Through the land of Cholas
Recently, our family took up an ambitious trip, short but exciting, across the central Tamil Nadu region. We travelled through the south-central region of Tamil Nadu, starting from the foothills of Sabarimala, via the high ranges, and valleys of the Western Ghats, through Madurai, Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur, Velankanni, Rameswaram, and completing the journey that I named the ‘green circle route’, via Tirunelveli, and Shenkottai. While traveling through the region, we found miles and miles of green lush farmlands, coconut plantations, wineries, mangroves, and fruits and vegetable farms. The whole area has been transformed into the granary of everything green. It looks like there is a concerted effort by the government in proper water management and irrigation, educating farmers, and in providing incentives to improve large-scale farming.
We enjoyed the winding mountain roads, hazardous hairpin curves, deep canyons, morning mist, mountain breeze, beautiful waterfalls, and lush green plantations of tea, coffee, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. It was mesmerizing and breathtaking beauty all around.
There are hundreds of temples of various prominences in Tamil Nadu. Many of them were built during periods of Chola, Chera, and other dynasties. They collectively come under the Dravidian architecture. They are magnificent, majestic, marvellous, and exemplify the great talents of the bygone eras. Some of them are huge, their towers rising into the sky a few hundred meters. Hundreds of sculptures, carvings, and paintings adorn the walls, and pillars of each one of the temples. They are things of awesome beauty.
It was getting close to the evening when we reached the premises of Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai. Streets surrounding the temple are narrow and congested with traffic, people, and the air was hazy with smoke, dust, and dirt. Even the sidewalks were difficult to navigate due to broken concrete slabs, open drainage, muddy potholes. Parking was an issue. It was hectic as cattle and dogs freely roamed among the crowd as the hawkers pushed their wares, and pilgrims tried to move thru security lines. We had to leave every personal item in the storage except mobile phones. We went through a metal detector and a pat-down before entering the temple.
There was no entrance fee, but there were fees for everything else including a fee of Rs. 50 to take pictures using a mobile phone (other cameras are not allowed inside). Again, priority darshan coupon was Rs. 100 per person that fast-tracked the darshan and services of a guide were around Rs. 300 (negotiable). It was an awe-inspiring visit, seeing the majestic, magnificent, and towering gopurams, artifacts, and sculptures and the huge, and historic inner sanctums. We were able to have darshans at the sanctums of Lord Shiva and Meenakshi Amman.
Next day morning, after a sumptuous breakfast we moved on to Velankanni via Tiruchirappalli and Srirangam. The highway to Tiruchirappalli is modern and well-maintained. Tiruchirappalli was once the capital of the early Chola dynasty. It is a sprawling city that is home to many historic temples including the Rock Fort temple that was carved out of a large boulder. Our mini bus had difficulty navigating the narrow and congested laneways surrounding the rock, thus after about 30 minutes of the directionless drive, we decided to skip the temple.
Srirangam is a temple-town, an island surrounded by the river Cauvery and her tributary, is a few kilometers away. So we moved on to see the famous Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. The temple complex is spread over 150 acres of land that is fortified with 7 concentric rectangular walls with 7 towers leading to the inner sanctum. There are hundreds of murals, paintings, and figures of gods, and goddesses depicting culture and traditions of the time. It is one of the largest complexes in India and it has one of the tallest gopurams towering over 200 feet into the sky.
Srirangam temple is considered the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world. (Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex but non-functioning). The temple complex has the most collection of magnificent towers adorned with intricate sculptures. Old row houses, shops, and vendor stalls make the streets further narrow and congested. There was a long lineup for darshan, and priority darshan fees started from Rs. 100.
Thanjavur is about 60 kilometers east from Srirangam. It is a major pilgrim and tourist destination in Tamil Nadu. The main road leading to the Lord Brihadeshwara (Shiva) temple complex is clean and devoid of garbage. There is parking available right in front of the temple entrance. King Raja Raja Chola I built it in the 11th century. The temple structure was made of granite. Arts, artifacts, and sculptures from the Chola dynasty are depicted everywhere. There is a huge statue of Nandi carved out of a single rock sits in the center of the complex in front of the entrance to the sanctum.
Thanjavur Lord Brihadeshwara Temple
The temple is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Tamil Nadu. Now, the temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Great Living Chola Temples. We were able to get the darshan of the Lord without much difficulty, no need for special lineup or additional fee payment. It is a beautiful complex, the gopurams, and the associated structures are adorned with multitude of stone carvings. It is worthwhile spending half a day exploring, and enjoying the temple, and meditating in front of Lord Brihadeshwara.
Velankanni is only a few hours’ drive from Thanjavur. It is on the eastern seaboard below the main city of Chidambaram. The roads to Velankanni are under construction at many places, and they wind through many small villages, and farming communities.
We reached Velankanni by nightfall and checked into our hotel. We attended a morning service at the old basilica; its origin dates back to 16th century, at the Velankanni church complex. It is one of the top pilgrimage centers for Catholics in India. It is a sprawling, beautiful complex with four churches on four sides. The complex is well maintained, and clean. But, outside of the compound it is just another typical town: congested, and polluted.
In the afternoon we drove to the southern island city of Rameswaram via the East Coast Road. The Pamban Bridge over the Gulf of Mannar connects the mainland to the island. The road was lightly traveled, and crossed many miles of farmlands; rice fields, coconut, and vegetable farms. Goats, dogs, and humans slowed traffic and on one instance a flash-sit-down protest by locals blocked the roadway.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram is a major attraction and is one of the top Hindu pilgrimage centers in India. The temple, its origin dates back to 12th century, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple complex is protected by high walls and there are four towers at each entrance. Security was tight, not even mobile phones were allowed inside. There were metal detectors and pat-downs by the security. As there is no locker or storage available for personal belongings including footwear at the temple gates, we had to designate one person from our group to wait outside with all bags, cameras, and footwear. Our other choice was to leave them out at the gate on the muddy street side.
The temple floor was wet with a mixture of water and oil as the devotees took baths at the ‘theerthams’ as part of the temple rituals. The temple has the longest corridor with over thousand pillars formed of sandstones.
Rameswaram is the birthplace of India’s former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. His final resting place is also on the island by the side of the Kochi-Dhanushkodi highway. Perhaps, there is a plan in the works to develop the place into a commemorative park to keep Dr. Kalam’s memory alive, but now it is just a vacant plot with a small roof over the gravesite, and wooden barricades to protect the site.
The ghost town of Dhanushkodi
Dhanushkodi is situated at the eastern tip of Rameswaram and was a thriving port town connecting travelers to and from India, and Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is only about 19 miles across the Palk Strait. It was a prominent pilgrimage town as well until the disaster.
In December 1964 a cyclone and the ensuing tidal waves destroyed the town and her habitats: roads, houses, temples, churches, railway station, school, including the railway bridge connecting to Rameswaram. The cyclone claimed the lives of about 2000 people.
We were a bit apprehensive about the visit to Dhanushkodi when we saw the vehicle we are about to board. It was an old 4-wheel drive Jeep that looked very much from the previous century. As there is no road to the desolate place, the vehicle has to travel through sandy and partly submerged beaches.
Now, it is a desolate land, a ghost town, only a few fishermen live there. Remnants of the old building still stand there reminding us the fierceness of the storm. You feel the desolateness, damage, destruction, and the void.
The sights and sounds of the journey are still fresh in my memory. On one side the enduring the legacies of thousands of talented artisans stand tall and proud exemplifying timelessness via the architectural marvels, and on the other side the utter devastation of a once thriving village caused by the blunt fury of Mother Nature. The contrast was difficult to fathom. However, it was an entertaining, educational, and the hallowed trip that took us four days, and hundreds of kilometers.
Few final thoughts
Over the years, I have visited a fair number of temples, and other holy places, small, major, and historic, in India, and in other parts of the world. It is faith, curiosity, and an eagerness to witness the historic artifacts draws me to these marvels. From the faith perspective I am happy, however, the sight of garbage, poor sanitary conditions, and the overall management of the holy places disappoint me.
Every day many thousands of pilgrims and tourists crowd these historic temples, yet there are no concentrated efforts to improve traffic situations or to provide proper directions or to accommodate devotees' needs. Additionally, it is difficult to comprehend the business like mentality prevailing in many of the holy places. Spirituality is supplemented with moneymaking opportunities. At many temples, darshan can be fast tracked for a price. There are all sorts of vendors purveying trinkets, souvenirs, knickknacks, holy water, and pooja items to the faithful and tourists alike forgoing the sanctity of the place.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)