We hadn’t taken a holiday in 2 years and Anu, my wife was quite upset. I had promised that we would see the world as soon as I retired. Six months into retirement (supposedly) I was still spending most of my time on professional activities. I told her “OK, we have 3 days next week, let’s go somewhere”. That was too short a notice to go to Paris, Luxor, Istanbul or Kampuchea…. So we did what all retired middle-class Indians do: go on a pilgrimage for the welfare of the children!
It was not a “real” pilgrimage. We were not even sure which Gods we would pray to, except for a vague notion that we need to seek the blessings of Goddess Saraswati for our 2 sons pursuing their Masters. After that, we would just go where our destiny took us. Believe me, destiny did take charge. Where else could one choose from hundreds of temples within a radius of a 100Km, but Chola country?
DAY 1: Swamimalai
We booked into INDECO Hotel in Swamimalai, a temple town 5 Km from Kumbakonam. The hotel mimics a Tanjore village in the 19th century and has several cottages in the style of street houses; (the bathrooms and the air-conditioning are thoughtfully modern). A tranquil place with lush greenery, birds and deer floating around, it is run by a guy called Steve Borgia. The name was suggestive of a Don from the Italian Mafia; mercifully he is a maverick Goan (?) who operates like a spiritual Tamilian!
First off, we had to complete our stated mission, i.e. find Goddess Saraswati. I had been advised by my colleague Suresh to visit Kuthanoor, which has the only Temple dedicated to Saraswati. (He should know, he hails from that village). As we drive towards the destination, we find a signpost pointing to Tirupampuram Temple; our driver asks a few villagers and they confirm that the little road on the right leads to Tirupamburam only a few Kms away. What they don’t tell you is that the recommended means of transport is tractor, not car! We literally plough through lush green fields on the non-existent road and half-hour later, a small, aging temple appears.
But it is thronging with crowds from all over Tamilnadu and neighbouring states. (They must have been para-dropped, because this apology for a road could not have carried them all). Tirupampuram was probably built during the reign of Kulotunga Chola III (12th Century). Like SriKalahasti, TiruNageswaram and Keezhperumpallam, this temple offers redemption for people affected by Rahu & Ketu. But unlike those temples, here Rahu & Ketu are combined as a single icon (buy-one-take-two scheme for eager devotees) and hence this crowd!
But back to Kuthanoor. Kuthanoor gets its name from Poet Ottakuthan (kuthan +oor)and there are many legends associated with this. One legend says that Goddess Saraswati appeared on earth as a courtesan; only Ottakuthan, being a great devotee, recognized her and fell at her feet. The Goddess blessed him! The temple is quite small (its reputation being much bigger) but nice. As we entered, we realized that devotees were carrying pens and notebooks from the bazaar just outside; the priest gets the same blessed for the children . We had not done our home work, so we were content to perform a simple Archanai and withdraw. As we came out, a young girl tugged Anu’s duppatta and proffered a pen. We thought she was an aggressive pen-seller— but no, she was gifting pens to devotees as a prarthana! And she chose us! So, in our private legend, Saraswati appears as a school-girl and not a courtesan. I called Suresh to report mission accomplished. He deflates me with, “Why haven’t you visited the Lalitha temple which is in the nearby Tirumeechiyur village”?
DAY 2: Tirunallar & Tirumeechiyur
New data, new destination. The next day we went to the Sani temple at Tirunallar. On the way back I spot a small signpost saying “Tirumeechiyur 3km to the right”. We must have over-shot it in the darkness last night. But not this time. We drive through another narrow road and come to an outstandingly beautiful temple. There is no crowd at all: just us, one more family and the Goddess herself! So, the brilliantly bejeweled Goddess Lalitha gives us Dharshan at hand-shaking distance. What’s more, the other family has commissioned a full scale chanting of the Lalita Sahasranamam with tasty sakkiraipongal prashad to boot. Thanks, Suresh.
There is a funny convention at the temple. If you want a wish fulfilled you go to the DurgaDevi in the adjoining sanctum. There, in a rare portrayal, Durga, appears serene and carries a parrot. You only have to mention your wish to Durga and she sends her parrot messenger to her neighbour Lalita; your wish gets granted ASAP. I gave my wish list to SriDurga, of course!
On the return journey, we stop at Naachiarkoil, which is famous for brass and bronze works— the tradition of making Chola icons and decorative lamps is several centuries old here. At wholesale handicraft shop, the owner’s brother takes an extra interest in our mission. He says we must visit Patteeswaram where there is a Durga Amman Temple. Another message from the Gods, as to where we should go!
Post-lunch, we instruct our driver to go to Patteeswaram. By some will of providence, he loses his direction and takes us to Darasuram Temple instead. What a heavenly mistake! The Airawateswara Temple is one of the most exquisitely carved temples. In beauty it is second to none, save perhaps the Brihadeeswara Temples of Tanjore and Gangaikondacholapuram. (All three are UNESCO sponsored ASI protected monuments.)
Airawateswara Temple Darasuram
The deity Durga is visible directly from the road. But tucked behind is a big Shivalingam, known as Thenupureeswarar. This Shiva Lingam is one of the 3 Ramalingams, erected by Sri Rama as a penance for killing Ravana, the Shivabhakta. This temple was also worshipped by Patti, the daughter of Kamadhenu and hence the name Patteeswaram. Unusually, the Nandi here is not in alignment with the Shiva lingam. There is a story behind this. Sambandar, the great saivite poet came to worship here; at the entrance, he felt faint because of the scorching summer heat and could move no further. Seeing this , Shiva moved the Nandi so that Sambandar could get a clear dharshan from where he fell.
Sarangapani & Adi Kumbeswarar
Anu follows a discipline of lighting a lamp and performing Archanai to Ganesha every Monday. It was already Monday evening, and we were in danger of breaching this. So we rushed to Sarangapani temple to light the lamp. Now, this is a vaishnavite shrine. In my haste I forgot the simple fact that every Iyer knows: Iyengar temples have no Ganesha sanctums. We got tough glares from the Iyengar priest (who is this idiot looking for Ganesha?) , but a very good dharshan of Sri Sarangapani.
We hastened to Adi Kumbeswarar temple to light the lamp. The temple lamp seller held back the lamp. Why? He stated that in one minute the most important puja of the season(kadai somawaara puja of Kartikai) was about to be performed and from his stall there was a vantage view to be got. Just turn around, he said. We did , and we saw Sri Mangalambika brilliantly lit up with oil lamps. Know now, Kaushik and Anu, that you were being led— what timing, what positioning! Then the lamp seller happily sold the lamp. Despite the thronging crowds, the Ganesha sanctum was especially empty for us to perform the archanai peacefully.
DAY 3: Gangaikondacholapuram
It was time to return to Namma Chennai, but one task remained. On the way back, we stopped at Gangaikondacholapuram . Here lies one of the greatest marvels of Chola renaissance. King Rajendra -I built this city and temple to commemorate his victory over the ruler of the Bengal Gangetic plain. Hence the name Gangaikondacholapuram (Gangai+ konda+chola+puram). The dome on the temple top alone weighs 80 tonnes. God knows how many hundreds of tonnes of stones were consumed in the making of the temple. Considering that there are no stone-quarries nearby, these must have come from far off places. Rajendra Chola must have had a great Supply Chain Manager!
The Gopuram of GangaikondaCholapuram, and ……
….and its Nandi
As we return, I am awestruck by our architect-ancestors; and by the mysterious hand that guided us to all these places!