Wednesday, September 15, 2010

To God's Abode

The pretext of a friend’s wedding took Viswa and me to Trichy, Tamil Nadu on Sept 10, 2010. Friday, the 10th Sept was a holiday on account of Ramzan and we, like most in Bangalore, promptly packed our bags to a nearby tourist destination.

Our itinerary for the extended weekend included a visit to Trichy (Tiruchirapalli) and Madurai, then back to Bangalore on 12/09/2010, a Sunday, to grab some rest and bring the house back to order after a two-day hiatus. As requested in most wedding cards, we graced our friend’s wedding, provided them our company on their special day and headed out on our religious odyssey.

First, we headed to Srirangam, about 8 km from Trichy central bus stand. Srirangam is a temple town standing between Cauvery and Kollidum rivers, connected to the mainland by a bridge. Considered, possibly the largest temple complex in India, Srirangam is the abode of Sri Ranganatha Swamy (Vishnu) and the temple, of immense importance to Vaishnavites, is revered as Vaikuntam on Earth. About 156 acres in extent, the tall, imposing main gopuram (tower), 13 tiered and 72m high, completed in the year 1987, welcomed us to an architectural marvel, dotted with 21 gopurams in a complex spanning seven concentric walls. Built from 14th to 17th centuries, the Hoysalas, Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras, Vijayanagar Empire and Nayaks of Madurai have all contributed their bit to this temple.

We walked through the crowded market streets, right across the tall, concentric compound walls to reach the main complex. To our left, we visited the deity of Chakrathalwar and to our right, the shrine of Shri Ramanujacharya, the 1000 pillar mantapa (under renovation and therefore closed, it consists of 953 pillars actually) and the art/sculpture mantapa. Walking straight, we crossed the Garudaalwar shrine, the prasadam/food counter and reached the sanctum sanctorum after a short wait in the queue. We were in front of the lord, Sri Ranganathaswamy, huge and charismatic, in reclining position. Outside the inner sanctum, to the left, is the shrine of Ranganayaki Devi. There were three deities in a line here, Sridevi, Bhoo Devi and Ranganayaki, all adorned beautifully. There are many other shrines in the temple complex - Narasimha, Dhanvantri, Varahaswamy, Krishna and Kodanda Rama to name a few. We visited the temple at 2.30 pm, right after it opened for devotees and completed our tour in two hours; the temple complex is that HUGE.

From Trichy Central bus stand, many buses ply to Srirangam. Similarly, many buses connect Srirangam to Chattram bus stand (Trichy Rockfort/Mala Kottai), our next destination. The hill temple dedicated to Ganesha is an iconic landmark in Trichy. The barren, rounded, brown hillock, about 3500 million years old, houses the Manicka Vinayagar (Ganesha) temple at the foot hill/base, the shrine of Thayumaanavar (Shiva) mid way and Ucchi Pilayar temple at the top (again a Ganesha shrine).

The rock fort was originally built by Pallavas, later fortified by the Nayaks. The hill temple overlooks a tank (water pavilion) used for ceremonial purposes. The tank is flanked by shops/market area on all four sides. A flight of about 417 steps takes one from the base to the Ucchi Pilayaar temple atop the hillock; I did not count to check. The climb is not at all tedious; it is highly rewarding, a superb, visual treat all the way.

The Thayumanavar temple mid way has a shrine for goddess Kundalambikai with a golden tower (vimana) over it. There are two Pallava cave temples of the 7th century times, one close to the Thayumanavar temple and another is little difficult to locate. After leaving Manicka Vinayagar shrine at the base, one hits a road, turn to the left here, walk for about 50m on it and take right to reach the second cave temple, behind a bunch of houses.

The climb from Thayumanavar temple to Ucchi Pillayar temple can inspire life in any trite soul; the cool, refreshing breeze at that height, the beautiful, panoramic view of the temple town, view of the rail/road bridges over river Cauvery, of the imposing tower of Srirangam at a distance, a mix of trees, fields and houses/shops and a mild drizzle recharged us thoroughly.

We drank a cup of hot filter coffee and devoured hot bajjis from a restaurant near the temple, reminiscing the images, we captured of Trichy from atop the hill and that of gods/goddesses so beautifully decorated. As we enjoyed dinner at a restaurant in the central bus stand area, we acknowledged that the temples are truly BIG in every aspect and rituals are performed with immense sincerity and devotion.

On day 2, we began early at 6.30 am and visited the Thiruaanai Kaaval temple, which we reached by bus from the central bus stand after a 20-minute ride, crossing the bridge on Cauvery. Thiruaanaikaaval temple is a highly revered Shiva temple, built by Kochenga Chola Raja about 1800 years ago, in a sprawling compound (about 18 acres). Housing the deities – Shiva and Parvathi, more appropriately – Lord Jambukeshwarar and Shri Akhilandeshwari, this temple marks its prominence as it signifies one of the five elements (pancha bootha) i.e. water (the other 4 temples and their elements are - Chidambaram (sky), Kalahasti (wind), Tiruannamalai (fire) and Kanchipuram (earth)). The temple compound is huge and consists of five concentric walls encompassing the main sanctum.

We visited the shrine of Akhilandeshwari, (on the left on entering the main temple complex) first, many small shrines and temple tank on the way to the main deity – Shiva’s shrine. A custom at this temple is to see the Shiva lingam (Jalakandeshwarar/Jambukeshwarar) through the nine square window frame/grilled window. The vast expanse of this temple astounded us.

There are many temples around Trichy – Samayapuram Amman temple, Narthamalai, Gunaseelan temple to name a few. We intended to cover the three primarily important temples in Trichy town and I must say, our first phase of the journey ended well with a sumptuous meal of idli, vada, dosa and pongal at the Kurunji restaurant near Central bus stand. Food in Trichy (South Indian tiffin items, more precisely) is of a very high quality/taste, very affordable and is served with a lot of courtesy and affection. The autorickshaw drivers, shop vendors were exceptionally rude, but that came as no surprise as auto drivers are more ill behaved in Chennai.

We boarded a bus to Madurai from the Central bus stand and embarked on a 116 km long journey from Trichy via Viralimalai and Melur on NH 45B. Three hours on the smooth highway brought us to another equally important temple town-Madurai.

We lodged our backpacks in the Mattuthavani bus stand cloakroom and geared up to visit the Tirumalai Nayyakar palace. Built in 1636, by Tirumala Nayak of Madurai, this palace supposedly built by an Italian architect is an exemplary piece of Indo Sarcenic architecture. The palace consists of two portions, the Rangavilas and the Swargavilas, of which only the Darbar hall, Dance hall/Nataka shala and the entrance remain. The present remains account for only ¼ th of the original palatial structures. It is purported that Tirumala Nayak’s grandson demolished the Rangavilasa to procure materials for building a similar palace in Trichy, an activity he never accomplished. The restoration work commenced under Lord Napier, the governor of Madras in 1868-72. The palace is closed during lunchtime 1-2 pm and hosts a light/sound show in Tamil and English in the evening hours. The audience hall has an array of huge, cylindrical, white pillars, long corridors marked by arches and ceilings full of exceptionally beautiful paintings, restored with utmost care.

As the clock ticked 4 pm, we left the palace, drank two full glasses of a certain, yummy and highly satiating “fruit mixture” from a road side shop and marched towards the most prominent landmark in Madurai – Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple; a temple looked upon with immense veneration in India. I was filled with awe when I caught an ariel view of this temple in the World Tamil Conference 2010 anthem (Semmozhi Maanadu anthem), the concentric rectangular walls with tall, beautiful gopurams (towers), one on each side. The temple is extraordinarily marvelous and houses deities equally awe-inspiring - Shiva in the form of Lord Sundareshwarar meaning Beautiful Lord and his consort, Parvati, as the gorgeous Meenakshi.

The main entrance to the temple is through the east gopuram, the road first hits the Raya gopuram, reaches a Mantapa that teems with bookshops and then a Nandi Mantapa facing the sanctum. A clean, wide pathway, devoid of shops and encroachments exists around the temple, for people to walk around and see all four peripheral gopurams. Visitors can enter the temple through any of the four entrances (each has a cloakroom/footwear stand) but the main entrance is through the east gate.

The breathtaking experience at this temple commences as one walks in the long hallways, their ceilings covered with colorful paintings, seeing the brilliant, full relief sculptures adorning the pillars before the main sanctum, that of Nataraja, Bhadrakali, Agora Veerabhadrar, Agni Veerabhadrar, Kalyana Sundaram, Dakshinamurthi and many more. All these sculptures are labeled in English, Hindi and Tamil; this is an appreciable effort.

We headed straight to the Sundareshwarar shrine, saw a big, silver idol of Nataraja – in the Rajata Sabha/Velliambalam on to our right and the Lord Sundareshwarar, in the form of a Lingam in front of us, the sight was a true spectacle. Leaving the main shrine, we reached the shrine of Mukuruni Vinayagar; a Ganesha idol carved out of a single stone. Truly, a fortuitous event to see the lord in such a revered temple on an auspicious day like Ganesha Chaturthi. We walked further and saw the Porthamarai Kulam (the temple tank/tank with the golden Lotus), the passage around the tank had walls full of mural paintings depicting the marriage between Lord Sundareshwarar and Meenakshi and from the epic Tiruvilayaadal. We took time to study the model of Meenakshi temple kept on display and visited the shrine of Meenakshi Devi lying in the south west. The goddess is sheer beauty personified. In the last leg, we visited the shrine of Lord Kalyana Sundaram and the 1000 pillar mantapa on our way back to the east tower. The 1000 (actually 985 pillars) pillar mantapa houses a museum and is maintained by the ASI. The Madurai Meenkashi Amman temple, truly, marks the pinnacle in the Dravidian temple architecture; abounds with beauty and grandeur in every aspect.
Filled to hearts content, caught in a mild shower, we grabbed a simple dinner from West Masi Street, headed back to Maattuthavani bus stand to board our bus to Bangalore. On our journey back home, on NH-7, we recounted all we had seen. Feeling of regret, of not paying a visit to Thiruparankundram Murugan temple in Madurai, not being able to explore good food options remained but were easily subdued by an overwhelming sense of joy, or term it, a serene sense of satisfaction/a tranquil demeanour that results only when you return from the Abode of Gods.

1 comment:

shubha said...

Nice blog you have here Divya! My trips to Trichy are also very similar.. I love both the Akhilandeshwari and the srirangam temples. I've never had a short wait in the latter while the former is always empty and peaceful.

During my most recent India trip, I went to Madurai.. It is really breathtaking. There was a meditation hall(inside the temple itself) near the aayiram kaal mandapam which was so peaceful.. great to read about your travels and relive my memories of Madurai. Did you taste "jigar thanda" - Is that the fruit mixture you are talking about?