Last week* I visited Kumbakonam: it was Good Friday and it seemed a spiritual way of spending the day in a temple town. It was not my first visit, but this time around everything fell in place, so that I had more time to do the things I liked.
To start with, I visited some outstandingly beautiful temples— there are over 100 in the town but I visited the big 4:
- The Vaishnava temples of Ramaswamy and Sarangapani built by the Maratha Nayaks around 15th-16th century
- The Saivite shrines of Kumbheshwara (circa 7century) and Someshwara (13th century) built by the Cholas.
It does not matter whom you worship, all the 4 temples are amazing architectural gifts from our ancestors. The Gopuram (entrance tower) of Sarangapani Temple is over 12 stories high. If one looks carefully (which I did) the Gopuram has some erotic sculptures which are exceedingly athletic and leave nothing at all to imagination. Very sporting guys, our ancestors !
Kumbakonam is famous for brass and bronze sculptures and I visited a godown (an old street house that was less than 7 Metres wide and nearly 100 Metres in depth) which was filled with these goodies. It reminded me of the lanes in Old Delhi where you buy Brass-ware made-in-Moradabad. (Incidentally, the old shopkeeper told me that they increasingly sub-contract work to Moradabad labourers, because Tamilian labour is so expensive).
Chola-icon hand-crafted by the sthapathi
Near Ramaswamy Temple, we visited the house of a sthapathi (a traditional sculptor / metal craftsman) and saw brass icons being made. Many of the sthapathis in this locality are hereditary sculptors but with structured training from the sculptors school in Mahabalipuram. A significant part of their course is studying ancient texts of Shilpa Sastra (a large part of it in Sanskrit); but the master craftsman we met was equally adept with CAD and e-commerce.He and some of his family members are national award winners and have commissions from patrons and religious establishments of all states (including the United States!).One can order custom made icons from the many traditional designs that they show you. A simple order can take a couple of weeks to execute and complex ones (costing lacs of rupees) can take several months.
The bazaar around the Kumbheshwara temple bustles with activity and one can buy all sorts interesting things. There are special shops which sell “Eeya Chombu” (literal translation: pot made of lead). Traditional South Indian Rasam is said to acquire a unique flavour when cooked in an Eeya Chombu. Unlike the city shops, they sell these pots by weight, not on per-piece basis. The curvaceous ones are more precious (a feminine trait?) because the surface area (and hence the weight) is more; the simpler shapes are cheaper per cubic centimetre of capacity. It took the accountant in me a few seconds to figure this out, but I lost no time at all in convincing my wife of the economics! We bought a medium priced one which had enough curves.
The next day, we went to a coffee mill to buy the famous “Kumbakonam” coffee-powder. We asked the coffee vendor what was the special ingredient that made Kumbakonam coffee “special”. His answer surprised me: it is not the material that makes it special, it is how you brew it!
Kumbakonam is a great place. My only regret was that I couldn’t locate the house where the greatest ever Tamil scholar, U.V.Swaminatha Iyer, lived …. the next time around , may be?
*Author’s note: This is a slightly edited version of the mail I wrote to my friends in 2010