Post Covid, the travel bug has bitten us too! We took this opportunity to visit some temple towns in South India. It was not only some spiritual healing and chanting time, but be a witness to the sheer grandeur of the temple architecture, find historical notes and of course …enjoy some suud suud kapi and south Indian breakfast!
Our first stop was at Tiruchirapalli (Trichi, for short) and I loved the warm air and small city feel at the airport itself! Eager to see the famed figures atop the temples and walk the expanse of the interiors we quickly changed into tradtional clothes and took an autorickshaw to the temple. Passing through many adorned arches we turned into a side street and stood at the south gate. Mesmerizing! and in awe at the towering, elaborate, magnificient Gopurams or gates that guarded the temple precints, one in each cardinal direction – North, South, East West.
Here, the south and east Gopurams were preferentially convenient, and we stood in the long winding queues for our darshan. We had to deposit our cameras and mobiles, no photo taking permitted inside. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, locally named as Sri Ranganathswamy, and there is a story to this.
Situated on the banks of wide river Kaveri, Tiruchirapalli is the fourth largest city in Tamil Nadu, dating back to its importance in 300 B.C. established by the Chola dynasty. They were known for their archaelogical interest, stone carvings and inclination to Arts and music. The stone pavilions and ornate coloumns that form the mandapas inside the temple, speak volumes of this interest. Later the Pallavas and Vijaynagar empire added their contributions to this temple, expanding the boundary walls, high stone pillars that make a beautiful, jaw dropping interior maze! When the Vijaynagar empire collapsed in 1565, Trichy came to be occupied in turn, by the Nayaks of Madurai (another competing temple town), the Marathas, the Nawabs of Carnatic and finally the British. But it was under the Nayaks of Madurai that Trichy flourished and prospered. On all four sides of the temple walls one finds many old row-type, single story houses, with characteristic features of the history of that period. Today many of them have been converted into eating houses, souvenir shops and cloth shops. But an aura pervades the entire area around the massive temple complex of 156 acres!
I got lucky with a few photographs of temple interiors and ornate sculpting depicting various Gods and godesses, and protectors or a Yaani face figure at the topmost. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu,(one of the Hindu Trinity gods). It is considered one of the foremost of 108 Vishnu temples. Its expanse over 156 acres with 21 Gopurams makes it a very prominent Hindu temple.
There is an interesting story in Ramayana about the formation/establishment of this temple and how Vibhisana put down the idol of Sri Ram, on his way to Sri Lanka and later the idol refused to move, and stood fixed to the Earth. But facing southwards, as a blessing to Visbhisana the deity stayed here in the form of Sri Rangam, thus Ranganathaswamy temple.
One last look and some photo taking that permitted us to cpature the ornate horizontal sculpture over the mandapa and entrance, and we tried to decipher the mythology of Adi Shesh Nag and Vishnu stories that lay within this historical masterpiece.
Shops selling stone and mortar pestles in small size for pounding red chilles and ginger was an interesting sight. South India is famous for its variety of chutnies, this temple town served ONLY vegetarian food at all the nearby eating places.
What was unique is the chequered designs on sarees and shirts! Many women devotees wore such sarees and we had fun counting at least 80 such! (Ha, ha..we were not praying then:) Multi hued, small checks and large ones, border or blouses, checks seemed to dominate the pattern. And look at the were a stack of coloured plastic chequred shopping bags! Have the designer tycoons Yves St. Laurent or Gucci been here as yet, we joked!
I hesitatingly stepped into the streetside saree shop or Kadai and asked to see some locally woven Chinalapatti cotton sarees and the popular Karaikudi Kandangi chequred sarees. Having seen many women devotees wearing this unique design of seamless checks all over, in mostly earthy tones and having contrast borders, this saree required some more historical and economic attention. Handloom weaving is big industry employing over 10,000 people in many small towns, dating back to history of establishing family looms, pit looms and use of wooden shuttles.
Did you know that place where the saree is woven, gets its identity? Like: Madurai Sungadi, Chettinadu bright cottons, Karaikudi checks, Kanjeevaram silks, Salem cotton sarees and towels …and more. Does it make for an interesting research topic? Or will the shopping be just a collection to your wardrobe?
The saree lover within me, could not resist and I purchased this as an addition to my wardrobe and a gratitude to the weaver’s community.
Rameshwaram: A taxi ride the southern tip of India
Geographically speaking, Rameshwaram is almost the tip on eastern India, a small islet across the Pamban river and bridge. Breathtaking for its uniqueness and expanse of blue ocean, it is mostly a fishing township but of immense religious importance for Hindus. It is one of the 12 JyotirLingams.
As the Ramayan story goes, Lord Ram and his brother Laxman, along with their monkey troops had to cross the vast ocean to reach Sri Lanka, where the demon or Asura Raavan had carried away Sita, Ram’s wife after some trickery. On their successful return, across the Sethu or bridge, Lord Ram and Sita are said to have sanctified this place and worshipped Lord Shiva here, and seeked his blessings. Thus, Rameshwarm gains importance as the confluence of Vaishnavism and Shaivisim, the two Hindu sects that have belief in worship of Vishnu and Shiva.
No Hindu’s spiritual journey is complete without a visit to temples both at Varanasi and Rameshwaram!
Paintings, stories drawn on sand and paper, religious ashrams, wood carvings, shell decorated souvenirs are plentiful. Hindu devotees visit here for a short 1-4 day trip. It is mandatory, that the devotees have a dip in the sea, a cleansing process (though the sea water was murky) and ONLY then proceed for worship.
Tall, magnificient Gopurams could be seen from far away, all painted in the same subtle yellow, and facing the 4 prominent directions. The temple is famous for its very long corridor, adorned with row of pillars and figurenes that is every photographer’s delight! (Remember, no cameras allowed inside the temple).
East Gopuram, facing the sea, and the adjoining street is busiest, as it goes directly to temple interiors.
All along this route are many small ashrams and bhojanalayas or eating places, that serve traditional breakfast of idli, dosa chutney, and poori -sabji , rice dishes, in the afternoon. Of course, all food is only vegetarian, no fish permitted anywhere near temple areas. Traditional clothing for men, includes white or check lungi, wrapped around the waist, reaching the knees and a shirt or cotton vest is ample for this hot humid weather. The women folk are dressed as usual in saree -blouse.
Around the temple, the street markets open early at 8 am and wind down after 9pm, with a short afternoon quiet time, when devotees rest, as temple closes after lunch. Elaborate kolams or floor designs graced home entrances, temple entrance and corridors. We saw many young girls, tugging at their mother’s sarees, asking for a bowl of the Kolam powder, a white coarse powder to draw these patterns. This is such a healing Art, requiring only a bit of dexterity, discipline and little knowledge of math to draw around the measured dots. Sadly, in the busy city life, this is a dying art, practiced maybe during festivities.
For more on Kolam check here: http://episteme.hbcse.tifr.res.in/index.php/episteme5/5/paper/viewFile/152/41
One such Kolam design outside a Gujrati Bhojanalaya, eating house.
Rameshwaram- land’s end! We stood facing the sea, paying our gratitude and respects to our ancestors, people of the land, mythology stories written by many sages of ancient India, and a deep sense of satisfaction having come to this place to proceed on our own spiritual and travel journey. The numerous devotees that thronged the sea for a holy dip, some standing in the long queues to have darshan at the temple and yet others, walking along the streets or eating local food, made up the structure of society here, contributing to the economy of this region.
May Peace be with you all. Vasudaiva Kutumbam, where all mankind emerges from the One.
Do leave your comments in the box below, hope I was able to take you on this special journey.