The great Tamil Nadu road trip

Day 1: Our 4 day tour of Tamil Nadu started with the temple city of Madurai. It is situated on the banks of River Vaigai and was the capital city of the Pandya kings who though are mentioned in the Sangam literature ruled strongly from the 6th century to the 16th century. The City of Madurai was originally built around the Meenakshi temple with the rectangular streets that surround the temple named after the Tamil months of Aadi, Chithirai and Maasi and the direction they faced. Madurai is the oldest city in South India and has earned the nickname ‘Athens of the East’ given its rich heritage and culture.

Meenakshi temple at dawn, sunrise, Madurai, India
Madurai, Sunrise, Buy Print

Our day started at the Pazhamudircholai temple, situated 19km from Madurai on the Vrishabhadri hill. This is the sixth sacred temple among the Aru Padaiveedu (Six abodes) of Lord Muruga.

Muruga and Avvaiyar, Pazhamudhircholai Temple, Madurai, IndiaThis is where Muruga is supposed to have toyed with Avvaiyar, the grand old lady of Tamil literature and his ardent devotee. On her way to Madurai she stopped here for some rest when she noticed a young boy sitting on the branch of a ‘Naaval’ (a type of berry) tree and asked him to throw down some fruits. He asked her if she wanted some hot or cold fruits and her curiosity piqued she asked for some hot fruits. The boy shook the branch of the tree and the berries fell to the ground. As she picked up the fruits and blew on them to remove the sand, the boy playfully asked if the fruits were too hot to eat and advised her to blow a little harder. Avvaiyar realized that the boy had tricked her with his word-play and then realised that it was her idol playing with her. The questions then asked by Lord Muruga in this encounter with Avvaiyar and the answers given by her in verse are a big part of Tamil literature.

Azhagarcoil architecture, Madurai, India
Azhargarcoil, Tamil Nadu
An elephant at the entrance to the Azhagarcoil temple, Madurai,
Azhagharcoil Elephant

At the bottom of the Solaimalai hill, from this temple is the Azhagarcoil, a Vishnu Temple dedicated to Sundararajar or Kallazhaghar. This temple plays an important part in the legend of the city as Vishnu the brother of Parvati couldn’t attend the wedding due to a misunderstanding. Vishnu swore never to enter Madurai and thus is only present in this temple 21 kms from the city though every year on Chitra Poornima day, an elaborate procession is held on the river Vaigai with Vishnu bearing gifts travels to the Meenakshi temple to bless his sister and her husband. For this deity, Abhishekam is only done with water from a particular spring in the hills as it is believed that anything else will discolor the idol.

We headed back to Madurai and to the Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva (in the form of Sundareswarar) and his consort, Goddess Parvati (in the form of Meenakshi). The magnificence of this temple almost became world renowned with it being a strong contender for the modern Seven Wonders of the World contest. The mythological story tells us that a Pandya king, Malayadwaja Pandya was childless and upon performing a number of yagnas (austere penance and sacrifices) he was rewarded with a 3 year old girl who rose from the fire. He adopted her. The girl had three breasts and it was believed that she would become normal the day she met her consort. She became a powerful princess and while fighting in Mount Kailas she saw Lord Shiva and she immediately attained her true form of Goddess Parvati. Eight days later they were married and after ruling over the Pandya kingdom for a while, they settled in the Madurai temple as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar.

East Entrance - marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar, Meenak
Marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareswar, Meenakshi Temple, Tamil Nadu

The Siva shrine and the temple walls existed from the 7th century. The shrine of Meenakshi and most of the temple was built by Kulasekara Pandya beginning in the 12th century but the Nayaks added a lot of intricate designs during the 16th to 18th centuries. There are supposedly over 30 million carvings in the temple. The complex is dominated by the 12 towers or gopurams the tallest of which is 170ft high.

South Gopuram with the Golden Lily Tank, Meenakshi temple, Madur
Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, Buy Print

It will take days to completely tour the temple and admire all its majesty but the important points of interest apart from the two shrines are the Potramarai Kulam (The Golden Lilly Tank) which adds a sense of serenity to the temple complex at all times during the day, The Thousand Pillar Mandapam, which actually has only 985 pillars but each so uniquely carved and structured that when viewed from any angle the pillars would appear straight, Oonjal Mandapam (Hall of the Swing) and Killikoontu (parrot cage) where every Friday the golden idols of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are seated on the swing and hymns are sung, the Ashta Shakthi Mandapam and Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam both of which are fine examples for the pillar sculptures including the 110 pillars carrying the figures of Yazhi (an animal with a lion’s body, and an elephant’s head).

Mukkuruni Vinayakar, Meenakshi temple, Madurai, India
Mukurunni Vinayakar, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

The temple also houses the shrine of the Mukurunni Vinayakar, a large monolithic idol supposedly found when a nearby tank was being dug. Lord Ganesha is depicted in this idol with his trunk facing left as opposed to the right turning trunk of the Siddhi Vinayakar. The idol also shows Ganesha holding the broken piece of his tusk in one hand. Legend says that Ganesha broke his own tusk to write down the epic Mahabharata as the Sage Vyasa dictated it. Spend a few hours at the temple, admire the sculptures in the gopurams and within the complex, look at the painted ceilings and watch as the magic of the colors and the ancient art captivate you.

Gopuram sculptures, Meenakshi temple, Madurai, India
Gopuram sculptures, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

For lunch we visited the vegetarian restaurant in Hotel Supreme. The meals (thali) are large and tasty. Another option is Murugan Idli the chain that is reinventing the simple but very staple idli. During the lunch hours when all the temples are shut, we were entertained by Henk and Anand, fellow photographers, who took us on a walking tour of the markets of Madurai and provided us a with a quick look at the extremely polite and respectful people of Madurai.

People of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India  People of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Mariamaman Teppakulam Tank, MaduraiAround 4 when the temples reopen again, we first headed to the Mariamaman Teppakulam Tank built in 1946 by Thirumalai Nayak. This tank is connected by underground channels to the Vaigai river and there is a shrine for Lord Vigneshwara in the center. The popular float festival is held here every year in January-February. We then headed to the Thirumalai Nayak Palace built in 1636 also in the center of Madurai. The palace is famous for its grand white columns each with a 4m diameter, the impressive stucco-work on its domes and arches and the Sorga Vilasam (Celestial Pavilion) which is a large hall built without the support of a single rafter or girder.

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace, Madurai
Thirumalai Nayak Palace, Madurai, Buy Print

Though Thirumalai Nayak’s grandson selfishly ransacked most of the palace to build his own which he finally never did, the palace was restored partially by Lord Napier between 1866-72. There’s a daily sound and light show in the evening and is worth seeing though it is also under re-design now.

It is Vel lit up at night, Thirupanakundram, Madurai
Vel, Spear, Thirupparamkundram

As dusk approached, we visited Thirupparamkundram. One of the Aru Padaiveedu, it is carved in rock on the face of a mammoth hill and dates back to the 8th century. It is here that Muruga married Devayanai, daughter of Indra, after the victory over Surapadman. During the last days of the great battle between the asuras and the devas, Surapadman the asura who ruled supreme took the the form of darkness but Muruga quelled it with his shining Vel (Spear). Then Surapdman took the form of a monstrous mango tree and stood on the bottom of the ocean. Muruga hurled his Vel and split the mango tree one half becoming a cock and the other half a peacock. Devayanai was then presented to Muruga by Indra for his valor in the battle. The temple is a great picnic spot in the evenings, as the light fades and the large Vel is lit up on the face of the gopuram, and it is easy to lose oneself in its serenity. A visit to this temple also highlights the secularity of India, as there is a mosque atop another peak of the hill and at the bottom of the hill is a workshop where sculptures of Jesus and Mother Mary are made.

We headed back to Madurai, spent an hour back at the Meenakshi temple, and then ate dinner at the rooftop restaurant at Hotel Supreme overlooking the Meenakshi temple complex, had our dosa tasted by a very curious French girl, and then retired to our room in Hotel Park Plaza a very good hotel with prices ranging from 1700 to 2000 rupees per night and an extremely well trained staff.

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Day 2: Of the 4 days in our trip this was the most strenuous with the longest travel. Our aim was to leave Madurai and reach Kumbakonam passing through Karaikkudi and Thanjavur. We left early after our complimentary breakfast at Park Plaza.

Karaikudi is about 80 kms from Madurai, about 2 hours by road. Before we reached Karaikudi we stopped at Pillayarpatti at the the Karpaka Vinayakar Temple. This is one of the oldest rock-cut cave temples in Tamil Nadu. The idol is a 6 feet tall mammoth image of Ganesha and the temple itself dates back to the 4th century and is believed to have been built by the Pandyas though the architecture is similar to the rock temples of the Pallavas. The temple was expanded from the 10th to the 12th century and recently a lot of renovations are occurring.

Pillayarpatti at the the Karpaka Vinayakar Temple, Karaikudi, Ta
Pillayar Patti Temple, Karaikudi

From Pillayarpatti we proceeded to Karaikudi. This is the capital of the Chettinad region, home to the Nattukotai Chettiars or Nagarathars, a highly prosperous community with strong business acumen. P. Chidambaram, India’s finance minister is from here. In the 19th and early 20th century many migrated from this region and went to South East Asia. Upon their return they arrived with extremely high quality wood, especially Burma teak and built many houses. Today many of these grand houses are being used in TV serials.

Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, India
House, Karaikudi, Chettinad Region, Tamil Nadu, Buy Print

We first visited a friend’s family who own a beautiful and ancient house, built in 19th century in Kottaiyur about 8 km from Karaikudi. The architecture was typical of the area, with a huge open courtyard in the center with rooms all around it. The floor above followed a similar pattern. The doors were all adorned in intricately carved wood and the attention to detail could be seen in every corner of the house. There is also a famous and architecturally beautiful Sivan temple here in Kottaiyur, built in 1872 and is currently undergoing massive renovation.

As we wanted to head out to Thanjavur we toured the rest of the region quickly. We saw the house of 1000 windows, and then went to the Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan, a palace of outstanding Chettinad architecture built in the 19th century by Dr. Annamali Chettiyar, founder of the Indian Bank. The marble was bought from Italy, and the teak from Burma.

Maharaja Palace, Chettinad Palace, Kanadukathan, Karaikudi, Indi
Chettinad Palace, Karaikudi, Buy Print

Karaikudi is now also turning into a tourist destination especially for those seeking solitude and a love for heritage and though it is difficult to get the owners to sell their property some are being converted to hotels. The Raja Palace is one such and rooms are available for about $100 a day. What a bargain!

Click to see all photos and prints of Karaikudi

Day 2 continued: After an exciting morning in Karaikudi we drove to Thanjavur in the hope of seeing both the Thanjavur Palace and the Brihadeeswara Temple. On the south bank of the Cauvery, Thanjavur was the capital of the Mutharayars and Cholas when they were at the peak of their power. Thanjavur is a center of cultural activities. The Thyagaraja Aradhana is a festival held every year near Thanjavur where musicians from all over the country assemble to sing. Thanjavur is also an important site for the annual Natyanjali dance festival. The district of Thanjavur is also known as the Rice Bowl of India producing more tonnes of rice than any other district in India. The arts and crafts from this region are also hugely popular, bronze sculptures and Tanjore paintings. Thanjavur is about 3 hours from Madurai and an hour and a half from Trichy.

Thanjavur Palace, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Thanjavur Palace

We headed to the Thanjavur Palace first. As famous as it is, it is also dilapidated. The state of this palace is pathetic and made us wonder why nothing has been done to renovate and protect the great collection of historic parchments and paintings in the palace.

Thanjavur Palace, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, IndiaThe Palace, on the east main street is a series of large and rambling buildings of fine masonry, built partly by the Nayaks around 1550 AD, and partly by the Marathas. On the southern side of the third quadrangle is a vimana like eight-storey building, 190 feet high called the Goodagopuram. This was the palace watch tower and also the armoury of the Thanjavur Kings till 1855 A.D. The two Durbar Halls of the Nayaks and the Marathas and the Raja Sarafoji Sarasvati Mahal Library are the chief sights of the Palace. The Saraswathi Mahal Library has remorkable collection of about 30,433 Sanskrit and other vernacular palm leaf manuscripts and 6,426 printed volumes, besides a large number of journals. The library is the effort of the three hundred years of collecting by the Nayak and Maratha kings and it is sad to see all of this displayed in dull and unimpressive environments. Madamaligai is the six storey tower which rises from the palace roof beyond the Goodagopuram.

This Brihadeeswara Temple is one of India’s most prized architectural sites. The building that carries the main sanctum is known as the ‘Periya Kovil’. Completed in early 11th century by Rajaraja Chola I the temple also known as Rajarajesvaram and is remarkable for its stupendous proportions yet simple designs. It is for this reason that the temple along with the other Chola temples in the area has been inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Brihadeewara Temple, Thanjavur, Buy Print

The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and a huge idol 23 feet in diameter and 9 feet in height is present inside. The ‘Vimana’ of the temple is about 70 meters and is among the tallest of its kind in the world. It is also built such that at no time does the shadow of the vimana fall outside itself. The ‘Shikharam’ (crown) of Brihadeeswara temple is itself very large and heavy (81.25 tons) and has been carved out of a single stone and it is believed that the stones were lifted onto the tower by using an incline that inched up from 6 km away. The temple occupies an area of 800′ by 400′.

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Brihadeeswara Temple at Night, Thanjavur, Buy Print

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, IndiaThe Nandi (the divine vehicle of Lord Shiva) is a monolith measuring 12 feet in height, 19.5 feet in length and 18.25 feet in width, it weighs about 25 tons. The Nandi is seated in an ornately sculpted mandapam called the Nayak Mandapam. According to legend, the Nandhi was growing in size and people fearing that it might grow out of the mandapam, stuck a nail at its back to stunt the growth. On the ceiling of the Nandi Mantapam, are colorful frescos that are over 1000 years old and still maintain their magnificence.

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur

There are also a lot of sub-shrines like the Goddess Sri Brihannayagi shrine built by a later Pandya King in the 13th century. The shrine of Lord Ganesha is said to belong to the time of King Sarfoji II, the legendary Maratha King. This temple has Ganesha statues in seven poses. The Nataraja shrine, and Saint Karuvurar’s Shrine was built in honour of the Saint Karuvar who helped Raja Raja Chola consecrate the Mahalinga. There is also a shrine for Sri Chandeeswara.

Thanjavur is a historic city and one that requires days to explore. One evening wasn’t enough for us and we made sure we returned the next day.

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Day 3: After arriving at Kumbakonam late the night before we managed to get some sleep at Hotel Adithya. Kumbakonam is THE temple town and is known for the festival of Mahamaham which is celebrated every 12 years. Legend has it that every year all Gods headed by Brahma come for a dip in the waters of this tank. This is because once several rivers went to lord Shiva and complained that sinners washed their sins off in them. Shiva advised the rivers to bathe in Kumbakonam during Mahamagam so that not only would their sins be washed away, but the sinners would not leave behind any residue to contaminate the river. Since then crowds throng to this tank to wash off their sins. It is believed that people go to Kasi to wash off their sins, but the sins committed at Kasi can only be washed off in Kumbakonam. Kumbakonam gets its name from kumbha (pot) in which Brahma placed the seeds of creation. Lord Shiva set the pot afloat and claimed that the place where the pot came to rest would be the holiest place on earth. It came to rest here and Shiva dressed a hunter shot the pot and split the Amruth (nectar) and it into the Mahamaham tank. Kumbakonam is 40 km from Thanjavur, about 300 km from Chennai and is also known for its production of Betel Leaves. It is bounded by Cauvery river on one side and the Arasalar on the other.

Sarangapani Temple, Kumbakonam, India
The unbelievable Gopuram of the Sarangapani Temple, Kumbakonam, Buy Print

Our day started with the Sarangapani temple, right opposite to our hotel. Among the 108 temples dedicated to Vishnu or Divya Desams, temples sung in praise by the Azhvars (divine saints), this temple is next only to Srirangam and Tirupati.

Chariot being pulled by the elephant, Sculpture, Sarangapani TemThe temple itself is built in the form of a chariot as it is believed that Lord Vishnu came to earth in his chariot to marry Lakshmi who was doing penance by the tank, and then he and Lakshmi continued to stay in the chariot itself. The 12 stored gopuram is one of the largest and before the Srirangam temple was built, the largest in South Asia. It was built by the Nayak Kings in the 15th century. This temple is also one of the Pancharanga Kshetrams (5 Ranganatha temples). The gopuram has numerous sculptures and the first row is predominantly of erotic poses. The temple is large and will require more than an hour to enjoy.

Main Gopuram of the Sarangapani Temple, Erotic poses, Kumbakonam
Erotic poses, Sarangapani Temple, Kumbakonam

Next to the Sarangapani temple is the Someswar Temple, facing east with a 5-tier Gopuram at the entrance. The architectural style and element of this temple resembles the Dravidian Architecture of 13th century of the Chola period. Arumugam and Thenar Mozhi Ammal are the other deities located in this temple complex. Behind the Sarangapani temple, is a tank with beautiful panoramic reflections called the Hema Pushkarni and it separates this temple from the Kumbeshwara Temple.

Hema Pushkarni with Sri Kumbeshwara Temple, Kumbakonam, India
Hema Pushkarni, Kumbakonam, Buy Print

Sri Mangalambika Hotel, Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, IndiaLord Shiva took the Amruth in the pot, mixed it with sand and molded it into a Mahalingam and called it Sri Adi Kumbeshwara. Thus this is one of the most important temples in Kumbakonam. It covers an area of 30000 sq.feet and has four large gopurams, the tallest of which is 127 feet high and nine stories. Manthrapeeteswari Mangalambika is the lord’s Consort here. There is also a Navarathri Manatapam here that has all the 27 stars and the 12 Rasis artistically carved into one block of stone. The way to the temple is lined with stores selling bronze statues. There is a 98 year old restaurant called Sri Magalambika Vilas which has extremely tasty food and very hospitable owners.

We checked out of our hotel and proceeded to the Mahamaham tank. Every 12 years the Mahamaham festival is held here when Jupiter passes through the sign of Leo. It was last held in 2004. The devout believe that the nine sacred rivers of India appear here on Mahamaham day. We then proceeded to the Sri Chakrapani temple.

Chariot Hall, Sri Chakrapani Temple, Kumbakonam, India
Chariot Hall, Sri Chakrapani Temple, Kumbakonam

Sri Chakrapani has eight arms and the sculpture is inspiring. Brahma, Surya and Agni are shown worshipping the lord here. Legend has it that once Surya fought with Vishnu about who was brighter and Vishnu appeared in the form of a Chakra and put down the pride of Surya. The idol of Chakrapani also has a third eye like Lord Shiva. It is also strange that the Vilva archana which is done for Shiva is performed here for Lord Vishnu. The temple is a great example of early temple architecture.

Click to see all photos and prints of Kumbakonam

From the Chakrapani temple, we headed to Darasuram where the Airavatesvara Temple is situated. Darasuram is a small town near Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu state in southern India. It is known for the Airavatesvara Temple built by Rajaraja Chola II between 1146-63. The temple is constructed as if the whole temple is a chariot encased in a lotus floating on a lake. The vimana is 85 feet high. This along with the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur and the Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple is part of the Great Living Chola Temple inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Periya Nayaki Amman temple, Airavateswara temple, Rajaraja Chola
Darasuram Temple, Buy Print

Airavateswara temple, Rajaraja Chola II, 12th century AD, DarasuThe legend goes to show that Airavata, the white elephant of Indra, worshipped Lord Siva in this temple; so did also the King of Death, Yama. Tradition has it that the presiding deity Airavateswarar cured Yama himself (the God of Death) who was suffering under a Rishi’s curse from a burning sensation all over the body. Yama took bath in the sacred tank and got rid of the burning sensation. Since then the tank is known as Yamateertham. It gets its supply of fresh water from the river Kaveri and is 228 feet in width.

Markandaya holding on to the lingam, Darasuram, Airavateswara teThe temple is a treasure trove for art and architecture. The numerous carvings depict not only the gods and their stories but also daily life as witnessed in those days. There are depictions of all the Bharatanatyam poses, and many figures of women in gymnastic poses. At the entrance to the temple are two Dwarapalakas, Sankhanidhi and Padmanidhi. In front of the temple, there is a small mandapa, which can be reached by 3 steps in the form of a ladder. The steps are made of stones, which give different musical sounds when tapped and one can here all the seven swaras can be had at different points.

One needs many hours to truly experience the wonder of this temple and it is good to have a a guide explain the intricacies and the many carvings. Definitely worth a visit and should be on everyone’s itinerary.

Click to see all photos and prints of Darasuram

Pranava mantra, Swamimalai temple, Kumbakonam, India
Muruga teaching the meaning of OM to his father, Lord Shiva, Swamimalai Temple

After spending more than an hour here and wishing we had more we proceeded to the Swamimalai temple. 10 km from Kumbakonam this is one of the Arai Padaiveedu of Lord Muruga. It is here that a young Muruga taught the meaning of the mantra “OM” or the pranava mantra to his father Lord Shiva. The temple is beautiful and is situated on a hill. There are sixty steps to the top and each is represented by a year in the Tamil calendar. The deity is 6 feet tall and strangely there is an elephant rather than the peacock in front of the idol. Mythology says that saint Bhrugu before commencing an arduous tavam or penance, got the boon that anybody disturbing his mediation will forget all his knowledge. Such was the power of the penance that the sacred fire emanating from the head of the saint reached up to the heavens, and the frightened devas surrendered to Lord Shiva praying for his grace. The Lord extinguished the sacred fire by covering the saint’s head by his hand. With the saint’s penance thus disturbed the Lord became oblivious of all his knowledge and is said to have regained them by learning the Pranava mantra from Lord Muruga at this shrine.

East Road, Umyalpuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Umayalpuram, Tamil Nadu

From the Swamimalai temple we headed to Umayalpuram, a village on the banks of the Cauvery. We visited our friends and had a wonderful traditional lunch and also toured the fields, farms and the Cauvery banks. The village is only 2 km from Swamimalai and about 10 km from Kumbakonam. The main employment in the village is farming and thus the waters of the Cauvery river is most important to this village. Umayalpuram K Shivaraman, a ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’, one of the foremost mridangam players is from here.

Cauvery River, Umyalpuram, Tamil Nadu, India
Cauvery River, Umayalpuram

It is also the home of Krishna Bagavathar and Sundara Bagavathar, disciples of the saint composer Tyagaraja. It is they who saw to it that the building of the saint’s samadhi at Tiruvaiyaru was renovated and the annual commemorative rituals performed there for 52 long years. Umayalpuram went on to produce some of the great musical geniuses like Kodandarama Iyer, Panchapakesa Iyer, and Narayana Iyer who played the ghatam.

Annually a Sita Kalyanam Mahotsavam is conducted with great devotion and piety at Umayalpuram Sri Rama Mandiram during the month of July. This annual function is attended by many stalwarts in the field of music and dance. Over the last 4 years the festival has become a “must attend” on the calendar of an increasing number of devotees and performers. It is said that even the earth one walks upon in this village produces music.

Sugarcane workers, Umayalpuram,Tamil Nadu
Villagers, Umayalpuram

With half a day still remaining we headed back to Thanjavur and visited the great Brihadeeswara Temple. At the end of the day we headed into Trichy.

Click to see all photos and prints of Umayalpuram

Day 4: Our day began with the complimentary breakfast at our hotel, the Femina Hotel one of the bigger hotels in the city and popular among foreign visitors. It has several restaurants within serving both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. Having eaten we proceeded into Trichy, the fourth largest city in Tamil Nadu and one of the biggest railway junctions in South India. Trichy is also well connected by road to the other major cities and also has an international airport that has flights from Sri Lanka and the Gulf. Trichy lies on the banks of the Cauvery and being in the center of Tamil Nadu has always been the focus of many conquests. The early Chola kings had their capital at Woraiyur now a suburb of Trichy. Trichy is named after the three headed demon asura son of Ravana, Tirusiras or Trishira who is supposed to have done penance here and obtained many boons from Lord Shiva.

Thayumanaswamy temple and St.Joseph's college, Tiruchirapalli (T
Ucchi Pillayar Kovil on top of Rock Fort, Tiruchirapalli (Trichy
Rock Fort, Trichy

Our first stop was Rock Fort. From anywhere in Trichy one can see this gigantic rock jutting out from the banks of the Cauvery and it is now the most well known landmark to represent the city of Trichy. It is 83m high and is beleived to be one of the oldest rock formations in the world dating back to over 3 billion years ago. It is also believed that Lord Ganesha, settled on top of this rock when being chased by Vibhishana after tricking him to laying down the idol of Sri Ranganatha. Today there is a Ganesha temple called Ucchi Pillayar Koil on top of the rock. The temple can only be reached by climbing a set of 400 or more steep steps and along the way there is a cave temple with very beautiful carvings dating back to the Pallava period, around the 7th century. The temple offers wonderful panoramic views of the city. You can see St.Joseph’s College Church, designed as a smaller version of the Cathedral of Lourdes, from here. Former Indian President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam attended this college and so did my dad.

Natarajar doing the Thandava dance, Tiruchirapalli (Trichy)
Nataraja, Shiva in Dance form

Half way to the top there is another very famous temple called the Thayumanaswamy temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and carved right into the middle of the rock and is actually the bigger of the two temples. According to mythology, a pregnant woman named Rathnavathi who was in labor and in great pain prayed to God for help. Lord shiva takes the form of her mother and helps her in her pregnancy. Thus, the Lord was praised as “Thayum Ana Swamy” (The Lord who became a mother) and hence the name. There are numerous paintings on the ceilings and walls of this temple that are worth the climb. There is also a very interesting chain carved out of a single stone with as many as 5 links. Apart from the main shrines to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati there are also many smaller shrines. The entire Rock Fort complex will keep you occupied for many hours.

Pallava cave carving of Gangatharamoorthy, Rock Fort, Tiruchirap
Ancient Pallava carvings, Rock Fort, Trichy

From the Rock Fort we headed across the river Cauvery to Thiruvanaikaval or the Jambukeshwara Temple, believed to have been built by Kocengannan one of the early Chola kings about 1800 years ago.

Sculptures on the gopuram, Sri Jambukeshwarar Akilandeswari Temp
Jambukeshwara Temple Gopuram, Buy Print
Elephant, Sri Jambukeshwarar Akilandeswari Temple, Thiruvanaikoi
Jambukeshwara Temple Elephant

It is one of the five major Shiva temples (Panchabhoota Sthalams), representing five major elements – Fire, Earth, Water, Sky and Wind and this one is dedicated to Water. The idol here is almost submerged in water and during rainy season it does get submerged. According to Hindu mythology, a spider and an elephant, both extreme devotees of Lord Shiva were in constant argument over who was the better devotee. One day, the spider built a very big web around the deity which was under a Jambu tree to protect it but the elephant, not knowing this, poured water on it and cleans it up. This caused a war between the two and in the ensuing battle both were killed. The Lord then told them both of their equal importance and turned the spider into a great king and took the elephant onto heaven. The king then built many temples always ensuring that the deity can only be reached by a narrow passage and thus preventing an elephant to enter.

The idol in this temple is said to have been installed by Goddess Parvati herself and to this day the noon puja is performed by the priest dressed up as a woman. Amidst a lot of pomp the priest arrives dressed in a sari, performs the puja to the Lord and also to the sacred bull and then proceeds to the Parvati shrine only to emerge back as the manly priest portraying the impression that the Goddess had gone to perform the puja. The temple is also known as one of the hosts for the annual Natyanjali dance festival.

One word of caution for those who do not believe in the extreme customs and beliefs is to stay away from the sacred bull during the ceremony as even the urine is considered sacred and sprayed around on the worshippers during the puja.

From Thiruvanaikal we proceeded to the grandest and largest functioning temple complex in the world, the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, an island town bounded by the river Cauvery and the river Kollidam. The Angkor Wat complex is bigger but non-functional. The temple complex covers an area of 156 acres, has more than 6 miles of walls and has 21 gopurams the largest of which is 72m high.

Gopuram within the temple, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Sriranga
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

It is the first and foremost among the 108 Divya Desams, the holy abodes of Lord Vishnu. According to myth, Brahma the supreme creator received the idol of Lord Vishnu is the form of the Ranga Vimana and it was passed on from Brahma to Viraja, Vaiswatha, Manu, Ishwaku and finally to Rama.

Hanuman guarding the wall, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Sriranga
Hanuman, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

Lord Rama after conquering Ravana, gave the idol to Vibhishana, Ravana’s truth-abiding brother as a gift for his support for for fighting alongside him against his own brother. Vibhishana set out to take the idol to Lanka with the condition being that the idol never be placed on the ground till he reached his destination. The gods fearing that an idol of such importance would leave the land asked Vinayaka or Ganesha to help and he dressed as a cowherd offered to hold the idol for Vibhishana while he took a quick dip in the river Cauvery. Lord Ganesha promptly laid the idol down and and enraged Vibhishana chased and caught up with him only atop the rock but nevertheless was never able to move the idol. The idol was covered in jungles only to be discovered eras later by a Chola king who built the great temple around the idol.

A real horse, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Srirangam, Tiruchirap
Horse, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

The temple has also been a focus of invasions and plunder for many centuries beginning with Malik Kafur and his forces invading it between 1310–1311. The deity was taken to Delhi, but later returned to Trichy when ardent followers of the Lord performed for the ruler and convinced him to return the idol. However the daughter of the ruler, Surathani in love with the deity followed it to Trichy and is said to have attained moksha for her devotion in the temple. The Muslim ruler returned in 1323 as he believed his daughter was killed but the supporters of the temple managed to remove the deities and hide them before the invasion. Swami Vedanta Desika, instrumental in planning the operations during the siege of the temple, closed the Sanctum Sanctorum of the temple with bricks, thereby protecting the temple for generations to come. 13000 people laid down their lives in the ensuing battle and at the end, “Devadasis”, the danseuse of Srirangam, seduced the Army Chief, and helped save the temple. Decades later the idol was returned. During this time many idols were removed from the temples in the region and hidden and only during the last century was the cache found. Unfortunately no one knows which idol belonged to which temple thus the idols remain in the safe and are worshiped there everyday.

Intricate horse carving, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Srirangam, Stone dancer, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Srirangam, Tiruchirap

This temple is the only one of its kind for Lord Vishnu that was sung in praise by all the Alwars (Divine saints of Tamil Bhakthi movement), having a total of 247 “pasurams” (hymns) in its name. It is also here at Srirangam that the great Vaishnavite scholar Ramanujacharya preached and lived. The temple is also an architectural delight with the hall of 1000 pillars, the Horse mantapam, the many gopurams and shrines, and the thousands of stone carvings all showcasing the grandeur of the eras gone by. On most days, the prasadam served are treated to Chakra pongal (A type of sweety made with jaggery, pulses and rice), Puliyodarai and Thayir sadam (Rice with yogurt/curd) prasadam (offering) and it is a must eat. The temple shuts between 11:45 and 2 pm so one has to either arrive early or stay late to be able to fully enjoy the temple.

Lord Vishnu, Sri Ranganathaaswami Temple, Srirangam, Tiruchirapa
Lord Vishnu, Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Buy Print

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From the temple we headed back into Trichy, visited our relatives and had just about enough time to take a deep breath and picture our four amazing days of travel before we found our way to the railway station. By our last count we saw 18 temples, and each one was unique and captivating in its own way. This is definitely the best region and time for temple tours.