Saturday, November 29, 2008

Diwali tour part 6 – Kumbakonam

Long long ago, during the great deluge, Brahma collected all the seeds of creation in a pot of nectar, which floated down the water, and finally came to rest at one place. The story goes on, with Siva appearing as Kiratamurthy (hunter) along with his wife Parvati, and shattering the pot with his arrow. The nectar spilled over, creating a pool, and the broken pot took the form of a Shiva lingam. Since the lingam originated from a pot (Kumbham), and was the fist form taken at the beginning of creation, this lingam came to be known as Adi Kumbheswarar and this place is known as Kumbakonam (Kumbham = pot, and Konam = crooked, for the pot broke crookedly). The pool formed by the nectar is the holy Mahamagham tank, where, it is believed, the nine holy rivers come to take a bath and purify themselves once every 12 years. This is celebrated on a grand scale, and thousands and thousands of devotees arrive here to have a dip in this sacred pond on that day.

For a small city, Kumbakonam has an amazing number of temples, most of them huge. On almost every road, you come across at least a couple of them. It is not surprising, for there are a number of temples connected to the legend of the pot of nectar, and there are others which are related to the visions and experiences of the large number of holy men who came to this holy city in their quest for knowledge or liberation.

There are six major Shiva temples in Kumbakonam, all related to the pot of nectar shattered by Shiva as Kiratamurthy. These are:

1. Adi Kumbeswarar – the pot of nectar itself,

2. Nageswarar – the bilva leaf in the pot fell here,

3. Someswarar – the thread tying the pot (also known as Kudanthai Kaaronam)

4. Abimugeswarar – the coconut in the pot,

5. Gautameswarar – the sacred thread (also called Yagnopaveeteswarar), and

6. Bana Pureeswarar – it was here that Shiva broke the pot with an arrow (Baanam).

(An interesting thing about this legend is the similarity with the legend of Gokarna, and the lingam that Ravana brought from Kailas. For more details, see my blog on Gokarna)

There are other Shiva temples which are not directly connected with the pot of nectar, but important nevertheless for other reasons. Some of them are:

1. Kasi Viswanathar – an Abhimana Sthalam, temple of Nava Kannigais

2. Kalahastheeswarar – this temple has a unique idol of Shiva as Nataraja, dancing the Ananda Tandavam along with his wife Parvati.

This is not only a city of huge and popular Shiva temples, but there are also an equal number of temples dedicated to Vishnu. The most important of these are:

1. Sarangapani Temple

2. Chakrapani Temple

3. Ramaswamy Temple

4. Varaha Perumal Temple

5. Varadaraja Perumal Temple

There are also other Vishnu Temples in Kumbakonam, such as:

1. Gopalaswamy Temple

2. Veda Narayana Perumal Temple

3. Koorathazhwar Temple

4. Sara-Narayana Perumal Temple

5. Ramanujar Temple

6. Navaneetha Krishna Temple

7. Pattabhi Rama Temple

8. Srinivasa Perumal Temple

9. Krishnan Kovil

There is also a temple to Ganesha which is on a first floor level, accessible by steps, known as the Ucchi Pillayar Temple.

Here, I have mentioned about 23 temples which I came across while searching for information about Kumbakonam. This is by no means a complete list of temples in this holy city, for it is believed that there are more than 80 temples here, all of them ancient, with a story of their own.

Here are the temples we visited, in the order in which we visited them.

Kasi Viswanathar Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
This temple is very close to the Mahamagham tank, and the lingam here is a swayambhu. The importance of this temple is the belief that it is here that the Nava Kannigais (nine maidens representing the nine rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kaveri, Godavari, Narmada, Krishna, Tungabhadra and Sarayu) arrive to bathe in the Mahamagham tank once every 12 years. The interesting thing about this temple is the presence of a sanctum dedicated to the Nava Kannigais, as soon as we enter the temple. Here, it is believed, one must first offer one’s respects to them before going on to pray to the main deity Kasi Viswanathar and his consort Visalakshi.
From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Nageswarar Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The main deity here is Naganathar – the lingam is a swayambhu, believed to be the bilva leaf in the pot of nectar, which was turned into a lingam by Shiva himself – and his consort is Periyanayaki.

The most interesting thing about this temple, something that both Samhith and I liked very much was the presence of 3 statues – the king, the queen and the prince, all on elephants, adorning the entrance to one of the sanctums.
From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Sarangapani Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
This must surely be one of the most beautiful temples in Kumbakonam. We visited this temple late in the evening, and were in a hurry to get back, but given the choice, I would have spent hours, or maybe the entire day here.

The temple is shaped like a chariot, complete with wheels, and elephants and horses pulling it. The beauty of the temple architecture has to be seen to be believed.

The main deity, Sarangapani, is actually the Utsava Moorthy, holing a bow in his hand (in Sanskrit, saranga means bow). His consort is Komalavalli Thayar.

The Moolavar (deity in stone) is Pallikondar – reclining on Adisesha, with his head at a higher level than his feet. He is flanked on both sides by Sridevi and Bhudevi, and the Seven Rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri) pay obeisance at his feet.

While circumambulating the temple, there is a sort of basement, or underground sanctum of Patala Venkatachalapathy.

Ramaswamy temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
This temple, known as the southern Ayodhya, has beautiful idols of Rama and Seetha depicted in coronation posture. Lakshmana stands next to Rama, holding a bow and arrows; they are flanked by Bharatha holding an Umbrella and Shatrughna holding a fan. This is the only temple where I have seen idols of Rama, Seetha and Lakshmana along with Bharatha and Shatrughna.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

The walls of the temple are decorated with beautiful paintings depicting the Ramayana. Every scene is painted, right from the birth of Rama to his coronation. I wish I had time to study each and every painting in detail, but failing that, I succumbed to temptation, and clicked a couple of photographs of the paintings. They will remind me to make another trip to this beautiful temple, at leisure.

Adi Kumbeswarar Temple

The main temple of Kumbakonam is truly huge, and the entry is through a long corridor which seems to be the main marketplace of the city. Even at 8PM, this market was bustling, and the beautiful brassware and earthen toys on display beckoned to me, as did shops filled till the ceiling with glass bangles. Truly, Kumbakonam deserves much more time than I had estimated!

The main deities Adi Kumbeswarar and Mangalambigai are housed in separate temples, each of which is beautiful, and have been much written about. There is not an inch of pillar or wall which is bereft of decoration. The kind of sculptures seen here are truly wonderful.

Someswarar Temple

The main deities here are Someswarar and Soma Sundari Amman. This is believed to be the place where the thread tying the pot fell. However, the most interesting thing about this temple is not the main deity, but the idol of Muruga, which is in the outer Pragaram of the temple. This idol of Subrahmanya is unique, for he is depicted wearing Sandals (padukas), something not seen anywhere else. This is one of the less-visited temples, and the priest was only too eager to show us around. He was delighted when we asked him about the Padukas, for he said that not many people knew about it. Incidentally, it is thanks to Outlook Traveller and their book of 101 Pilgrimages, through which I came to know about this.

Chakrapani Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
This is another interesting temple in Kumbakonam, and the last one we visited. Here, the main deity is Chakrapani, depicted in the Sudarshana Chakra, with eight arms, holding different weapons in each arm. His consort is Sudarshanavalli Thayar. Brahma, Surya and Agni are depicted as worshipping the lord. According to legend, Surya once competed with Vishnu to decide who was brighter. Vishnu appeared in the form of a Chakra and put down the pride of Surya.

The best way to visit all (or at least most) of these temples is to hire a local auto or a small car. Avoid using huge cars or Tempo travellers to go around the city, for they are sure to get stuck somewhere, and lose valuable time. We visited all these temples within 2 ½ hours in an auto.

Where to Stay and Eat

There are a number of good hotels in Kumbakonam, and many agree to bookings on the phone without any down payment. We stayed at the Kasi International, where we have stayed earlier too, and had a wonderful experience. The hotel is good, and worth every penny we pay for the rooms. Incidentally, we found rooms in Kumbakonam cheaper than the ones at Mayiladudurai or Thiruvarur. The hotel has a good network of auto and car drivers, who took us around the city at a reasonable rate. Right opposite the hotel is the Mami Mess, where the lady of the house herself cooks food, and has helpers to serve guests. This is one of the best places to eat at Kumbakonam, for the food is authentic south-Indian, home made, wholesome and affordable. This was one place where Samhith enjoyed eating, for he found all his favourite food here – idlis, puris, pongal, and even milk, just the way he likes it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Diwali Tour Part 5 – Pancha Aranya Sthalams

Kumbakonam is a town which is filled with, and surrounded by temples. What is amazing about these temples is that each and every one of them is huge, and has an interesting story to go along with it. While some are historical, and others are based on mythology, there are some which are based on the geography of the area they are placed in. One such group of temples is the Pancha Aranya Sthalams. Aranyam means forest, which is what this whole area must have been, once upon a time. Even today, in spite of so much development, electricity and water reaching the most far flung areas, this part of the land bears vestiges of the days gone by. Somehow, when we visit these temples, we are reminded of the jungles which once surrounded them. The five temples which collectively make the Pancha Aranya Sthalams are


The Thirukkarugavur temple is a famous one, for it is the abode of Garbharakshambigai, the goddess who protects the womb of women, and also the foetus. The sanctum of the goddess is perennially full of people praying for a child, or for safe delivery of children, or cure of diseases related to the uterus.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Thirukkarugavur Temple

According to a legend, a rishi and his wife, Vedhika, lived in this town, and were ardent devotees of Shiva and Parvati. The rishi once left town for some days, leaving his pregnant wife behind. Tired after the household chores, Vedhika fell asleep. Just at that moment, another rishi arrived, and asked for water. Getting no response, the rishi got angry and cursed Vedhika, due to which she developed a terrible disease, which would also affect her unborn child. The goddess Parvati couldn’t bear to see the unborn child suffer and she transferred the foetus to a pot, where it was fed milk through Kamadhenu. Thus, she protected the unborn child throughout its term, and brought the child out safe when the rishi arrived home. The blessed couple requested that the goddess remain at that place and bless other couples in the same way. The Devi is thus known as Garbha-Raksha-Ambigai in Sanskrit, and Karu-Kaatha-Nayaki in Tamil, both of which mean – the One who protects the womb.

The main deity in this temple is Lord Shiva as Mullaivananathar – the lord of the Jasmine forest, or Mullai Vanam in Tamil. This lingam was originally found at this place, which was then a forest of jasmine creepers. The lingam has the marks of a jasmine creeper over it, which can be seen during the deeparadhana. Traditionally, this is this is the first temple to be visited amongst the Pancha Aranya Sthalams.


Avalivanallur is the second among this group of temples. It was once situated in a forest of Trumpet Flower trees, called Pathiri Vanam in Tamil. The temple is an ancient one, and according to the sthala puranam, lord Shiva was worshipped here and at Haridwaramangalam nearby during his avatar as Varaha – the boar.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Avalivanallur Temple

The legend of the temple is an interesting one. The priest of this temple was an ardent devotee of Shiva, and soon after his marriage, decided to visit Kashi. Leaving his young and beautiful wife behind, he proceeded north for the long and arduous journey to Kashi. Completing all the rites and rituals required, he returned after a number of years. Meanwhile, his wife fell sick, and her sister arrived to nurse her. When the priest returned home, he saw two women in the house – one sick and covered with rashes, looking rather ugly, and the other a beautiful girl, resembling his wife. He immediately assumed that the beautiful one was his wife, and proceeded to the river to bathe and get ready. Lord Shiva was the only one who realized the mistake his devotee had made, and hastened to correct the error. He appeared in front of the priest with Parvati, informed him about his wife’s illness, and explained that the beautiful one was his sister-in-law, not his wife.

Since the lord acted as a witness, he is named Sakshi Nathar, and the goddess – Soundarya Nayaki. Behind the lingam in the sanctum is a panel with the image of Shiva and Parvati on the Rishabha Vahanam, the form in which they gave darshan to the priest. The priest, his wife, and his sister-in-law are all immortalized in the temple, with their statues adorning the pragaram along with the other deities such as the Navagrahas.


Haridwaramangalam is barely 3 Kms from Avalivanallur, and shares almost the same sthala puranam. It is believed that lord Vishnu in his avatar as the wild boar – Varaha – went deep into the earth searching for the feet of Shiva. Finally, not finding it, he gave up and returned at this place and meditated on Shiva. I read on the net that there was a pit (now closed) outside the sanctum which is believed to have been made by Vishnu while coming out and hence the name – Hari-dwara-mangalam.

The temple is evidently an ancient one, dating back to the days before Raja Raja Chozhan. Most of the original structure has fallen into disrepair, and the temple is being renovated, but one can still see some parts of the original structure like an arch here and there. Of course, once it is all painted over, it might be difficult to notice such things unless you are expert, but I suppose that is the price we pay for renovation and modernization. This temple was once in a forest of Vanni trees (called Sami in Sanskrit), and today, there is a lone tree standing in the temple premises, testifying itself as the Sthala Vriksham.

The deity here bears the name of Pataleswarar (originating from the story of Varaha burrowing into Patala – the netherworld) and Alangara Valli.


Alangudi has attained fame due to its position as the Guru Sthalam among the Navagraha temples. It is also a part of the Pancha Aranya Sthalams, and is, interestingly, also among the Parivara Sthalams, which I shall come to, in due course.

While the deity who attracts the maximum crowd at Alangudi is Guru Bhagavan, or Dakshinamoorthy, the main deity in the temple is Shiva as Aapatsahayar – the one who aids his devotees in troubled times. The goddess is named Elavarkuzhali. In the temple premises is housed a smaller sanctum to Ganesha, who, it is believed killed the demon Gajamukhasuran at this holy place, and is called ‘Kalangaamal Kaatha Vinayakar’. The forest associated with this temple is the Poolai Vanam, or forest of Silk Cotton trees, though there is not a single one left in this much-visited temple any more.


From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Entrance to Thirukkollambudhoor temple

The last temple in this group is Thirukkollambudhoor, located in a forest of Bilva trees. The deity, is, not surprisingly, named Bilvavaneswarar, and the goddess is Soundarya Nayaki.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Main Gopuram - Thirukkollambudhoor

The temple is quite well maintained, and has been recently renovated. As in most of the less – visited temples, the priest leaves after completing his regular pujas. Thankfully, the temple has a young boy who acts a watchman, and spends his time sitting and studying on the temple premises. While Sankar went in search of the priest to his home nearby, the boy kept us engaged, telling us about the temple.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Gopuram Detail - Thirukkollambudhoor

To me, the most interesting thing about this temple was the presence of 3 life-size statues facing the deity, just outside the sanctum. It was dark when we entered the temple, and we walked straight inside, without looking around us. When I turned back to see if Samhith was behind me, I got the shock of my life when I saw what I thought was a man standing in front of a pillar. It was only after a whole minute that I realized that it wasn’t a real person, but just a life-like statue of a man over 6 feet tall. Once the lights were on, we realized that he was one of three – apparently, he was the Chettiar (merchant) who paid for the temple to be built, and he was accompanied by his wife and younger brother. It took all my determination to control myself from taking photos inside the temple pragaram, something I have consciously tried to stick tour, during this whole trip. I have photographed the gopurams and outer pragarams, taking photographs inside only when specifically allowed to do so.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

How to visit the Pancha Aranya Sthalams

This was a question I asked myself again and again as I struggled to make a plan for visiting these temples. It took a lot of time and research on the net to find out where these temples were exactly, and how to approach them. Let me share the results of my search, as well as our experience with all of you.

The first temple to be visited is Thirukkarugavur, which is 22 Kms from Kumbakonam, and 7Kms from Papanasam. Traditionally, this temple is to be visited early in the morning, between 5:30 and 6AM.

The second temple in the list is Avalivanallur, to be visited between 9:30 and 10 AM. Avalivanallur is 13 Kms W of Alangudi, and 3 Kms from Haridwaramangalam.

Haridwaramangalam should be the next temple on the itinerary, to be visited between 11AM to Noon. This temple is about 13 Kms W of Alangudi, and is just about 10mins drive from Avalivanallur.

Alangudi is fourth on the list, being 17Kms S of Kumbakonam, 35 Kms E of Thanjavur and 6Kms from Mannargudi. Visit this temple after lunch and a siesta, between 5:30 and 6PM.

The last and final temple is Thirukollambudhoor, 7Kms E of Alangudi, on the road to Thiruvarur. This was the temple we had most trouble finding. This temple is most easily approachable from Kumbakonam via Kudavasal and Selur. Another option is from Thiruvarur via Koradacheri and Selur. If you are going to take the traditional route and visit the temples in order (unlike us), you can reach this temple from Alangudi via Needamangalam and Koradacheri. This temple is to be visited between 8-8:30PM.

These are all beautiful temples, and worth spending a whole day visiting them. Not only is it auspicious visiting them in a day, the temples are beautiful and interesting enough to spend an hour or two at least at each temple. So, the next time you are in the vicinity of Thanjavur or Kumbakonam, add these temples to your itinerary, and don’t forget to let me know what you thought about them!!!!!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Diwali Tour Part 4 – Thiruvaiyaru

Thiruvaiyaru – literally (in Tamil) the holy land of five rivers is about 15 Kms from Thanjavur. The five rivers are the tributaries of the Kaveri and form a sort of network around this town, giving it its name. The main temple here is to the lord who shares the name with the town – Panchanadeeswarar in Sanskrit, or Ayyaarappan in Tamil.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thiruvaiyaru Temple Gopuram

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Detail of Ravana Lifting Kailas on his ten heads, on the Thiruvaiyaru Gopuram

The story of how the temple came into being is an interesting one. A king’s chariot once got embedded in the ground. While digging around the wheels of the chariot to get it out, they chanced upon a lingam. A wise minister advised them to dig further, but carefully, and they were rewarded for their efforts with the idols of the goddess Dharmasamvardhini, Vinayaka, Muruga, and also a Nandi. To top it all, they also found a Siddhar (saint) deep in meditation underground. The saint advised the king to build a temple at the same place, and also told him to dig under the hoofs of the Nandi where he would find the wealth needed for building the temple.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

The temple is huge and beautiful. The pragaram surrounding the sanctum of Panchanadeeswarar has some lovely wall paintings, of which you can see a sample below.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Temple paintings

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Outside the temple (the back entrance), is a shrine to Alkondar, a form of Shiva, where He is shown as a fearsome deity, wearing a garland of scorpions and other poisonous creatures, and is believed to be the form in which He punished Yama, the god of death. There is a huge pit outside the sanctum of Alkondar, where kungilyam (Benzoin) is offered to fire. It is believed that the smoke from the Benzoin removed the fear of death, and also wards away death due to the bite of poisonous creatures.

Saptha Sthaanam Temples

The Thiruvaiyaru temple is one among a group of seven, collectively known as the Saptha Sthaanam temples. These temples are unique, for they are related to the marriage of Shiva’s foremost attendant, Nandi, and the part that Shiva played in this marriage.

Nandi was born to Siladha Maharshi and performed great penance to his favoured deity, Shiva. Shiva was so pleased with his worship, he not only made Nandi his prime attendant, He also got him married. The marriage itself took place at Thirumazhapadi near Thiruvaiyaru, and Shiva took his devotee around these seven temples as part of the Sapthapadi. Every year, this occasion is celebrated in April/May with the idol of the Lord starting out in a beautifully decorated glass-encrusted palanquin from Thiruvaiyaru, and taking a round of these seven villages. At each village he is received at one boundary by the Lord of that village and accompanied by him to the next village, where he is received by the next one. In such a way, he completes a full circle and returns to Thiruvaiyaru. These seven temples are:

1. Thiruvaiyaru

2. Thiruchotruthurai

3. Thiruvedikudi

4. Thirupponduruthi

5. Thillaisthanam

6. Kandiyur

7. Thiruppazhanam

All these temples are situated around Thiruvaiyaru (see the map) and it is possible to visit all these temples within 4 hours.

From maps
Map of Saptha Sthaanam Temples

Most of these temples open at around 7AM and close at Noon. Some of these temples are scarcely visited, and hence the pujari tends to leave after completing the puja. At some temples, the main sanctum remains locked, but the deity is visible from outside. In any case, at most of these temples, the priest lives just outside and he is usually most eager to open up the temple and perform deeparadhana, and is delighted with even the most meager offerings. In fact, this is just what we had to do at many of the less visited temples, and I am glad to say that we were successful in most cases it was in just a couple of temples that the priest was unavailable, having gone away somewhere, that we were unable to have darshan of the deity.

We started from Thanjavur after a sumptuous breakfast at Vasantha Bhavan, and reached the first temple on our list, Kandiyur, at about 8:15AM.


Kandiyur has the distinction of being one among two sets of temples – the Saptha Sthaanam temples I was talking about, as well as one of the Ashta Veeratta Sthalams – temples where Shiva has shown his power by overcoming someone. Here, at Kandiyur, he crushed the ego of Brahma by plucking off his fifth head. He is therefore known as Brahma Shira Kandeeswarar. Hence the name – Kandiyur. Brahma also has his plac at this temple. He is seated with Saraswati, facing Shiva, in a separate sanctum on the left, seen when we do a pradakshina. The Devi here is Mangalambigai.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Kandiyur Temple

An interesting thing about this temple, and indeed, many other temples in this area (Thanjavur, Thiruvaiyaru and Kumbakonam) is the position of the Navagrahas. Generally, the Navagrahas have Surya in the middle, with the eight others facing in different directions. However, in many of these temples, all the eight face Surya. Another interesting thing is that Surya is accompanied by his wives, Usha and Sandhya.

Take a look at the glass – encrusted palanquin which escorts Panchanadeeswarar through this village. Of course, it needs cleaning, but from what I have heard, it is a stunning sight to see the lord in the palanquin!

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip


The next temple we visited was Thiruppoonduruthi, which is about 20 minutes drive from Kandiyur. Here, the deities are Pushpavaneswarar and Soundaryanayaki. The temple has a number of Nandis, staring from the outer pragaram to the sanctum, and all them, are slightly displaced from the centre. It is believed that they moved so that Shiva could see the approach of Thirugyaanasambandhar, one of the saivite saints.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thiruppoonduruthi Temple

Another interesting thing about this place is that there are seven gopurams in all, and all of them can be seen from one particular point on the outer pragaram. There is a board to that effect in the temple, and trying it out, we were delighted to see all the seven gopurams from one place!


Our next destination was Thiruvedikudi, again about 20 minutes from Thiruppoonduruthi. This was among the most dilapidated temples we saw that day. In fact, for a moment, we wondered if we were at the right place, but yes, the name of the deity written on the wall was correct, and the glass palanquin was there too, but in much worse shape than the others we had seen.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thiruvedikudi temple

The deities here are Vedapureeswarar and Mangayakarasi. While we were doing the pradakshina, we were amazed to note the number of lingams installed in the pragaram. Samhith, who is, at present, fascinated by lingams, started counting them, and soon, I too joined him. We were amazed that there were in all, 135 lingams there! While it was sad to see that the Dakshinamoorthy idol was missing, we saw a beautiful stone idol of Lakshmi Narayana standing by itself in a corner.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Most of our temples are full of such contrasts – beauty in abundance and scarcity of funds and maintenance. Ironically, it is in such almost broken down temples that we can see a glimpse of the beauty and grandeur of days gone by, without the hands of modernity showing their influence.


Our next halt was at Thiruchotruthurai, barely 15 minutes away from Thiruvedikudi. Here, the deities are Othavaneswarar and Annapoorneswari. According to the legend, it was here that the food for the marriage of Nandi was prepared by Arularar and his wife. The lord presented them with an Akshaya patram for this purpose, and this story is immortalized in the temple with images of Arularar and his wife holding the Akshaya patram outside the main sanctum of the deity.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thiruchotruthurai temple

This is quite a large and well maintained temple, and in the outer pragaram are groups of lingams, replicas of those in the Saptha Sthaanam temples, Pancha Bhoota Sthalams, etc.


Thillaisthanam was the next temple we visited, about 20 minutes from Thiruchotruthurai. Here, the deities are Nei aadi appar and Balambigai.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thillaisthanam temple entrance

This was the first temple where we met with failure, for the temple was closed, and the priest was nowhere to be found. The only people at the temple were workers who were engaged in cleaning and renovating the temple. They were busy having breakfast, and the smell of hot pongal permeated the whole temple. To their credit, they asked us to join them while one of them went searching for the absentee priest. We excused ourselves and spent the time looking at the Kaveri passing by, while Samhith amused himself with a goat and kid. After about 15 minutes of waiting, it became clear that no one had any idea where the priest would be, and, with no knowledge of our waiting for him, he would not be in a hurry to return. Regretfully, we turned our van towards Thiruvaiyaru.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Samhith and Sandhya play with a goat and its kid

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The bathing Ghat onthe kaveri at Thillaisthanam

Since I have already described the Thiruvaiyaru temple which we visited next, I shall pass it, and go on to the last temple in the list – Thiruppazhanam.


Thiruppazhanam is about 15 minutes from Thiruvaiyaru, towards Kumbakonam. Here too, the temple was closed, and the priest was out, but when we approached his wife, she quickly sent a child with the key, and we were able to have darshan of the lord, even though it was close to noon, when most temples are closed. This temple, we were told is open from 8 AM to Noon, and from 4-6 PM. During this time, even if the priest is out, someone or the other will be available to open up the temple, which is kept locked for safety concerns.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thiruppazhanam Temple

Here, the deities are Aapatsahayar and Sundaranayaki. Here, it must be mentioned that all the lingams in the Saptha Sthaanam temples are of the same size and shape, except the one at Thiruvaiyaru, which is a swayambhu, and much smaller and of a different shape. In fact, the lingams are so similar; they might have been made together by the same hand, as if from a single mould.

We were surprised to see a group of youngsters playing volleyball in the grounds of the temple, and Sankar could not resist joining them for a game. We had time to spare, as it was noon, and we had nothing to do except have lunch, for which we were going to the maternal home of my mother-in-law, which was nearby.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Sankar extreme left) joins in a game of volleyball

While we were through with the Saptha Sthaanam temples, which were the first group of temples on our list, these were by no means all the temples we visited near Thiruvaiyaru. Here are some other temples in the vicinity.

Other temples around Thiruvaiyaru

Thyagaraja Samadhi

Thyagarja – the composer-saint needs no introduction. Even those who have no knowledge of carnatic music could not have failed to hear about him, especially as the Thyagarja aaradhana is celebrated every year with such pomp, musicians coming from every part of the country to sing his compositions and pay tribute to him, and now broadcast live on TV.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Entrance to Thyagarja Samadhi

The Samadhi is on the banks of the Kaveri, a simple structure which brings peace and solace to the heart of a visitor. There is a vast expanse of open land, which is where the yearly Aaradhana takes place. Inside, apart from the saint’s Samadhi are the idols of Rama, Lakshmana and Sita which were so dear to him. This is a place worth a visit, for I shall always remember the peace and calm it radiated, even in these days.

Ganapathy Agraharam

This is an ancient Ganapathy temple dedicated to Ganesha, 12 Kms from Thiruvaiyaru. It is a quaint temple with interesting sculptures. We reached the temple just after it opened for the evening, and there was no one to guide us around. We ourselves noticed a few interesting sculptures and bronze idols, but it was only after I returned and was looking up the temples we visited for more information about the things we had noticed, that I read about an interesting idol of half- Ganesha and half-Hanuman. Such an idol is unique, and if you ever visit this temple, make sure you do not miss it.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Ganapathy Agraharam Temple


Thingalur is one of the Navagraha Sthalams, well known for its shrine of the Moon God – Chandran. Here, the main deity is Kailasanathar and his consort, Periyanayaki. I shall write in detail about this temple when I write about the Navagraha Sthalams in Thanjavur, so look out for that post!

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Thingalur temple

This temple is very near Thiruppazhanam, being adjacent villages. Here is an interesting story concerning this place, and a Shaivite saint, Appoodhi Adigal.

According to the legend, Appoodhi Adigal lived in the village of Thingalur and was a great devotee of Shiva. He heard the greatness of the saint Thirunavakarasar and became a great devotee of his, though he had never met him. He named everything he owned after the saint, including a place where water was provided for travelers. One day, the saint Thirunavakarasar passed through this place, and stopped for water. He was amazed to see his name on the board, and asked people for an explanation. When Appoodhi Adigal learnt that the saint had arrived, he happily invited him home for a meal. While his wife prepared the meal, Appoodhi Adigal served the saint and asked his son to gather the plantain leaves to serve food to the saint. While the son was gathering the leaves, he was bitten by a snake and died on the spot. After some time, Appoodhi Adigal went to look for his son, and found him dead. Controlling his emotions, he carried on as if nothing had happened, continuing to serve and saint, washing his feet and serving him food. Once the food was served however, the saint called for the family to have food with him. Adigal and his wife stood there, uncertain about what was to be done. When the saint repeatedly asked for his son, Adigal had no choice but to tell him the truth. The saint was shocked and he sang one of the thevarams then and there to the lord, and when he called for the son, the child appeared as if he had woken up from a nap! Such was the devotion of Appoodhi Adigal that he not only got his son back; his family was able to share food with the saint whom they idolized. Till today, there is a place between Thingalur and Thiruppazhanam where travelers are provided water, still named after the saint Thirunavakarasar.


Kapisthalam is midway between Thiruvaiyaru and Kumbakonam, about 14 Kms from each. Here is one of the 108 Divya Desams, or Abodes of Vishnu.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Kapisthalam temple

This is considered to be the site of the Gajendra Moksham (the story where a king, reborn as an elephant, is caught by a crocodile, actually a cursed demi-god. When the elephant recalls his previous birth and calls out to Vishnu as Aadi Moolam – the cause of everything in the world – Vishnu arrives on Garuda and uses his chakra to cut off the crocodile’s head, giving moksha to the elephant – Gajendra – as well as the crocodile). The lord is therefore called Gajendra Varada Perumal, and his consort is Ramaa Mani Thayar. The Utsava moorthy has two consorts – usually Sridevi and Bhoodevi – here called Potramarai Thayar and Shenbaghavalli Thayar.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Vishnu arriving on Garuda- kapisthalam temple gopuram

This is one of the Pancha Krishna Sthalams – where the saints saw visions of the idols as Krishna. The other four are at Thirukannapuram, Thirukannamangai, Thirukannangudi (all around Thiruvarur) and Thirukovilur (near Vriddhachalam).

An interesting thing about this temple is that the idol of Garuda opposite the sanctum of the deity is accompanied by an idol of Rahu. Hence, this is also considered a Rahu Sthalam.

The idol of Hanuman in this temple is accompanied by an idol of the sage Parashara. It is believed that when the sage visited this temple, he wished to have darshan of the lord delivering his Bhakta, Gajendra. The lord obliged him by giving him a vision of the Gajendra Moksham episode here, and this story is immortalized by the statue of the sage.

This is no means a complete list of the temples in this area. This is only an account of the temples that we visited during this trip. While searching for information regarding these temples, I came across a huge number of temples here, each of them having something interesting about them. Once I complete this series of articles about the temples I have visited, I plan to write a series of articles about the temples that I would like to visit. Meanwhile, my blogs are getting longer and longer, and I am spending more and more time writing. So I shall call an end to this one, and start the next one as soon as I get the mood to type once again. Goodbye till then……………

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Diwali Tour Part 3 – Thanjavur

Thanjavur – it was a jungle when the Cholas decided to make it their capital. They not only built what was to be their signature-temple here, they made it the centre of their cultural and literary activities. Their temples were built not just for prayer and religion, but they were also the seat of the fine arts – music, dance, sculptures and paintings – and also their records, which were etched on the walls of these temples. The Brihadeeswara temple (now popularly known as the Big Temple) was built by Raja Raja Chola. His son, Rajendra Chola celebrated his conquest of the north right up to the Ganges, by building Gangai Konda Cholapuram. The grandson, Raja Raja II is credited with the grand temple at Dharasuram. These 3 generations of Cholas greatly enriched this land now known as Thanjavur. Later rulers, the Pandyas, Nayaks, and the Mahrattas left their own marks on this city, making it what it is today.

We made two visits to Thanjavur during this trip – the first was on the 27th October, when we visited only the Brihadeeswara temple. We returned for a second, more leisurely visit on 2nd November, when we visited the museums and other temples. For simplicity, I shall now deviate from my diary style of writing day to day, and focus on temples according to their group or according to the city.

Brihadeeswara Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Fittingly known as the Big Temple, this is truly an architectural marvel, which has now been included in the list of World Heritage structures. Much has been written about this temple by others who have studied it in more detail than I have, so I shall stick to writing simply about what I saw there.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Our first glimpse of the Brihadeeswara Temple

At the very first glance, the temple attracts you with its stone spire reaching to the sky. It is even more impressive with the knowledge that the top of this gopuram is made with a single stone, which was carted to its place with much effort and ingenuity.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The temple dome made of a single stone

The carvings on every piece of stone, from the first gate to the last bit of stone on the roof have been made with love and precision, not to mention immense talent.

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The entrance

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The second gate

The first thing you notice when you enter the temple is the immense Nandi, who stands guard over the abode of his lord. According to folklore, this Nandi was carved outside the temple premises, and was brought to the site only when the temple was ready. Imagine the anguish of the architect when he realized that his piece-de-resistance would not enter the gate of the temple it was built for. The entrance way was much too small for a Nandi of this size, and they seemed to have no option other than breaking down the archway, which none had the heart to do. Thankfully, the king had a brainwave, and he invited the Karur Siddhar (the saint who had selected this site for the temple, as well as advised him about building the temple) to find a solution to this problem. The saint simply brought a paste made of some herbs and applied it on the Nandi. Imagine the surprise of all when the Nandi, made of solid stone, passed through the archway without injury to itself or the arch!! As a tribute to the saint, there is a temple dedicated to him in the temple pragaram.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The huge Nandi

One of the interesting things about the temple is the insight it gives about the king. Raja Raja Chola has been said to have been generous, and he must have had a great urge to leave something behind to distinguish him. This is apparent from the size of the temple and its grandeur. This grandeur is further reflected in the size of the idols. Every idol here is huge, to put it simply. The size of the Nandi can be estimated from the photographs. The Shiva lingam in the main temple – Brihadeeswara is much, much bigger. So are the idols of the other gods, such as Shanmugha, or karthikeya, the 6-faced son of Shiva. Here is a photo of the temple dedicated to Shanmugha.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The Shanmukha Temple

On the roof of this temple is this carving of a monkey appearing to climb the roof, which is remarkably lifelike.

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Here are a few more carvings from the gopuram of the main temple. The first one is of a westerner who happened to arrive when the temple was being built. He was deeply impressed by the architectural talent of the Cholas and the king too was impressed by the foreigner who showed so much interest. This man and his wife are immortalized in stone on the gopuram of this temple.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The foreigner.....

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.....and his wife.

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From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

Temple Timings: 7AM to Noon, 4-8:30PM

Other Places to visit

Punnainallur Mariamman Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

This temple dedicated to Mariamman, a manifestation of Shakti, is about 5Kms from the Brihadeeswara temple. This is also one of the temples built by Raja Raja, as a sort of guardian deity of this area. The road to the temple leads us along a canal of the Kaveri, which is called ‘sagaram’ or sea. According to folklore, one of the Chola queens, who had never seen the sea wanted to sail on the sea, and experience the waves. At the same time, they were afraid of the sea itself, because of its unpredictability. After much consideration, the king hit upon an idea – he decided to build a canal from the Kaveri River, lining it with stones in such a way that when the queen went by in a raft, the action of the punt resulted in artificial waves.

This temple is much frequented by locals, for the deity is said to be extremely powerful, and is credited with healing powers. Sundays especially are extremely crowded, but special darshan tickets for Rs.5/- are available, which speed up the darshan time considerably.

Temple timings: 6AM-8:30PM

Kothanda Rama Temple

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip

The Kothanda Rama temple is very near the Punnainallur Mariamman temple. According to a legend, after a victory, Raja Raja was gifted 4 huge Saligramam stones by a ruler from the north. Not wanting to keep the stones as they were, he ordered them to be carved into idols of Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and Sugreeva. Interestingly, it is Hanuman who always occupies the fourth position with Rama, Lakshmana and Sita. This is probably the only temple where Sugreeva fills his place. Of course, Hanuman is in attendance here too, but in the form of the Utsava moorthy along with the others.
The idols alone are worth a visit to this temple, for the beauty with which they have been carved has to be seen to be believed. As one stands in the sanctum, one feels as if Rama and Lakshmana will walk out at any moment!
Just outside this temple is another one dedicated to Hayagriva, the god of learning. The idol of Hayagriva, the horse faced lord is small, but is perched on a temple reached only by a staircase. At one time, this was probably a part of the larger Rama temple.
From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The Hayagriva Temple

New Mariamman Temple

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This is one of the newer additions to the city, a temple built with the idea of bringing almost all the gods under one roof. To me, a new temple doesn’t seem as attractive as any of the older ones, but Samhith enjoyed this temple a lot, especially since the gopuram had a huge lingam and an image of Parvati praying to it. He was even more impressed at the carvings of the Dashavatarams, and Nava Durgas inside the temple. This is a nice temple, but certainly not in the league of the other temples in the area.

Bangaru Kamakshi Amman Temple

This is a temple in the heart of the city, where the image of the goddess Kamakshi is in pure gold. The idol is said to have been originally brought from Kancheepuram during the Muslim invasion of the city

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Bangaru Kamakshi Amman Temple along with two adjacent temples

Adjacent to the Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple are three other temples – the Vijaya Rama Temple, the Navaneetha Krishna Temple and the Pratapa Veera Anjaneya temple. All these are fairly big temples, considering that they are in the heart of the commercial par of the city, and are calm and peaceful, certainly worth a visit.

Also worth a visit is the Samadhi of Kongana Siddhar, one of the 18 Siddhars, saints who attained salvation.

Saraswati Mahal Palace and Museum

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
Museum Entrance

The palace of the erstwhile Mahratta rulers of Thanjavur has been converted into a museum, displaying many beautiful statues in stone, brass and bronze. One can climb right to the top of the tallest tower, from where one can get a good view of the whole city. It is also possible to climb the bell tower for a fee.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The Palace Dome, which can be climbed

Different sections of the palace have been converted to museums displaying a variety of articles, but what is lacking is a uniting factor. Every section has its own entrance fee as well as camera charges, which finally drains ones purse.

From Diwali 08 - Thanjvur Trip
The entrance to the Saraswati Mahal Library

The durbar hall is worth a visit for the exquisite paintings and sculptures. One can imagine what the place would have been like at the height of its glory!

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The Durbar Hall

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A Painting on the wall of the Durbar Hall

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The ceiling of the Durbar Hall

Thanjavur Specials

Thanjavur is famous for the paintings with gold foil and semi precious stones, which have come to known by the name of the city – Thanjavur Paintings. These paintings are available at the store in Saraswati Mahal. To get a feel of how these paintings are made, you can go to the South Street (Therku Veedhi), where you can visit one of the antique shops or visit one of the dealers who works from home.
Thanjavur “Thalai aati bommais” – dolls which nod their heads – are another specialty of Thanjavur. These are available outside the Brihadeeswara temple as well as the Punnainallur Mariamman temple.

Thanjavur is a fascinating city that makes you want to spend more time there. We spent just about a day there, and though we managed to see most of the important things around, it was like we were just getting a feel of it. I yearn to go there again at my leisure, and spend hours looking at the Big Temple. I also wish I had paid more attention when my mom painstakingly taught me to read and write Tamil. Today, though I can speak Tamil fluently, I can only read with an effort, and cannot write at all. If only I knew to read Tamil better, I would be able to read all the wonderful manuscripts and books at the Saraswati Mahal library.

As we moved to the other cities and temples on our itinerary, it was with a silent prayer to God that he would bring me back here at least a second time…….
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