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The Gods and Me

Smita Prakash ANI Kumbakonam

    Religious pilgrimages really don't entice me. Or as I always tell my friends, "See, I am not that old yet." Thus my trip to Kumbakonam earlier this month, was more to appreciate the architectural splendour of the 12th century temples in this town in Tamil Nadu in Southern India.

    The five-hour drive from Chennai airport to Kumbakonam was an experience in itself.

    The roads are fabulous, but there are no facilities along the route. The lesson learnt: it is best to  resist the temptation of drinking tender coconut water during the journey. Easier said than done though. For each coconut water costs a mere Rs 10 and the highway is lined with shacks selling them.

    The pit stop was at a place called Thindivanam, where we were at a sleepy restaurant that served none of the "South Indian" specialities like Idli, Vada or Dosa. It was lunchtime, which meant that only ‘meals’ were available. ‘Meals’ is what is commonly known as Thali in North Indian food outlets. Thali, however, is a mangalsutra in Tamil Nadu, a necklace worn by married women. Confusing? Welcome to the South!

     We order one ‘meals’ (there is no singular) and thanks to my pleading, I am served one Dosa. The 'meals' has an assortment of lentils of various kinds in little bowls,and some vegetables as accompaniments. The Dosa was edible and the coconut chutney just about made it down my throat. But the wash-room at the restaurant was awful --- time to regret the many tender coconut waters consumed along the way for Ms. Nariyal-Paani.

    Annoyed, I get back on the highway. My chauffer Muthukumar can speak some English and is of course, very fluent in Tamil. While we keep up the pretence of a conversation, I am just about getting myself understood. As we drive past towns and villages, I am clueless about my whereabouts. Not one signboard is in English. It is only Tamil all over. Instinctively, I end up comparing it to the North, which seems so much more tourism-friendly in comparison. One gets an impression that  here, they don’t really care to make it easy for the tourists.

    After a six-hour drive, during which my chauffer didn’t swear even once  --- an absolute impossibility in the North --- I arrive in Kumbakonam. This dusty, sleepy town is situated near Cauvery and Arasalar rivers but there is not a  single signboard mentioning the two rivers. Like most Indians, I just ask my way around ---  not the most pleasant of tasks with my rudimentary Tamil.

  Kumbakonam is dotted with temples: there is a temple every mile or so, and most of them are six to eight hundred years old. Moving in this town is like being in a different era, where women wear Kanchipuram silks even to the bazaar. The hotels, not entirely unexpectedly, are very rudimentary and the tourism infrastructure is quite pathetic.

    All the drawbacks are forgotten once you visit the temples. The temples are stunning --- 18 in the heart of the city and still more just outside the precincts. They date back to the reign of the Chola dynasty. Though some of them have been garishly painted over, most of them are preserved with care by priests and the temple trusts. Of the eight temples I visited and photographed, the Airavateshwara and the Sarangapani left me spell-bound. I was allowed to photograph the former but the latter, which is a Vishnu temple, forbade photography.

 But what came as a whiff of fresh air was the complete absence of the mercenary aspect of religious tourism, which one is accustomed to experiencing in big religious establishments, both in the North and elsewhere in South India. There was a quiet, understated elegance and decency in the Spartan ways of priesthood, which stood out in stark contrast to the splendour of the architecture.

    The temple premises were clean and there were no separate rows for VIPs or high paying worshippers. Those who visit the temple wait for their turn patiently without any shoving, which is again quite a pleasant change. There are no loudspeakers belting out religious numbers set to Bollywood tunes which end up reminding you of our modern-day apsaras, a Malaika Arora or a Katrina Kaif, rather than invoke any spirituality which they ostensibly intend to do.

     However hard one might try to stay unaffected by the divinity of the place, the sheer serenity in the temple courtyards envelops you with a sense of spiritual calm.

    Oh, and did I really say that religious pilgrimages don't entice me? Well now they do, but only if the place is Kumbakonam.

 

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I am the Editor News, at Asian News International (ANI), Indias leading Multimedia News Agency and the India Correspondent for Channel News Asia, a Singapore based broadcaster.
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