is Krishna Leela.
‘Please wait,’ tells a priest. ‘We will reopen in ten minutes.’
At the back are five subsidiary shrines. Two priests come out from the mandapa with trays filled with colourful pastes, flowers and bowls of holy water. One of them wears over his neck and shoulders an iron chain strung with many locks and keys. The priests make their way to the five shrines at the back. Ritual offering is done to each of them in turn, each one being a different form of Lord Vishnu – Venugopal, Lakshmi Narayana, Ananta Padmanabha.
‘Thavaru pannitom mannichikungo. Pongal puliotharai aayidithu,’ converses a priest to one of the Gods in jest. I follow these priests on their ritual round until they return to the main sanctum.
The central shrine contains Lord Vishnu. He is flanked by his consorts. I join others assembled there for darshan. The priest does his rituals. He receives archana tickets and offerings from devotees. He collects the names and birth stars of each devotee and weaves them into his verbal template of recitations. Every act here has a long history rooted in tradition.
He goes back into the sanctum. He does the puja with full ceremony. He breaks the coconut offered by devotees. He lights up oil lamps and shows them to the idols inside. The image of Lord Vishnu is fully decorated. The nama on this forehead is studded with diamonds. Other parts of His body are plated in gold.
‘Rajagopal is also worshipped here,’ he states and as if to prove his point he rummages and brings out a metal image of Lord Krishna along with images of a couple of cows. I find the whole thing funny. Images of Rukmani and Satyabama are brought out and placed next to Rajagopal. When darshan is done, the priest comes around with theertha (holy water) and offers a spoonful to one and all. He then blesses everyone with a silver crown and finally hands out flowers.
Around Kumbakonam are temples dedicated to all the nine planets. Every temple in Tamil Nadu has a corner dedicated to these gods but at Kumbakonam this belief has been taken to another level. Our lives are controlled by the planets and only proper prayers and respect to these gods will guarantee you a good life. People flock to these to appease the anger of the nine planets and solicit their blessings.
On the return from Mannarkudi, I get off at Alangudi. This has a temple dedicated Guru, the ruler of Jupiter. The main shrine is dedicated to Lord Shiva but the focus at this temple is at a smaller shrine to the left. When I arrive, the queue at the Guru sanctum is not long. He sits somewhat like Dakshinamurthy. He wears a bejewelled necklace, earrings and an elaborate headress.
A poster on one the walls gives the attributes of all the nine planets. It appears the Guru’s favourite day is Thursday, his associated metal is gold and his associated colour is yellow. He is the god to approach for prosperity and the arts. A large blackened tray facing the shrine contains many tiny oil or butter lamps as offerings from devotees. I can sense that people really believe in this stuff, that praying to Guru will grant them prosperity.
At the Amman shrine, the entrance is flanked by two woman dwarapalakas. On its walls are beautiful pilasters. Rising from a square base, the pilasters taper only slightly. The bulbous capital on top frills out, opens and closes like neck and rim of a pot. The pilasters are of stellate design with sharp lines and points. Lotuses are seen in many forms. The sculptors here have taken this art to something almost sublime.
On my return to Kumbakonam I pass the village of Needumangalam. A statue of Periyar stands garlanded in a corner by the main road. A loudspeaker is praising the great rationalist of modern India. Apparently today is his 132nd birthday. Soon a recorded voice of this great leader comes out on the speakers. A poster shows Periyar in the act of smashing to the ground an idol of Lord Ganesha. It seems appropriate that Periyar’s movement should still be alive around Kumbakonam in direct defiance to the nine planets and countless other temples. This is the true battleground of ideologies.
The bus crosses a railway track and the sound of Periyar’s voice fades in the growing distance. I chat up with a guy sitting next to me.
‘Everything is a working of the Lord,’ he says in praise of some God that comes to his mind.
‘Last year I wanted to go to Tirupati but it did not happen,’ he continues. ‘This year it happened all of a sudden. My life has changed since that visit. Nothing happens without His blessings.’
Green paddy fields pass by. The scenes are all rural. A few men are busy thatching a roof with dried coconut fronds. A straw man stands crucified in a field but instead of traditional apparel he wears the western shirt and trousers. Even this straw man has embraced modernism. A clay pot has been whitewashed and painted over with a ghoulish face. It hangs under the eaves of a roof to ward off evil. I return to Kumbakonam with conflicting thoughts in my mind – to believe or not to believe.
Back at the Kumbakonam bus stand, I look around for buses to another temple. Temples are such important destinations and meeting points that many bus routes terminate at temples. Buses announce their destinations by temple names – Uppliappan Koil, Nachiyar Koil, Swamimalai Koil, Pateeswaram Koil, Darasuram Koil. I get a bus to Pateeswaram and in about 20 minutes I am here.
Flower sellers line the roadside that leads to the temple. Some women sell butter lamps. A man with a cycle uses a foot pedal to inflate his goods on sale. Cheetahs and zebras take shape. Colourful roosters and bunnies take shape. Aeroplanes spread out their wings. These are all probably China made. They add a great deal of colour to the evening scene here.
A board on the gopuram announces this as the Sri Durga Temple but I have read somewhere that this also called the Sri Thenupureeswarar Temple. At the Gnanambikari Sannidhi are seven pairs of pillars superbly sculpted with yalis and dancers. I have a quick darshan and walk around for a while. Four men are building a new wooden chariot. It is small and runs on rubber wheels. It is not a traditional wooden chariot like the one I spotted at Mannarkudi. I wonder if the old skills are dying out slowly or already dead.