Train number 16232, Mysore-Mayiladuturai Express lived up to its reputation of being late at Bangalore’s Carmelaram station, where we marched around the platform, to keep the mosquitos at bay. No amount of odomos seemed enough! This was an all-girls trip (all was two of us), and we were more than excited to be on one sans husbands and kids.
A Bharatanatyam dancer by profession, I was to perform at the 18th Natyanjali Festival in the Adi Kumbeshwarar Temple in Kumbakonam and my friend, who was more familiar than me with Kumbakonam and the local language, Tamil, was more than happy to come along.
The night on the train was fun, devouring our packed dinners and discussing everything under the sun. We didn’t sleep too well thanks to passengers boarding at 3 a.m. and shouting out their seat number at the rate of 7 per 20 seconds (Yes! My friend actually counted). I doubt it helped them find their seat any faster, but it sure ensured we were woken up.
The Indian railways got us to our destination, Kumbakonam Junction on dot the next morning. A sunny morning, with a promise of more sunshine welcomed us.
The temple town of Kumbakonam is in Tamil Nadu’s Tanjore district where you are sure to find an ancient temple every half kilometer! In the course of my trip, I came across some corners and streets of the city that belied the huge, magnificent temples that they housed.
Day 1 - Sarangapani & Someshwar Temples
A quick bath and breakfast done, we were ready to take off at 8 am on a “before-the-sun-gets-too-hot” temple tour. Our first destination was the Sarangapani Temple.
A 5-minute auto ride from Madathu Theru Pillayar Koil Street brought us to the doors of the 2000 year old Vaishnava Divya Desham, also one of the five Pancharanga Kshetrams (Temples, on the banks of Kaveri River, where Lord Vishnu is in the reclining form). Few steps into the temple, we were transported into a world very different from the one we had just exited. Here, the sounds of silence and peace, at once calmed down our bodies and mind. The stone pillars and the stone floor beneath our feet seemed to energize us. The fact that there were only a handful of visitors at that time, made the experience fulfilling. The pujari took his time going about his routines and enthusiastically showed us the Lord in his reclining form. We felt blessed.
Just next door to the Sarangapani Temple, was the Someshwar Temple. A quaint, little temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was interesting to note that the Sarangapani and Someshwar temples shared a common wall. We seemed to be the only visitors in that temple. To be able to sit before the Lord in silence for a while was something I could do there. I hadn’t been able to do it in smaller or crowded temples.
Day 1 - Adi Kumbeshwar Temple & Natyanjali
We then headed to the Adi Kumbeshwar Temple, so that I could have a look at the stage where I would be performing later that day. The road leading to the temple was lined with shops on both sides, tempting us as we walked past. Assuring the shopkeepers that we would stop by on our way back, we headed straight into the temple to be greeted by the temple elephant just outside the main entrance. I wasn’t as enthusiastic as my friend was, to get blessed by the elephant. With a lot of coaxing by my friend, I finally gave in! It really was not as scary as I had imagined.
The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva, who is worshipped in the lingam form. His consort, Parvati is worshipped here as Mangalambigai Amman. It is believed that the town got its name from the legends associated with the Kumbeshwar Temple.
We prayed that we have a good performance there. Our prayers were answered, because that evening, I thoroughly enjoyed performing. The starry sky, the Gopuram in the backdrop, the lighting, the stage, its location-facing the Lord, the music, everything fell in place perfectly. The connection I felt with the Lord of Dance while on stage, was simply soul satisfying and this performance will stay in my heart for many years to come.
Day 2 - Uppiliappan & Thirunageshwaram Naganathar Temples
Early next morning, we headed to the Uppiliappan Temple, in Thirunageshwaram, 8 km from Kumbakonam. And yes, our cab was an Ambassador!
Uppiliappan is considered to be the elder brother of Tirupati Balaji. The temple was beautiful, with a lovely garden behind the main sanctum. The sounds of birds and the serenity of the place beckoned you to stay on for a while longer. We then set out to the Tirunageswaram Naganathar Temple close by. This is a temple associated with the Navagraha or nine planets, specifically Rahu. The temple complex was huge with four gopurams (gateway towers) and numerous shrines (those of Naganathar, Goddess in the form of Meru, Rahu). It is believed that Shiva was worshipped here by many serpents (Adisesha, Takshaka) that led to the name of the place as Thirunageshwaram.
Walking through the huge temple complex made us really hungry and on our driver’s advice, we relished a sumptuous South Indian breakfast at a nearby hotel, Uppili Bhavan. The filter coffee there is an absolute “don’t miss”.
Day 2 - Konerirajapuram & its Nataraja
Our next destination was Konerirajapuram, a village, 25 km west of Kumbakonam. For me, it was a first visit to a village in the south of our country. Before we went into the village, we decided to see the Shiva Temple. The Chola Dynasty queen of King Gandaraditya Chola, Sembiyan Mahadevi was instrumental in building this temple around the 10th century.
For a Bharatanatyam dancer, the dance form of Lord Shiva is highly revered. And a swayambhu (self-manifested) 4.5 feet tall panchaloha (mixture of 5 metals) statue of Nataraja, with a mole under the left arm and a sword-cut on the lifted left leg was not to be missed! The legend behind the mole and the sword cut is a story best heard from the simple and enthusiastic temple priest during your visit.
The time we had just didn’t seem enough to take in the entire temple. The frescos, the innumerable bronze statues, the sculptures, the inscriptions, the gopurams – there was so much to see. Everything seemed to belong to a bygone era. The stillness, the serenity of the temple transported one back in time. As did the main street (agraharam) of the village. The houses were extremely charming, sharing a common wall on both sides, open to the sky in the living area and at the back, where the wells were placed.
We met my friend’s grand aunts, most of them well into their 80s. They were so thrilled to have us drop in. I felt totally welcomed in spite of not understanding much of what they spoke. Quenching our thirsts with coconut water brought to us by our enthusiastic hosts, we started back to Kumbakonam.
Back in Kumbakonam with couple of hours at our disposal before packing up and leaving for our 6 pm train to Bangalore, we decided to walk around the shopping areas.
There are exquisite brass shops near Adi Kumbeshwar Temple from where you can pick up lovely statues. Bharatanatyam accessories were in plenty in the shops lining the entrance of the Temple, as were iron kitchenware.
And of course, one does not leave Kumbakonam without buying coffee powder.
5.30 pm saw us back on the platform of Kumbakonam junction, waiting for train number 16231 this time.
We picked up our dinner from the railways canteen counter on the platform. Their puri masala and dosa tasted yummy on the train, we wished we had packed more.
Day 3 - Back in Bangalore
We were back home and into our routines by 6 a.m. the next morning, with a weekend trip that would always make for a wonderful memory.