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Ancient Heritage sites of Tamil Nadu

Author: Indiana
Date of Trip: July 2008

A whirlwind tour of 7 Tamil Nadu heritage sites

Set off by road from Chennai around 2pm, along NH45 towards Trichy. Getting out of city limits was a nightmare. After that it was a good road but a tiresome six and a half hour journey, instead of the 4 hours which it will be, on completion of the 4-lane project. TTDC’s Hotel Tamil Nadu at Trichy was full, so we decided to halt at Srirangam itself, at Hotel Sri Rengaa. This is more of a ‘lodge’, in an ancient refurbished house within the concentric enclosures of the temple complex. The room was tiny but clean, with a TV, split AC, and a bathroom with an ancient thick wooden door. The same owners also run Hotel Sri Maruthi closer to the main temple entrance. Both are ideally located for visiting the temples of Srirangam. Srirangam is an ancient citadel island between the Coleroon and Cauvery rivers, just 7km from Trichy. The Coleroon riverbed is dry at present.

At 7.30am the next morning, we stepped back in time to visit the living art gallery:- the ancient Sri Ranganathaswamy temple. The hotel owner’s 10 year old son kindly escorted us to the temple entrance, a mere five minute walk away. This foremost Vishnu temple is set in 7 rectangular walled enclosures. The 7th to the 4th outer enclosures contain streets, residential and market areas. The religious zone begins from the 4th enclosure; the innermost 1st enclosure is the sanctum sanctorum of the presiding deity, the reclining Sri Ranganathar – Maha Vishnu. Photography is not allowed in the 1st enclosure.

At the shoe deposit counter at the 4th enclosure, we engaged the services of a pleasant young man – Purushottam, to guide us around the labyrinthine complex. The magnificent sculptures, carvings and frescoes date from the early Chola period through to the Nayakars, right upto the most recent completion of the unfinished Rajagopuram in 1987 under the auspices of the Sri Ahobila Mutt. The new Rajagopuram is the largest temple tower in the world. It lacks character however, compared to the ancient, smaller gopurams around it. There are 23 Gopurams in all, including the attractive Vella [white] Gopuram.

Each sculpture, each column, each roof, each fresco in the vast temple complex, was more stunning than the other. The intricately carved Eight Horse columns are extraordinary, and one could spend hours admiring them. The 1000 pillared hall is closed off, except on certain days, but we took photos through the grilled gates. The resident elephant obligingly posed for photos near the Vellai [white] gopuram. A roof top viewing area provided a panorama of the various gopurams, and of the gold Vimanam over the main sanctum. The following websites give details of the history and architecture of this ancient site.…/srirangam.htm

There were fortunately no crowds as it was not a ‘special’ day. Our tour ended at around 11am at the new Rajagopuram. Purushottam turned out to be a worthy guide.

Srirangam ought to be a designated UNESCO heritage site. On our walk back to the hotel, we savoured the atmosphere of the bustling market. There was no time in our hectic schedule to visit the Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeshwar temple close by. Some pleasures have to be saved for the next time.

The long bridge across the Cauvery afforded a splendid view of the Trichy Rock Fort and its temples

At Trichy, we strolled past the erstwhile mansion of Robert Clive facing the tank, then through the main shopping street to the entrance to the Rock Fort. As it was rather hot by this time, we abandoned plans to climb the 453 odd steps up. The Trichy Saratha Sale looked infinitely more appealing, and we soon ended up with three gorgeous sarees at an amazing price. A delicious lunch followed at a “Bhavan” close by.

A friendly policeman just outside Trichy, recommended a scenic, serene country road along the banks of the mighty Cauvery. It must have originally been a bridle or tow path. This went all the way up to the Grand Anaicut – an ancient dam built by the Cholas in the 2nd century, still going strong. It is locally better known as “Kal Anai” i.e. Stone dam. A road bridge was built 3 centuries ago by the British, along the ancient dam. The Tamil Nadu PWD department has added a barrage and painted the British bridge a bright turquoise blue!!! Mercifully, the 2nd century dam has been left alone.

Cormorants flew in and out of the water to catch fish stunned by the strong barrage outflow. A few vendors offered fresh fried fish bhajjies and masala vadais. One could spend a whole day’s picnic in such pleasant surroundings.

Proceeding further, we stopped now and then to admire ancient looking large idols of elephants and horses, associated with the village guardian deity Aiyanar and his companion Karuppuswami. More information about village deities of TN:…0500260200.htm…_of_Tamil_Nadu

The Thanjavur Brihadeeswara or Periya Kovil [Big Temple] was next on our list. This Shiva temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built by Rajaraja the greatest of Chola kings, it is also known as Rajarajeswaram. A massive Vimanam crowns the towering big Gopuram. “The Gopuram tower of the temple is 216 feet high and is topped by a block of granite 25 feet square and 80 tons in weight. This stone was hauled four miles over an inclined plane and put on top of the tower. The dome carved from a single stone weighing 80 tons, is surrounded by 250 arcades, each containing a lingam.” From: Rajarajesvaram, the Pinnacle of Chola Art by B.Venkataraman

The shadow of the stupis atop the vimanam reportedly never touch the ground. The temple also boasts unique carvings depicting 81 out of 108 Bharatanatyam dance poses; inscriptions, frescoes and other sculptural masterpieces.

More detailed information at:…/thanjavur.htm

We engaged a guide to show us around. He was not the best, but certainly knew a lot more than we did. Our guide offered us a special ‘darshan’ at the temple by jumping the queue! We politely declined. Would the deity ever approve of inconveniencing others who were patiently waiting their turn in the queue? Photography is not permitted within the sanctum and its immediate surroundings.

As we were leaving, the temple elephant appeared, a benign, gentle creature. He was very sweet. The cart vendors outside the temple were selling “Thalai Atti Bommai” – Shaking head Tanjore Dolls, of Bharatanatyam dancers, syrupy sweet grandmas, lecherous looking grandpas and other images. These were originally made of clay, nowadays papier mache is the preferred material. The heads are detachable and predictably, shake. Thanjavur is also justly famous for its gilded, stone studded Tanjore Paintings and its carved 5-metal Tanjore Plates, which are now available all over India. There was regrettably, no time to visit the Museum and Palace.

A sudden heavy downpour brought the temperature down on our way to Kumbakonam, where we were booked at the Hotel Rayas. We were given a large, comfortable room overlooking the sacred Mahamaham Kulam tank in the heart of Kumbakonam. Once in every twelve years a Mahamaham festival is celebrated, drawing millions of pilgrims for a holy dip. The last was in 2004. Kumbakonam is a veritable Temple City. There is a temple at every street corner; some big, some small, but all distinctly unique. Sarangapani and Kumbeswarar are two of the larger temples within the city. Kumbakonam is an excellent base for visiting Swamimalai and the celebrated Navagraha temples in the surrounding areas. More temple information at:

After a delicious meal and a good nights rest, we set off the next morning to visit the UNESCO heritage site of Darasuram, barely 4 km away. It is a partly ruined mini citadel encompassing a working Airavateswarar [Shiva] temple. More details at…darusuram.htm;

Durai, an ASI employee, was our knowledgeable guide. He first unlocked the doors to the musical staircase next to the Nandi bull. Each step emits a separate tone when lightly tapped. It is locked to prevent vandalism, of which there is ample evidence in all the monuments. 4 hours went by in no time, admiring the exquisitely carved panels, pillars, idols, halls, roofs and staircases. Outside, beyond the presently standing entrance gopuram, are the ruins of the original ramparts with several sculptures still intact. Hoopoes and drongos flew in and out of the surrounding Tamarind trees. Darasuram has a very inviting, Hampi-esque effect but on a smaller, yet much grander scale. One could easily spend a few days at this splendid open air gallery of masterpieces. We were glad we had taken the effort to visit. A local silk weaver invited us to visit his cottage workshop where he had silk saris for sale, but we had no time to spare.

From Darasuram, we headed back through Kumbakonam, to Konerirajapuram, to see the world’s largest bronze Nataraja idol at the Thirunallam Uma Maheswarar temple built by the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi.

Konerirajapuram is not on the regular temple circuit, and we had to seek directions every now and then, even though it is barely 15km away. Basically, you take the A22 bus from Kumbakonam, or by car – the Karaikal road upto S. Pudur village. A potholed country road on the right, goes through the paddy and sugarcane fields of the Cauvery delta for approx. 2km. At a cement bus stop shelter here, is a good road to the left. Konerirajapuram is 1km down this road. At the entrance to the temple, is a conspicuously large dried out square water tank.

Thirunallam temple is nondescript from the outside. A “feeding of the poor” (Annadanam) was in progress. The friendly young priest, perhaps curious about us outsiders, warmly welcomed us and took us along for a darshan of the main Shivalingam. At our request, he gladly opened the locked shrine to reveal the ancient bronze idol of the Nataraja, and kindly permitted us to take photographs. The exquisite idol is 8ft high and 5ft wide. The chamber is constructed around the Nataraja, such that the idol can never be removed. We were then shown several more beautiful ancient bronze idols of smaller Natarajas, Parvati and other deities, in an ante room off the main Nataraja shrine. This is a rare experience, especially in a South Indian temple. These are the most beautiful bronzes we have ever seen.

After this, the priest led us into the Parvati shrine, where he performed a small aarthi. Thereafter, he pointed out some ancient inscriptions on the walls which record that the bronze idols date back to at least 981AD. More information at…roduction.html

Thirunallam temple also houses a Vaidyanathar shrine which is famous for its healing powers for skin diseases. Our friendly priest Gnanaskandan proudly showed us a large Nayaka period wall fresco recording a colonial English officer making an offering to the temple, after being healed of leprosy. We also admired the beautiful roof frescoes above the main temple hall.

Gnana wanted his photo taken and promptly gave his mobile number in case we returned and the temple was locked. He never asked, but we gladly made a small donation. This less visited temple retains its ancient aura, remaining much as it would have been in days gone by. I do not know what drew us here. Having read about the big Nataraja, we just had to see it, and we did. This Nataraja bronze is bigger than the more famous one at Chidambaram.

It was time to return to Kumbakonam and the brassware stores opposite the Kumbeswarar temple. A satisfying purchase followed, of a beautiful Kumbakonam Paavai Vilakku lamp – in the shape of a lady with a parrot on her shoulder – a replica of the original lamp standing at the nearby Thiruvidaimarudur temple. The temple lamp image is at…vaivilakku.jpg

Kumbakonam is well known for its metal castings. Nowadays most brass and alloy temple items come from mass production manufacturers at Moradabad in U.P.. Some unique pieces such as the Paavai lamp, the Nataraja, etc., are still meticulously handcrafted in Kumbakonam. Kumbakonam is also justly famous for its excellent coffee, and tasty Cauvery delta rice delicacies. We partook abundantly of both. The rice is similar to the tasty Wada Kolam variety grown near Mumbai. There is something very pleasing about Kumbakonam. It is a small town with old world courtesies still intact. May it ever remain so.

After lunch, it was time to move on to our next destination, the UNESCO heritage site and erstwhile Chola capital of Gangaikondacholapuram.

Gangaikondacholapuram was established by Rajendra Chola, the son of Rajaraja. It also has a Brihadeeswara [Shiva] temple. The main Vimana is a replica of the Thanjavur Big Temple, but is not quite so tall. As with all the other Chola masterpieces, GKC has its fair share of superb carvings, sculptures, pillars, mandapams, panels, inscriptions and frescoes. However as our guide aptly put it, Thanjavur Temple is Big; GKC is Pretty. It took about two hours to go around. Restoration work continues with excavations regularly yielding new finds. The sanctum sanctorum of the main temple is surrounded by a very dark square enclosure [parikrama] about 5ft broad, without any windows or air vents. It must be even more claustrophobic on the days when pilgrims converge. This temple’s mandapam is the only one we saw that was completely enclosed.

Not surprisingly our local guide eagerly offered us an ‘expedited’ darshan, which we politely declined. Apparently, most visitors engage a guide only for a speedy darshan.

The history and art of GKC is detailed in:…/info/arch.htm

Thanjavur and GKC are undoubtedly magnificent, but Srirangam and Darasuram have an aura that beseeches the visitor to linger.

Onward to our next night halt and the UNESCO heritage site of Mahabalipuram. The route from GKC is along the Kumbakonam-Chennai highway upto Vadalur, then right through Cuddalore and Pondicherry upto Mahabalipuram.

The rice fields of the Kumbakonam region soon gave way to extensive casuarina plantations. Wonder what they are grown for. Paper pulp perhaps. It was 9pm by the time we reached Mammalapuram. Our preferred hotels, the Mahabs and the Tamil Nadu were full, so we ended up reluctantly at the Veeras. Dinner, especially the local seafood, was excellent – far superior to the quality of the room. Food apart, I would not recommend the Veeras for more than a days stay.

We started at 8.30 the next morning with the famous Shore Temples, and it was already hot. The Archaeological Survey publication: “Mahabalipuram” with excellent colour photos was available here at a discounted price of all of INR 60.

The beautiful sandy beach with its Mahishasura Rock looked so inviting from here, but there was just no time to spare. From the Shore Temples which were a trifle disappointing, we progressed to the magnificent Five Monoliths, excavated during the reign of the Pallava king Narasimhavarman-I. Of these, some are unfinished. The huge Elephant is perhaps the best known. A group of noisy school children on an educational tour, trooped by. They were more interested in climbing the rocks. A well laid out, spacious souvenir market and refreshment centre abuts this area. Sadly, tourists leave behind their own souvenirs of the empty Bisleri – Lays variety.

Next on the agenda was the Ten Monuments: Lighthouse and hill area comprising the Mahishamardini cave, the exquisitely carved bas relief of Arjuna’s Penance, the free standing Butter Ball, Ganesha Ratha and other monuments. The same school children gleefully slid down the slippery slopes near the Butter Ball. The Olakkanisvara temple next to the Lighthouse affords a splendid 360 degree view of the beautiful sea to the East, and the low hills beyond Chenglepet on the other side.

More information on the history and architecture of Mammalapuram at:…abalipuram.htm

Stone sculptors abound in this region with several workshop style studios producing a huge variety of large and small carvings. By now, it was oppressively hot in spite of the strong sea breeze. The temperature felt like 40C. Some large tender coconuts were most quenching, followed by a tasty lunch at the Ananda Bhavan. On our way out of Mahabalipuram, we visited the unfinished Tiger Cave and marvelled at the mammoth vertical monolith near by. Where did these huge rocks come from. Were they naturally there? Were they transported in from somewhere else? Our driver’s theory is that they were unearthed in an ancient tsunami. Sounds plausible.

The casuarina fringed, clean white sandy beaches in this region deserve a separate holiday in cooler weather.

As we had a bit of time to spare, we stopped to visit the Dakshinachitra heritage village. The replicas of the Chettinad and other typical Tamil Nadu houses were well worth visiting. Overall, there is something lacking. It could have been more vibrant. Perhaps we felt this way, having just come from real ancient monuments.

By now it was “tiffin time”. Sowmiya Bhavan on the Shollinganallur Tambaram road beckoned. The coffee was fresh, strong and piping hot. The Mysore Bondas were scrumptious. We packed some delicious Madras Badaam Halva to take home.

Our return flight landed in Mumbai right on schedule.

Thus ends our saga of how to explore seven ancient sites in less than three days!

Tip: 1. For those who intend visiting these places as pilgrims, check for pooja timings and special dates from the temple websites. 2. For those who are not pilgrims, choose non-special dates, and avoid festivals, when there are bound to be crowds. 3. Walking without footwear [mandatory] on stone temple courtyards can be unbearably hot, so keep a pair of socks handy. Likewise, a hat.

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