Tamil Nadu


Madurai enjoys the sobriquet ‘Athens of the East’ and stands on the banks of the Vaigai river. We drove down from Kodai and found it a comofrtable journey despite the heat.

The story goes that a king of Madurai was childless for a long time. He prayed rigorously and was granted a three-breasted girl (an avatar of Parvati). A divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear as soon as she fell in love. The girl grew into a brave and beautiful princess, won many battles and lost her heart to Shiva. Her third breast disappeared and she was married to Shiva. They came to be known as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar– the main deities of the Madurai temple.The temple could be as much a historian and architect’s delight as it is a religious believer’s.

Ruled by many, it was the capital city of Pandya Kings and they built the Meenakshi-Sundareswar Temple. Then Alauddin Khilji’s men plundered it and after a while it went to the Vjaynagar kings. Their Governors- nayaks- “naikars” took charge and restored/enhanced the glory of the shrine.

The city was originally like a set of concentric circles – with the Madurai Meenakshi temple at the center and the streets around it are named after Tamil months. There are five entries to the temple but the east one is preferred ( possibly because it leads to the Goddess’ sanctum). I wonder how Lord Sundareswarar or Shiva feels about being second to his wife. The Meenakshi idol is beguiling with a parrot and bouquet, so I am sure she knows how to appease him.

Spread over many acres, you can see the 12 colossal towers of the temple – Gopurams- beckon you from almost anywhere in the city. They represent the various directions. To the western & uninitiated eye the gopurams with the idols numbering over 1000 each, may appear kitschy with the over powering colours and clutter even. But it will leave everyone mesmerized. And as kids are wont to do, counting the tiers of a Gopuram will leave you with a strained neck! The Southern Gopuram is the tallest at 160 feet and the only one that may be climbed.

Apart from the Shiva and Meenkashi shrines, you cannot miss the gigantic Ganesha called Mukkurini Pillaiyar. One of the Nayakars unearthed this idol elsewhere and erected the same here.  Dwarapalakas, apsaras, various other gods adorn the temple walls. There are colourful murals depicting celestial weddings. The ceiling art include Vaishnavite themes as well. The Musical Pillars, the thousand pillar hall, various mandapams, the old stump of the Bilva tree, the God of Delivery, are all worth seeing and have some myth related to them.

And there is the Golden lotus tank. Huge corridors border the tank and it is surprisingly kept dry and fairly clean for the amount of footfalls it gets. The corridors are said to have been the meeting ground for the Sangam poets. Any literary work was judged by throwing it into the tank. Only if it did not sink was it considered worthy of attention! A case where the writing material would have been more important than the written matter!

The Meenakshi temple is open to public from 5 am-1 pm and from 4 am to 10 pm

Also go here

What began as a sanatorium by an American Mission in the nineteenth century, is today, a rather untarnished hill station- possibly South India’s more scenic answer to Matheran.

It is off season now by definition- but a boatman explained that the weather in Kodai is great all year through, from cool to cold. The off season comes from lack of holidays and therefore lack of visitors! This was a blessing since we did not have to contend with long queues and unruly crowds while sight seeing.

We were 13 of us, including 5 kids. The gang from Blore joined us at Kodai road station. We set off in a mini bus, a 3 hour journey to Kodaikanal. Halted en route for fruits and corn ( ensure you try the pears, star fruit, avocado, tree tomato and raamphal, a variation of custard apple)

We stayed 3 days, 2 nights and that was just about right.

Being such a large gang we settled for the Sterling Lake view rather than the Carlton ( a more stately 5 star hotel) . There seem to be many other good options to choose from anyway including home stays.

The Sterling property is really nice and comfortable that too since we got the rooms with kitchens attached. While the intention is not to do full fledged cooking, coffee, noodles are easy access what with little children around. The property is full of flowering plants and you would love to walk despite the steep inclines.Sterling offers the usual mix of a children’s park, just about acceptable dining fare, and interactive games including the ubiquitous housie( tambola) each evening.

There are cycles available on hire. Near the lake, there are a lot of horses to choose from as well. Since we were so many, we took a tourister.

Any travel book will tell you all the various points with their old worldly names- Coaker’s walk, Green Valley, Echo Rock, Dolphin Nose, Bryant Park, Moier Point, etc and waterfalls and the Kurinji Temple that you could see. It has not been raining enough in Kodai which is why the waterfalls were not in their full glory- a sore point for me specially since I love waterfalls.

Among the do-not-miss places are the Pillar Rocks…. They even have a cross at the peak that a father-son duo put up there. The vast and gorgeous pine forest’s claim to fame is the many movie songs shot there so we did the rounds of the trees and took snaps as well Bollywood style.

A 500 year old Jamun tree still stands tall and yields fruit as well and close by you will see countless pear trees.

There is Devil’s kitchen, a cave where in complete access is denied since people have lost their lives in it, but this could have been intriguing. It was the one that Gunna starring Kamal Hassan was shot in.

The mandatory boat ride in the main lake, was enjoyed by all of us with the mist hanging over often. Life jackets are not provided. There are boat races three times a year- one for outsiders, one for the Kodai schools and one for the boatmen. You can have the paddle boat to yourself if you wish but we opted for one with a boatman since we were not sure about Anushka’s response.

Plastic has been banned but it is not very well enforced as you can see by the lake bank. And there has been a stay order on the lake “clean up” machine since it does not do a good enough job.

Onto food. While there is a Punjab Dhabaa, a restaurant near Foodworld and a nicely named Rasoi, the one we went to was a quiet, almost desolate little Patel joint for very homely Jain/ Rajasthan food with fluffy hot phulkas. There is an excellent pastry shop near the bus stand.

And a very unassuming cheese store which can teach you a lot about the subject without going to Switzerland. It is just opposite Savitri- Gemini Ganeshan’s house. As you would have noticed there are a lot of “cine ” connections in Kodai.

The must buys are dry fruits such as figs, cashews, walnuts, raisins and spices, cheese and tea. And of course home made chocolates. Also native to Kodai are the hand made earrings which you can bargain down to Rs 10 a pair. Makes for an excellent gift.

I had written about a visit to this old and lovely Chola temple at Dharasuram, on my old fiction blog, but now that I have a dedicated travel blog, I thought I would bring it over here. For those who haven’t read it before, here it is…

null

Dharasuram, a quiet place on the edges of noisy Kumbakonam, is the site of an ancient temple of the Cholas. This is one of the Big Three Chola temples, the other two being the temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. I visited this place on a sunny afternoon when there was no one else around here. A 12th C temple built by Raja Raja II, this temple is dedicated to a form of Shiva called Airavateshwara – Shiva worshipped by Indra’s elephant, Airavata. The Archaeological survey of India and the Temple board have worked out an amicable compromise here – the temple board takes care of the garbha griha alone, while the rest of the complex is well maintained, thanks to the ASI.

null

On all four sides of the complex run raised corridors, which are likely to have been ornamented in a different age and time. Only some of these remain, like a pannelled wall which you can see above – these are the Nayanmar saints singing the praises of Shiva.In the centre of the complex stands the garbha griha surrounded by a splendid Mandapam. The Mandapam has many pillars, all of these carved and decorated with images of gods and goddesses, singing and dancing women, and many miniature sculptures, including a ganesha an inch and a half tall.

null

The Chola artists certainly had a different conception of the human body, and the contortions that it can be twisted into. Somehow this whole concept of “illusions” or “trick sculptures” seems to have been popular. I saw this kind of thing in Konark as well, a mingling of images, so that the viewer is lured into following the sculpture more closely, like a puzzle, figuring out who the limbs belong to!

null

Another one here…What exactly is that animal?

null

And they didnt hesitate to use the temples like a kind of vehicle too, to express the ideas of the age. The ASI guide informed us that this sculpture here, the lion devouring the elephant, was meant to be a symbolic representation of Hinduism triumphing over Buddhism. Buddhism at the time had a profound influence and was posing a serious threat to Hinduism with its promise of liberation from caste.Interesting to think that eight hundred years down the line, much the same thing is being repeated. Depressingly, caste still rules, and conversions to Buddhism still often happen not due to any interest in the teachings of the Buddha but as a desperate measure of escaping the oppressiveness of caste enforced roles.

Dharasuram is a beautiful reminder of an older age, but sometimes, time seems to have stopped where it was.