As the first rays of the sun pierced, almost reluctantly, through the gaps of the thick clouds on an overcast January morning, the lush green paddy fields were still shrouded in thick fog. With birds chirping and the rhythmic hymns of Sri Venkateshwara Suprabhatam playing in the background, women deftly covered the wet earth outside their courtyard homes with impeccably symmetrical kolams even as the subtle fragrance of freshly strung malligai (jasmine) from the baskets of the bicycle flower vendors filled the air.
The entire ambience and the placid vibes just screamed bliss for me, but it was just another idyllic morning in the by lanes of Kumbakonam. The serenity amidst the row of Agraharam style houses was a stark contrast to the hustle bustle I had witnessed the previous evening in the market surrounding the city’s famous Adi Kumbeswarar temple. The entire place was teeming with people and abuzz with activity. Well, this is Kumbakonam for you, a sacred town that offers its visitors a kaleidoscope of delightfully diverse sights.
Abounding in Divinity
Perched on the southern bank of the river Kaveri, Kumbakonam is an ancient city tracing its origin to the 3rd century and the Sangam era. Having been ruled by several dynasties including the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Nayakas and the Marathas, the name of the city translates roughly into “corner place of earthen pot” with Kumba meaning pot. According to legend, it was here that Lord Shiva’s arrow pierced the sacred pot of Brahma containing the seeds of life and amritham or the holy nectar. When the pot broke, the nectar overflowed into the Mahamaham tank which is literally the nucleus of the city today. This is the myth that gives this city both its name and sanctity. The ancient tank which is surrounded by 16 shrines and 21 wells is also the site of the magnificent Mahamaham festival held once every 12 years where lakhs of devotees congregate to take a holy dip.
If you are someone who enjoys visiting temples, Kumbakonam is arguably one of the best places for some very sacred trails. Massive towers aka gopurams studded with ornate figurines of Gods and Goddesses, exquisite stone sculptures, pillared courtyards and massive temple tanks were some the common features I noticed in all the temples I paid a visit. While the Kasi Viswanathar (also spelt Kashi Vishvanatha) located to the north of the Mahamaham tank is one of the most prominent Shiva temples, the Nageshwara temple also dedicated to Lord Shiva is a fine example of early Chola architecture and finds references in 7th century Tamil literature.
The Adi Kumbeswarar temple which is the soul of the town stands at the mythical spot where Lord Shiva broke Brahma’s pot. The main shrine is Lord Shiva in the form of a Linga and that of his consort Mangalambigai Amman. The temple with four gateways is spread over an area of over 30,000 square feet. Do not miss the vibrant market corridor leading to the temple as well as the colourful flower market in the vicinity. The market is a great place to find local souvenirs which include anything from utensils, lamps and brassware to stoneware and the traditional Dasara and Thanjavur dolls like urutu bommai and talai ati bommai.
Amongst the Vishnu temples, the Sarangapani temple with its 12- storeyed grandiose tower and the Chakrapani temple are noteworthy. The Navagraha circuit which is a set of nine temples dedicated to the nine planets is a popular choice by most devotees visiting this sacred city.
Kumbakonam is also the hometown of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his house on Sarangapani Sannidi Street, now converted into a museum, forms for a quick yet engaging visit. The small courtyard home replete with pillars, a traditional kitchen, veranda and well is built in the typical Agraharam style. It houses several of Ramanujam’s photographs, certificates as well as frames depicting mathematical equations and formulae conceptualized by him.
If you are culture buff and a fan of handicrafts, Swamimalai, situated about 8 km from Kumbakonam must be on your list. This small town is a prominent centre for bronze casting where artisans use the traditional lost wax process to craft idols of Gods, Goddesses and pieces of decorative value.
Kumbakonam is also a great place to sample some great food and the famous degree coffee. Read more about it here.