Two years ago my mum and I went to Tanjore and Kumbakonam for a short break from Chennai. Few months before I was to visit Chennai I went to a screening of an excellent documentary film called “The Lost Temples of India“. I was really impressed by it and vividly remembered the bit about the Southern Indian temples of Brihadeshwara and Kumbakonam.
We hired a car from an agent who we had used in the past to drive us from Chennai to Tanjore and Kumbakonam via Trichy. The drive out of the city was well scary as can only be expected from heavily congested roads in Indian metros. After an hour of dodging buses, trucks, cattle and people who were hell bent on throwing themselves in front of our car at a last ditch attempt to finish their life (I can only guess!) we were on a much more civilized newly built highway that will take us to Trichy.
Trichy is a small town famous for an early Shiva temple built over 2000 years ago and is considered an important place of worship by Hindus. It also has a hill fort built on top of a huge rock that encompasses Hindu temples of Shiva and other gods. My mum told me she brought me here when I was very little but, obviously, I had little memories of it. My second visit to Trichy temples, however, was a completely different experience and the one I hope to remember for the rest of my life. I loved the sculptures and frescoes in the temple enclosures and the ubiquitous South Indian “Dravida” style where the gate at the entrance is a series of pavilions built on top of each other with extensive stone work in bright colours. What I found shocking (considering how conservative India is) were the figures adorning the temple towers and walls in explicit sexual positions! But, sex, like other things, is a part of life. In some respect, Indian temples are a microcosm of the wider society outside its walls and therefore, perhaps, its befitting to have those figures adorning temple walls for better or worse. My highlight of the day, however, was being blessed by an elephant who tapped my head with its long trunk when I gave its owner a few coins.
After the afternoon detour to Trichy and receiving blessings from various gods and goddesses (elephant not withstanding), we continued our journey to Tanjore. The road between Trichy and Tanjore was considerably bumpier when compared to the smooth tarmac we drove on earlier in the day. By the time we arrived in Tanjore it was very late in the evening and my bones were still rattling from the drive. Also, unusual for me, I had failed to book any accommodation, expecting to find a place in what I thought would be a sleepy wee town. In contrast, Tanjore is anything but sleepy. Even in the dead of the night that we descended there it was a hub of activity with locals doing top business and cars honking like it was going out of fashion. We first tried a few hotels in the town but they had no vacancy due to a ministerial visit customary before impending local elections. Bah, humbug! Before leaving Chennai, I had checked on TripAdvisor for hotels near Tanjore and remembered that a hotel with the name of Ideal View Resort had great reviews from various discerning travellers. It turned out that the hotel was outside the main city in a secluded area by the banks of the river Kaveri. It took us a while to get there but we couldn’t have chosen a better place. For under £100 a night, we had a beautiful bungalow fit for a king (or in this case queens!) overlooking the river with a bathroom big enough to fit a double bed. The hotel has lovely lush green grounds with small rotundas built for afternoon relaxation dotted with hammocks. It also has a large but fresh swimming pool that looked beautiful in the night when the full moon shone on it. The hotel manager gave my mum and I a personal tour and showed us our adobe for the next two nights even though we clearly arrived outside all respectable hours. That night I slept well dreaming of ancient temples on the banks of river Kaveri.
The next morning, we left after a sumptuous breakfast served on the patio right next to the river, for a visit to the main attraction of Tanjore, the “Big Temple“. I was giddy with excitement and couldn’t believe I was going to see 4000 year old temple, from what people say as one of the best preserved pieces of architecture from ancient times. And, boy, are they right! The first thing that strikes you about the big temple is just how BIG it is. It is bigger than any temple I have seen before. Its tower measures over 66m in height and dwarves everything and everyone who attempts to stand under it. It immediately commands your respect and you can do nothing but be left in awe of this amazing piece of engineering and art constructed over 4000 years ago. The consistent theme in the temple appears to be “build things kingsize”: whether it’s a statue of “Nandi”, the bull, or Shiva’s lingam, everything is scaled up in size several times over. After going around the complex many a times and having nothing but respect and awe for its builders, mum and I decided it was time to leave and make our way back to the hotel for some afternoon siesta.
The next day (and after a lovely Ayurvedic massage at Ideal View hotel the previous night), we left for Kumbakonam which is known for its (surprise!) temples. But not just a few temples but all 200 of them!! You can go to a different temple to worship each week of the year and next year and the year after that and still not repeat the same temple twice. Now this is what I call “spoilt for choice”. However, we only had limited number of hours before we needed to head back to Chennai. We chose to visit three temples: Sarangapani, Kumbeshwara and Ramaswamy. Their architecture is very similar to the temples in Trichy but what will strike you is the life that goes inside the temple. There were people everywhere doing all kinds of chores. Some were washing their clothes, some were sleeping in the compound, others eating with their friends and family with their children running amok. This is what I like most about Indian temples, not the shrine of deities but the relaxed atmosphere that welcomes people from all walks of life and give them shelter and a few peaceful moments. My everlasting memory of Kumbakonam is sitting at the steps of the deserted murky green pool of water in a small inner temple courtyard with my mum and reminiscing my childhood while shutting the chaos of the outside world.
Here are some of the pictures I took.