Inspiring Devotion in India (5) – Chola temples, Gopurams, Pondicherry and Mahabs

Tamil Nadu has some of the most well worshipped `Hindu temples in India.  I am not visiting all of the famous ones, but will visit the best.  First up we are heading to Thanjavur to see the Brihadishwara Temple. The landscape is lovely – Tamil Nadu is a lush farmscape of rice farms and luminous green in every direction. The road is part of the farm work, with farmers selling their produce road side (the best find today was cashews just picked, shelled and roasted) and more amusingly farmers using the tarmac to dry their corn. Mostly they used the side strip, but some enterprising ladies had put up some bollards and were using an entire half of the road, and directing traffic through a one way system

Bridhadishwara Temple at Thanjavur

Our first chola temple was the stunning Bridhadishwara. Impossible to capture the full site in pictures, the stone has a lovely hue. Built during the Dravidian civilisation, one of the few kingdoms to expand Hinduism beyond the boundaries of India. You enter through two very large stunning goparums/gates into a vast courtyard with one big temple and numerous smaller shrines. Photos weren’t allowed inside the inner sanctum but there was a very large queue of harmonious chanting pilgrims passing by Shiva’s lingam – which in this shrine was an impressive 4m high (his penis in crude terms, though in statue form it just an oval topped black rock). Outside the inner sanctum, there were smaller temples to other gods, and the Lakshmi shrine has some wonderful roof paintings. The vibe was generally very chilled and relaxed and it was a stunning building. My favourite so far in Tamil Nadu

Thanjavur Palace

Aah the lonely planet, sometimes you put crap in the guidebook so that people feel like there are things to see. This was one of those moments. LP recommended the Thanjavur palace as one of the top sights in Thanjavur – thought they do acknowledge it is a mixed bag of ruin and renovation. Honestly there was nothing to see you wouldn’t see in a temple elsewhere. Not worth the time unless you want to see a few books, some dusty manuscripts and some replicas of carving s you can see on a temple. I recovered my pep though by having a wonderful ‘meal’ at the Sree Ariya Bhavan – though it was hard to get them to stop filling my plate up with food and they were delighted that a foreigner was loving their food so much.

Airevatesvara Temple at Darasuram

After lunch we drove two hours to Kumbakonam and had a mini nap at the hotel as the temples are all closed between noon and 4pm. The CGH Mantra Koodam is the fanciest hotel in the region, and it was quite nice, (although the aircon didn’t work well, the hot water was erratic, and house keeping left my room unlocked – but this is India). We then went to see the Airevatesvara Temple at the Drasasuram which was lovely in the afternoon light. It was a small but perfectly formed temple, with stunning elephant carved staircases and horse drawn chariots.

Kumbakonam Gopurams

Kumbakonam central is famous for the Temples to a variety of different hindu deities. The main one is the Kumbeshwara for Shiva (apparently he made the lingam/penis in the temple himself), which had some politicians visiting and an elephant dancing (I felt sorry for the elephant). This was a very busy temple, and there is a festival coming up, so the workers were constructing a set of barriers to manage the queues to take a blessing at the lingam.

We also went to the Nageshwara dedicated to Shiva as the dancer (more on htat later). and the Sarangapani temple which is for Vishnu. As a foreigner I always expect the main temple to be under the big monument part, but actually these amazing Gopurams are literally just the gates to the temple, and the temple buildings themselves have quite low key roofs.

I had seen a lot of temples, so we called it quits as the sun went down. Had a quiet dinner at the hotel and a blissfully quiet night.

Gangaikondacholapuram – thats a mouthful

I had tea in the hotel gardens at 7am, and then a woefully disappointing dosa from the hotel restaurant.  Mr Raj arrived and we waved goodbye to Kumbakonam we headed off to for a morning of tempting.  First up the famous Gangaikondacholapuram which has the biggest Nandi statue in south India.  It was almost as lovely as Brihadishwara temple in Tangavur and was much less crowded.  Like most of the temples in the past few days, there was another of Shiva’s lingam.  Outside there were lots of beautiful carvings of Hindu gods, many of which I am coming to recognise – my favourite are Lakshmi (goddess of wealth with quite large boobs), Hamuman (the monkey). Ardhanarishvara (shiva as half man half woman), Pavarti and Meenakshi (the triple breasted warrior). 

Shiva is a dancer (sing it to the tune of ‘rhythm is a dancer’)

And then we went to Chidambaram to see the Nataraja temple.  Shiva apparently had a dance off with Kali here, and he won.   Shiva dropped an earring and managed to recover it with his foot, and Katie couldn’t replicate the move.  In his form of Lord of the Dance – Nataraja (though it does make me think of Michael Flatley).  Like Meenakshi in Madurai, the Nataraja has four enormous gopurams surrounding a huge complex with lots of shrines.  The inner shrine was full of priests, many of them talking on their mobile phones (they tuck them in the top of their lungis when they are not using them), and a lot of energetic devotees.  Unlike Meenakshi this is much less organised, much less maintained and has a lovely chilled out vibe.   The gopurams with Shiva dancing on the side were stunning, and easier to take photos of than at Meenakshi, and I very much enjoyed the 108 carvings of the Tamil classical dance moves on the tunnel wall of one of the gopurams.

I stopped at the reliable A2B for a dosa and a tea, and we drove the two hours to Pondicherry on the bumpy highway.   

Grooving in Pondicherry

Entering Pondi is like entering a different world. First up there are about 30 liquor stores in the first 100m of the town border. Apparently Tamil Nadu’s tough licensing laws are more relaxed here. It is a lovely town that was a French colony until 1954 with a lot of old french colonial architecture. There is a famous ashram here so the town has more tourists than i have seen for a while – a mix of the spiritual hippy types (still in tie dye shirts :-)) who I assume are here for the ashram, and quite a few upmarket french people who stay at the many colonial mansion hotels. I stayed at the lovely Maison Perumal – my room wasn’t ideal as was street facing, and some chanting devotees woke me up at 4.30, but the food was the best I ate in India.

Mr Raj my driver reluctantly accepted that Ma’am was more than capable of walking and had the afternoon off. I had a delightful afternoon strolling around town and people watching. The architecture is lovely, though there are still open sewers and quite a few homeless people in evidence – we are definitely still in India. Strolling the promenade is clearly the main past-time and there were lots of people out in the afternoon. In true Indian style, many people were swimming (or at least bathing) directly in front of the signs prohibiting swimming.

The hotel put on a fun early evening cookery demonstration which was fascinating – the amount of oil, spice, salt and chilli that went into the lentil curry was astounding. I then had dinner in the restaurant – a masala fried calamari which was the best thing I ate in India. Then I had a chicken curry. The food here is a lot spicier than I have eaten in the rest of India. Elsewhere I have been asking for spicy and it has been fine. Here I asked for the chicken to be medium spiced and it still blew my head off. I had to succumb to adding the curd and then I ordered a lassi to cool down. In a former french colony with street names still in French, it was an appropriate place to watch the world cup football final. Sadly France lost.

At 4.30am the energetic devotees woke up me with the chanting outside my window as they passed by. Sleep was elusive so I made a coffee and then headed out at 5.30 for a dawn walk around town. The promenade was very lively – lots of meditation, people doing yoga, and taking their morning constitutional. I walked for a couple of hours enjoying the people watching and the buildings. That worked up a decent appetite for breakfast at the hotel – excellent sourdough toast, croissants and coffee. But I also made space for pongal (an indian comfort food, like a dry version of congee, rice mash with chillis and peppers – its delicious).

Mr Raj picked me up at 9 and we headed up the coast enjoying the sea and backwater views on the road to Mahabalipuram (‘Mahabs’)

Pallava in Mahabs

Mahabs was the port for the seventh century Pallava Kingdom (whose main temples at Kanchipuram I am heading to next). Most of the temples here were early rock carvings, cave temples and the Five Rathas monuments which were each carved from individual (enormous) rocks. The town looks bigger on the map than it is. It is an easy stroll between sites – starting with the Rathas which were dug out of the dirt and sand 200 years ago. The highlight is a large elephant.

Next up the shore temple, a small but lovely two towered temple which is the earliest significant free standing temple in Tamil Nadu.

Most of the monuments are then clustered around Mahab HIll. Arjuna’s penance is a highlight of carvings on a huge rock face – primarily dedicated to Arjuna fasting on one leg so that Shiva will grant him a weapon. There are two cave temples near by with excellent early carvings

Entry to the ‘hill’ proper requires a ticket (which works for Shore Temple and Five Rathas also). It is an easy stroll to cover all the main sites, the highlight being the Trimurti Cave Temple with an excellent shiva’s lingum, the Ganesh Ratha – carved from a single large rock, and the Mahisamardini Mandapa near the lighthouse.

I meandered but had still finished seeing everything in two hours, so we had lunch at the A2B and Mr Raj dropped me at the Ideal Beach Resort north of town (which was misnamed – but was an ideal example of a hotel which hadn’t been maintained since the 70s). I had a stroll along the beach, read my book and prepped for a fun evening of calls.

Just a few more temples in the Pallava Kingdom of Kanchipuram

My final day in India before returning home for a couple of weeks, and yup, it is time for a few more temples. This time to Kanchipuram – the home of the Pallava dynasty from the 6th to 8th centuries.

First up the Varadraja Perumal temple – a Vishnu shrine with a lovely unpainted gopuram. I wasn’t allowed in the central shrine but I took some fun pictures outside, including with a lovely pilgrim who wanted a picture with the foreigner.

Then we went to the Ekambareshwara Temple – the shrine of the earth which was enormous. Mr Raj was cross that I hadn’t been allowed ot see inside the srhine at the Perumal so he decided to come with me and take me inside. That didn’t work, and to be honest I really don’t mind not going inside if non Hindus aren’t welcome, but Mr Raj was quite offended on my behalf as his guest. The pilgrims get free food, and the groups of men are very peaceful and friendly. We were there for some part of a festival, though we couldn’t quite figure out what was going on

Final stop was the Kailasanatha – the oldest temple in town which is quite and peaceful. There was a group of women there who asked me to join their group photo and then one of them told me off in a friendly way for visiting a shrine and not being in a sari – i thought i was doing quite well in a kurta and a dupatta, but clearly may need to up my game.

Two hours later I was in the mad metropolis of chennai. I am staying at the Westin, which is lovely and full of foreigners – so I got a lot of nice feedback from the staff for being a well dressed foreigner. I spent the afternoon buying some more local clothes for when I come back in a few weeks (the Phoenix mall was good) and extending my airtel sim for a few months (again easier to extend than to faff around buying a new sim at Ahmedebad airport when i arrive at 3am from Dubai in a few weeks). I walked to do my errands and always find it amusing that so few middle class people here walk anywhere (admittedly I saw two dead rats and at least five guys urinating, so perhaps that is not for everyone).

I am very excited to be coming back in a few weeks to tour Gujarat and see the famous Kite festival of Ahmedebad.

Chennai, December 20, 2022

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