Temples of Kumbakonam
ADI KUMBESWSARATamil Nadu is famous for its ancient temples with ornate and intricate architecture. It is known as the land of temples. Thirty-three thousand ancient temples which are 800 to 1,200 years old, are found scattered all over this land. Many of the largest Hindu temples are found here. They have historical records going back to 3,000 years. The state has also over two thousand temple tanks.
There are 108 Divya Desams which are temples in which the great Vishnava saints called Alwars worshipped Lord Vishnu with many beautiful hyms. Of these 105 are found in India and especially Tamil Nadu, one in Nepal called Muktinath, and two in the celestial realm of Vishnu known as Vaikunda. In all these thenidol of Vishnu has different postures, lying on the celestial snake, standing and sitting.
The city of Kumbakonam sits at the very centre of this ancient land and is surrounded by hundreds of temples. I had gone to a few of the outlying ones during my previous visits but since I always avoided the crowded city and lived in quiet areas outside the city I felt I had not done justice to the temples within the city so this time I stayed in a hotel right in the heart of the city next to the bus stop bristling with crowds, cows, dogs and cats. I managed to get a helpful auto driver who was keen on taking me to as many temples as we could possibly crowd into one day. Of course this was hardly the way I liked to visit temples but this time I had no choice.
The first temple to go to was of course the Adi Kumbeswara temple. The word Kumbha means a pot and the legend goes that the creator Brahma had a pot of nectar which contained the seed of all living beings. During the time of the great flood, the pot was floating on the waters and at last came to rest at the spot where the town of Kumbakonam now stands. The nectar fell in the Mahamaham and the Potramarai tanks. To commemorate this, the festival known as Mahamaham is held here every twelve years. This is can be compared to the Maha Kumbh festival which is held in Haridwar, Allahabad and Ujjain every twelve years.
The temple complex is huge and has four towers. The eastern gopuram is the tallest with 11 stories and a height of 128 feet. This is the largest Shiva temple in Kumbakonam. It was already in existence during the Chola period. The lingam is supposed to have been made by Shiva himself by mixing the nectar in the pot with sand. His consort here is known as Mangalambika. Though there are many shrines inside this temple the biggest are the ones to Kubeswara and Mangalambika.
One of the halls has a huge pillar on which the twenty seven stars and twelve rasis are carved. There is an idol of Subramanya having six hands instead of twelve. The temple has been consecrated by the holy feet of many of the Nayanmars including the great four.
It was an awe inspiring temple and I wished I had time to sit and meditate for a while but time which according to our ancients exists only in our mind, was pressing hot on my heels in the form of my auto rikshaw driver so I had to forego this pleasure and run to the next temple.
SPOTTED OWLETs - Athene brama -
FOUND IN THE ADI KUMBESWARAR TEMPLE TOWER, KUMBAKONAM, TAMILNADU, INDIA
This is one of the most impressive temples I visited inside Kumbakonam. It is one of the jyotir lingams, and is of course in the Chola style of architecture. The architect was obviously a great astronomer as were all the architects in most of the temples of South India. The temple is placed in such a way that the rays of the morning sun during the first three days of the Tamil month of Chitrai (April /May) which corresponds to the Hindu New Year, fall directly at the base of the lingam in the sanctum sanctorum. The way from the main gopuram to the sanctum is very long and we have to pass through many corridors yet the rays fall straight at the base of the lingam. Hence this place is also known as Surya Kottam, or the citadel of the sun. This sanctum is in the shape of a chariot like the temple of Sharangapani which I visited next.
Kumbakonam is famous for being surrounded by temples to all the nine planets. Each of these planets is placed in a Shiva temple. Nageswara means god of snakes so the planet Rahu has its place here. Apparently the three famous snakes, Adishesha, the bed of Vishnu, Daksha, the king of snakes and Karkotaka, the most poisonous of all snakes worshipped Lord Shiva here. The great king Nala had been bitten by Karkotaka and also worshipped Shiva at this place. Anyone, whose horoscope is under the influence of this malignant planet, comes here to perform pujas and get rid of its baneful influence. When I did the outer parikrama or circumambulation outside the main temple I found that there was a huge peepul tree under which the typical figures of nagas or serpents were kept. It was evening and quite dark and eerie. I stopped a while to look at the place. Suddenly there was a slight movement and rustling of leaves and I thought it must be a snake but I stopped myself from running and saw that it was actually a mongoose, the sworn enemy of snakes which darted out of the thicket and ran towards me. I felt that Shiva was telling me that even in the midst of a forest of snakes, he would take on the form of a mongoose and protect me! The priest told me later that on every Shivaratri night at midnight, a snake would make its way into the sanctorum and wind itself round the lingam. No one knew how it came but this phenomenon is something which many of the priests had seen.
There are many fascinating figures of gods around the place but what interested me most was a figure of Shiva as Rudra, the destroyer. It was quite a huge figure carrying a scythe across his back. It was the first time I had seen something like that but strangely enough his face had a loving look. Since it was on the second parikrama, there was no one around and I was able to take a photo.
Shiva as Rudra carrying a scythe across his back
Sharngam is the bow of Lord Vishnu and when I went up to the sanctorum I expected to find a figure of Vishnu holding the bow but instead I was confronted by a huge figure of the reclining Vishnu, holding his head in his hand and lying on the serpent Adishesha. It was a fantastic figure. However the small idol of Vishnu to which all the pujas were done was kept in front and he was holding the Sharngam in his hands and looked almost like Rama. It is rare to find the figure of Vishnu holding his bow.
On either side of him were huge figures of Lakshmi Devi and Bhudevi and the rishi Hema. The temple tank called Potramarai is an important part of the legend of the temple which says that the rishi Hema did penance on its banks in order to get Lakshimi as his daughter. Vishnu agreed to send her to him. She emerged from the tank out of a thousand lotuses and was named Komalavalli (one who came from the lotus). Of course Vishnu was not going to let her go like this so he descended to earth as Aravamudhan in a chariot and stayed in the Someswaran temple to woo Komalavalli.
Deatil SHARNGAPANI TEMPLE Gopuram
This is the largest Vishnu temple in Kumbakonam and has the tallest gopuram (tower). It has eleven tiers. It is one of the Divya Desams. The temple is in the form of a chariot drawn by horses and elephants with doors on both sides showing the descent of Lord Sharngapani from heaven in a chariot. Since the main sanctum is inside the chariot we have to climb some steps to reach the temple. In fact there are steps on both sides of the chariot. One of these is known as Uttarayana vaasal and the other is Dakshinayana vassal. The Hindu year is divided into two parts of six months each. The period from the 15th of January to the 15 of July is known as Uttarayana when the sun moves from the south to the north and the northern hemisphere enjoys summer. The period from the 15th of July to the 15th of January is known as Dakshinayanam when the sun moves towards the south and the northern hemisphere has winter. Each of these two sets of steps leading to the shrine is opened for six months of the year during the appropriate time.
SRI RAMA TEMPLE
This was hardly a stone’s throw from the Sharngapani temple. It had huge stone figures of Rama with Sita beside him. Lakshmana stands to the left holding the royal umbrella and Shatrugnan to the right waving the chamara (yaks tail fan) and Hanuman sitting in front of Lakshmana.
This temple had a very beautiful Shiva lingam. As usual it had huge gopurams (towers) on all four sides. A very old Brahmin priest who could hardly walk was hobbling around. I felt so sorry for these old priests who seem to have spent their entire lives in the service of the deities and apparently got nothing out of it either financially or spiritually. Of course I can’t judge the latter and hopefully I am mistaken but they all look a bit sad and weary of life. I would have loved to have sat with some of them and questioned them but of course Time stood like a sentinel over me!!
This is a temple dedicated to Muruga or Kartikeya, son of Shiva. I had been to this temple two years and ago and it impressed me so much that I was overjoyed to find that it was only five kilometres from Kumbakonam. The next day was Kartika Deepam which is an important festival in S. India something like Diwali in the north. It is especially important for Muruga or Kartikeya so I decided to go the previous afternoon so as to avoid the crowds. It was indeed a wise decision guided by Muruga himself.
Sketche of the SWAMIMALAI temple from the 19th century
There are six temples (arupadai veedu) which are most significant for the worship of Kartikeya and Swamimalai is the fourth amongst these. The name of the Lord here is Swaminathan since he gave the knowledge of the Supreme to his own father, Shiva at this very place.
The story goes that once when saint Bhrigu was going to start his penance, he got a boon from Shiva that anybody disturbing him would forget all his knowledge. When his tapas reached its peak, the fire emanating from his head reached the heavens and the frightened gods ran to Shiva and asked him to protect them. The Lord extinguished the fire by placing his hand over the sage’s head. However the boon which he had given the sage came to pass and he could not remember anything after this.
At that time Brahma, the creator came to Kailasa, the child Muruga wanted to test him and asked him for the meaning of the pranava mantra – Aum. When Brahma admitted his ignorance, Muruga imprisoned him and thus all creation came to a standstill. The gods begged Shiva to ask his son to release the creator and Shiva asked Muruga to explain the meaning of this great mantra to him since he himself had forgotten it due to his own boon which he had given the sage Brighu. Muruga said that he would expound the meaning only if he could accept him as his guru and listen to him like a disciple. Lord Shiva acceded to this request and listened carefully to Muruga’s explanation at this place. Hence Muruga is known as Swaminatha or one who is the guru of his father.
The temple is built on an artificial hillock and has 60 beautiful stone steps leading to the top. Each step represents once cycle of sixty years according to the Hindu calendar. At the bottom of the hill there are two temples dedicated to Lord Sundareswara and the goddess Minakshi. The temple of Shiva is constructed below the one to Muruga to show that he is only a disciple of Muruga.
I reached there at about five pm and went straight to the sanctorum. The figure of Bala Muruga ( child Muruga) is indeed charming and I was allowed to sit there for a while. Slowly the hall was filling up since it was time for the arati at 6 pm. I was very anxious to attend this but didn’t know whether I had to get a ticket for special entrance. However one of the younger priests told me to sit where I was and go forward as soon as the arati was announced. I did this and to my great surprise I found myself right in front of the deity. I did not dare to turn round but I think there was quite a crowd behind me. I just fixed my eyes on the figure of the Lord in front. Before starting the arati there was a special abhishekam or ceremonial bath of the deity with various things, like milk, honey, oil and so on. I was a front line witness to the whole thing. Then he was decorated with a langoti (kaupina), a simple rose garland and some ashes which was most delightful to behold. After this the curtain was drawn and after quite some time it was opened to reveal the Lord in all his finery. He looked so grand I could hardly recognise him as the little boy I had seen when I entered. But he smiled at me and told me to sit so I didn’t leave my VIP position. Then came the various aratis. It started with a holder for one wick then, three wicks and so on till the final one with a 108 wicks which could hardly be held by the priest since it must have been so heavy. The grand finale was the karpoor arati with camphor which marked the end of the ceremony. Somebody tapped my shoulder and I knew it was time to depart. I was in a state of ecstasy since I had hardly expected such grace. When I reached the bottom of the hill I found that I was just in time for the arati to both Shiva and Minakshi. I couldn’t believe it. How could I be so fortunate! It was pradosha the thirteenth day of the moon and most special for Shiva so that blessing was also thrown in for good measure! I went to find my auto driver. Instead of the half an hour which I had been given I was away for two hours. He had promised to show me three other temples that evening and was a bit grumpy. However when he saw the state of euphoria I was in he unbended and told me that as long as I was satisfied he did not mind. Of course I refused to rush through any more temples after this divine experience. Had I come the next day as I had been planning to do, it would have taken me at least five hours to enter the temple.
UTHUKADU KALIYA NARTANA TEMPLE
This was one of the temples I had been longing to see for a long time. It is a temple of the original of the famous figure of Krishna dancing on the head of the snake Kaliya. This is a beautiful figure which is seen in many houses in the south but very few know the origin of this figure. Nobody seemed to know how to get to this temple. However my auto rikshaw driver found out the way and we trundled up and down many tortuous lanes, passing lovely green fields and at last came to a small village called Uthukadu, about 12 kms from Kumbakonam.
The village was only a small collection of huts with just two large houses, no shops to buy anything for offerings. The temple itself appeared to be undergoing some renovation since all I could see was scaffolding. However I hopped out and went inside only to find that the priest had not arrived even though it was almost 11 am. Nothing daunted I ventured to go to one of the “grand” houses and begged the priest to come and open the door. He was a young man and came out with a cell phone stuck to his ear. He mumbled something about the construction and hence the tardiness in opening the temple. I followed hot on his heels and stood just outside the door opening into the sanctum. As it opened I was stunned by the light which came pouring out. There was only one hanging oil lamp inside yet I felt as if I had been hit by a flood of light. In the midst of this light I saw the exquisite figure of the dancing Krishna made in panchaloha (five metals). His left leg was apparently placed on top of Kaliya’s head and his left thumb was touching the tail of the snake. His right leg was poised above in a dancer’s pose and if you looked closely you could see the scars on this leg below the knee due to the lashes given by Kaliya’s tail. I did try to take a photo but even though I was standing only a few feet away all I got was a blaze of light.
UTHUKADU KALIYA NARTANA
I had heard that this was a miraculous figure since his foot does not actually touch the snake’s head and the whole figure is supported by just the touch of his thumb on the tail. In fact it is said that the figure has not been made by a human hand and that it was sage Narada’s creation. I knew this story and asked the priest to explain it to me. He asked me haughtily if I knew Tamil and if not his narrative would be meaningless to me. I said I knew enough to understand him so he said that he would say it just once and if I couldn’t follow he would not repeat! I agreed and he took up a small thin stick and mumbled something in Tamil and passed the stick below the feet of my charming gopala. The stick passed through with ease. He then passed the stick round the hand touching the tail to show that it was being held by the whole palm. Had I not known the story before I would not have been able to follow his explanation. I supposed that he was angry with me for having turfed him out of his house. However I was not going to let him off so easily and insisted on knowing other details of the place.
This place had once been a forest where Nandini and Patti, the calves of the celestial cow Kamadhenu used to play. Once the sage Narada was visiting the place and he told them the story of how the baby Krishna had subdued the poisonous snake Kaliya who was poisoning the waters of the river Kalindi and preventing people from drinking it. The two calves were shocked at the way the child Krishna was forced to subdue such a huge snake and started crying. Their mother didn’t know what to do with them and she begged Krishna to comfort her children. He came to the spot and danced again and convinced the two calves that it had been no effort for him and was just a sport! They were delighted and Narada begged Krishna to remain in that place in that form to delight all who came there. Thus we find that the figure of Krishna has the two calves, Nandini and Patti sitting happily in front of him.
The great poet and composer Venkata Kavi Subba Iyer had worshipped the Lord here and composed many of his most memorable and heart rending songs here. Apparently the poet used to compose his songs while circumambulating the temple. He begged the Lord every day to bless him with his divine vision. But of course Krishna is famous for testing his devotees to the utmost before granting their desire. Venkata Kavi decided to fast till the Lord granted his desire. He became so weak that he could hardly finish his daily offering of going round the Lord, pradakshinam. His eyesight was also failing him. He knew he was reaching the end of his life and this is the time he composed his wonderful tear jerking and most immortal song called, “Alaipayuthe.....Kanna”. This is sung by countless Krishna devotees without knowing the heart rending scene in which the poet composed it. Even the heartless Gopala did not come. But the devotee’s heart did not quiver. He continued to sing till his last breath. Just then the whole place was drenched with the sweet smell of jasmine and tulsi. He suddenly felt the presence of a small child lying in his lap. But he had no eyes to see and in his despair he pushed the child off his lap. Immediately the poet heard a sweet voice saying that it was indeed he, who the poet had been singing about for so many years. “Why are you testing me Lord? He asked. “When I was hale and hearty you did not come to me. Now when I am a wreck with no eyes even to see you, why have you come to me?”
The Lord did not say a word but took his devotee with him to his divine abode. Once the poet expressed a desire to return to Utthukadi to see him dance. Krishna agreed and took him back but he told him that he should keep composing songs according to the metre in which he was dancing. If he faltered, Krishna would turn into an idol. Of course as luck would have it, the poet faltered once when the Lord was doing a most intricate set of steps and he turned into the beautiful idol which all of us can see today.
Then the poet expressed a wish that the Lord should continue to stay there and dance every night. Many of the priests say they have heard the tinkle of ankle bells coming from the temple at night. Many of the villagers who stay near the temple swear that they have heard Venkata Kavi singing and the Lord dancing.
All this I remembered as I stood before the Lord then I went out to see if I could get anything to offer my darling. I suddenly discovered a small shop which I had not noticed before. The shopkeeper gave me some til oil and some sugar candy which he said was a favourite of my Lord. Armed with this I returned to the temple and offered it to the priest. He seemed to thaw at this and said that he was running out of oil and was wondering how he could get some. I felt so blessed that He had allowed me to make this small offering to him. How that sanctum was so brilliantly lit even though it had only one small hanging lamp is anybody’s guess.
I tore myself from there with difficulty, thanking him over and over again for his grace in having taken me there.
SRI MAHAPRATYANGIRA DEVI
This is a small but very powerful temple to the goddess in her fierce aspect which is situated in a small village called Ayyavadi around ten kms from Kumbakonam. Legend has it that the five Pandavas had worshipped the goddess at this place during their twelve years in the forest.
The story of the goddess is closely connected with the avatara of Vishnu as Narasimha (half man/half lion) which he took to kill the demon king Hiranyakashipu. After having vented his anger at Hinranyakashipu, Narasimha’s anger was still unabated. Everyone was frightened and prayed to Shiva to help them. Shiva took on the form called Sarabeswara with a lion’s face and eagle’s wings. His two Shaktis accompanied him in the form of Mahapratyangira Devi and was seated on both of the wings of Sarabeswara. Sarabeswara by himself could not control Narasimha and eventually it was the powerful Pratyangira devi who cooled Narasimha’s anger and hence she is believed to be more powerful than any other power.
In the Ramayana, Indrajit the son of Ravana performed a great sacrifice and worshipped Ma Pratyangira Devi in order to make him invincible and enable him to kill Lakshmana. Had he been successful he would certainly have become invincible. However Ravana’s brother Vibhishana advised Lakshmana to go and put a stop to the yaga. Aided by Hanuman, Lakshmana obstructed the yaga and was thus able to vanquish Indrajit.
SRI MAHAPRATYANGIRA DEVI
I had heard that yagas were conducted on every full moon and new moon days in which huge volumes of red chillies are offered into the fire. But strangely enough it is a fact that no one choked with the fumes rising from the flames. Normally even one chilli burning in a fire is enough to make most people start coughing and choking but despite the fact that many kilograms of chillies are poured into the flaming fire no one is ever seen to choke or cough.
As luck would have it I reached there on a full moon day when the yaga was well on its way. I did not get any smell of the chillies nor did I cough nor in any way feel uneasy. Since many people were sitting around the fire of the yaga, the temple was quite empty and I was able to stand right in front of the deity and pray as long as I liked. She has the face of a lion and was seated in a chariot driven by four lions. She has eight arms carrying different types of weapons. It is believed that all evil forces will be taken away by the goddess. In fact she is the goddess who is able to obstruct any form of black magic which might affect a devotee. Her moola mantra had been discovered by two great rishis called Angiras and Pratyangiras. Hence she took on the name of Pratyangira. Angiras rishi’s name is connected with the Atharva Veda which contains many types of magic mantras and hence her worship is said to be most effective in removing all types of black magic. Her worship had been kept a secret for a long time. But now her temples have started appearing at various places but the most famous one is at Ayyavadi. Again it is her grace that I was able to go to the temple at a most auspicious day.
Hanuman abhishekam, Kanchipuram