Two days in Kumbakonam

August 10, 2023 [travels]

Kumbakonam was hot. As hot as the bay area this past summer. Thanks to the humidity, the heat felt a lot less oppressive. The temples were weather beaten. The paint on the gopurams were faded. That hardy constant of the Indian landscape, arasamaram, ficus religiosa, grew in cervices on the temple walls and towers. There was not much of a crowd in the morning, but that could be because it was middle of the working week. The mornings were reserved for Swamimalai and the Sivan kovils. Adi Kumbeshwar has the largest gopuram in town. The Thiruvalasuzhi Pillaiyar kovil was in a particularly bad shape, with dense undergrowth everywhere between the amman, pillaiyar and sivan sannidhis, and graffiti on the temple walls.

Later that morning, we managed to squeeze in a trip to Airavateswara temple at Darasuram. The nearby agraharams now had Saurashara weavers, who said they had been there for eight generations. Their house was dominated by one handloom that they made their living by. I was told it takes five days to make one silk saree. The husbands were responsible for soliciting tourists, while the wives and relatives worked on the loom. The weaver we visited said the family occupation was going to end with him. Both his children were leading a better life in Chennai and Bangalore, as software engineers. They conversed between themselves in Saurastri, which amazed me. This was a language they did not know to read or write, and there's little pop culture produced, and yet it had survived in the heart of Tamil Nadu for this long.

From Darasuram, we went to Sarangapani temple, the largest of Perumal kovils in Kumbakonam. As a child I was fascinated by the temple elephant. It was not as big as I remembered it, but I was told it's the same.

The evenings were reserved for the Vaishnava temples - Ramaswami, Sarangapani, Chakrapani. Chakrapani was crowded. With the thronging people and prabandham in the air, one couldn't help but believe in the old gods.

The next day we went to Thiruvaiaru to see the Sivan and Kaveri. The ghats - padithurai in tamil - closest to the temple were dirty, with people were offering prayers and doing last rites. The one near Thyagaraja Samadhi was cleaner. There were a couple of women bathing, and one man brushing his teeth, but no trash. They soon left. Amma touched the water there with her hands. I didn't want to dirty mine. I did step into the cool waters though. A few locals were lying inside the samadhi and looking into their phones. No sense of sacred here. Amma became a little child at the banks of Kaveri. She had never seen the river in spate. As a child growing up in Madurai, she would visit her grand parents and the river only in summer, when it was dry. Ponniyin Selvan, and related mythologies had made the river a potent symbol in her mind, central to her conception of Tamil history. So she was as excited as one could be when she finally saw it up close.

It took us a little over an hour to go from there to Oppiliappan kovil, right before it closed for the noon, around 12 10 PM. This temple was crowded. They had recently done the Kumbabhishekam and whole temple was glowing, thanks to the fresh coat of paint. We could barely make it to the darshan. The murthy was beautiful, standing. This is one of the older temples in Kumbakonam, apparently older than the Varadarajan Perumal kovil in Kanchipuram (which is one of the three most illustrious Vaishnava temples). I later learnt from a mother of a friend that it is regarded as auspicious to visit a temple in the 38 days after the Kumbabhishekam, and that probably explains the crowds.

While we were in Kumbakonam, we stayed at Indeco Hotels Swamimalai. There are a series of bunglows here, crafted out of three abandoned villages. The bunglows are in traditional tamil style, and the staff extremely friendly. The food is pricy, but not bad at all. If one would want to experience a village life in the style of the landlords in Thanjavur, one could do no better than Indeco.

Here, for the first and likely the last time in my life, I was woken up by a crowing peacock.

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