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Thiruvaiyaru: A Confluence of Music and Architecture

I used to learn Carnatic singing back when I was in school. Sadly, as it often happens, life got in the way and I drifted away. But I’m still very fond of music, and when my sister asked me if I wanted to go to the Thyagaraja Aradhana in the riverside town of Thiruvaiyaru last week, I jumped at the idea!
 
Thyagaraja, or Thyagayya, was an 18th century composer-saint and one of Carnatic music’s most prominent icons. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Ram, and wrote innumerable songs in his praise, mostly in Telugu. He was born in another town called Thiruvarur, but he lived in Thiruvaiyaru almost all his life and died there as well. ‘Thiruvaiyaru’ translates to ‘five sacred rivers’, and gets its name from the five rivers that flow in its vicinity. It is about 11km from Tanjore, a major town in Tamil Nadu.
 
Every year, the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a 5 day festival to honour Thyagaraja, is held at his samadhi on the bank of the Cauvery river. Thousands of music lovers from around the world attend the event. The highlight of the festival is an hour-long rendition of his Pancharatna Kritis, a collection of five monumental compositions. ‘Pancharatna’ translates to five gems. The kritis are sung by everyone present on the last day of the festival, led by some of the most eminent Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists of the country. We were lucky to attend this particular session and it was truly one of the most special experiences of my life. I’m so glad my sister made me go. Thyagaraja Aradhana Thiruvaiyaru (5)
After spending some time at the festival, we set off on a temple trail along the Cauvery – my dad went positively berserk and kept adding more temples to our list through the day! I want to tell you about two of them, both dedicated to Lord Shiva. The first was the Panchanadeeshwara Temple (also called Aiyarappan Temple. Both names translate to the lord of the five rivers.) just about a km from Thyagaraja’s samadhi. The temple, which must be at least a 1000 years old, has two sections, and the northern part was commissioned by Queen Lokamahadevi, the wife of Rajaraja Chola I, the greatest of the Chola rulers.
Panchanadishwara Temple (7)
Our next stop was the highlight of the day – the Brahmapurishwarar Temple about 12-13km from Thiruvaiyaru. It is also called the Pullamangai Temple, and is in a village called Pasupathikovil. From the outside, you might not even notice it, because it looks like any random newly built temple in South India. But when you enter and walk to the back of the temple, you are rewarded for your persistence. The front portion is new, but the back of the structure dates all the way back to the 7th century AD, and is believed to have been built during the reign of the third Chola ruler Parantaka Chola I. The vimana is in a reasonably good state of preservation and has some exquisite early Chola sculptures.
Brahmapurishwara Temple

The very unremarkable entrance to the temple

Walking to the back of the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

Look at that beauty back there!

There’s an interesting legend about how the main deity here gets his name. Apparently, Lord Brahma was acting a little stuck up because he had the power to create. This didn’t go down too well with Lord Shiva, who chopped off his fifth head and left him powerless. Lord Brahma then had to pray to Lord Shiva, until the latter forgave him and lifted the curse. This form of Lord Shiva that Lord Brahma worshipped, is called Brahmapurishwara.
Lingodhbava, Brahmapurishwara Temple

Below: Lingodbhava – Shiva emerging from a Lingam. Above: The beautiful vimana or tower of the temple

Lingodbhava at the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

A closer look at Lingodhbava

Lord Brahma, Brahmapurishwara Temple

Lord Brahma

Ganesha, Brahmapurishwarar Temple

Lord Ganesh surrounded by Ganas, the plump attendant deities of Lord Shiva

Vimana of the Brahmapurishwarar Temple

A closer look at the vimana

Ganas, Brahmapurishwara Temple

The side of the vimana

The number of temples in the regions around Tanjore and Kumbakonam is absolutely unbelievable. I think we went to about 7-8 major temples that day within a span of just about 35km, including the exquisite Airavateshwara Temple of Darasuram. It is a part of the trio of World Heritage Sites called the Great Living Chola temples – take a look at my post about them.

 
PS: I’ve moved my blog to my own domain. If you are reading this on a blog reader of some sort, hopefully, you should be able to see this just fine. Do take a look at the website and tell me what you think!

Travel, World Heritage Sites

World Heritage Site : The Great Living Chola Temples

As a kid, I’d go to Kumbakonam from Hyderabad almost every summer to visit my grandparents. But in those days, neither photography nor heritage interested me, so I never realized that three exquisite specimens of Indian architecture were so close by! They are collectively called the Great Living Chola Temples, because they were built by the Chola dynasty. The group is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore (or Thanjavur, more correctly), the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram and the Airavateshwara Temple in Darasuram form the trio. All three are dedicated to Lord Shiva. You can read all about them in this series of four photoessays I did for The News Minute, about the World Heritage Sites of Tamil Nadu.

 

A bit of history
The Cholas were one of the most powerful Tamil dynasties of South India. Raja Raja Chola I and his son Rajendra Chola I were two of the greatest Chola rulers, and built the temples in Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram respectively. The third temple in Darasuram was built by Rajaraja Chola II, who came about 8 generations later.

 
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore

This temple is the grandest of the three and was built by King Raja Raja Chola  I in the beginning of the 11th century. It is truly a pinnacle of human achievement. It now has a small museum in it which you shouldn’t miss – the enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff will tell you all the things that make this temple unique.

Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Tanjore
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram
This temple built in the 11th century is strikingly similar to the one in Tanjore. Not surprising, since they were built by father and son.
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Brihadeeshwara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram
This temple built by King Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century is quite different from the other two, but every bit as stunning. The front of the temple is shaped like a chariot. I did a small post about it long ago.
Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram
Airavateshwara Temple, Darasuram
How to visit:
The three temples are almost in a straight line. Darasuram in the middle, is practically in Kumbakonam – it’s just 3 kms away. Tanjore and Gangaikonda Cholapuram are on either side, at 40km and 35kms respectively. You can go to Tanjore (310 kms) or Kumbakonam (270 kms) by bus/train/car from Chennai. Both have decent hotels and taxi services.
 
I took an auto rickshaw from Kumbakonam to Darasuram. To the other two temples, I went in a taxi. There’s a bridge on the way to Gangaikonda Cholapuram on which they don’t allow buses (as of Feb 2014).
 
The temples are closed approximately from 12 to 4 in the afternoon. Kumbakonam has many gorgeous temples that are totally worth visiting but pretty much all of them are closed in the afternoon. If you want any other details, feel free to ask in the comments or on twitter 🙂
Travel

Kanchipuram Diaries III

After visiting a couple of Shiva temples in Kanchipuram, we moved on to the Vaikunta Perumal and Varadharaja Perumal temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu. As you’ve probably guessed, Perumal means Vishnu 🙂 The Vaikunta Perumal Temple was built in the 8th century by the Pallava king Nandivarman II.  Lion pillars like the ones in the Kailashnathar temple make an appearance in this corridor as well.
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Vaikunta Perumal Temple
An Iyengar priest at the temple
The Varadharaja Perumal Temple was built in the 11th century, when the Chola kings ruled over the region. Additions were made by later Chola and Vijayanagara rulers. The structure to the left of the above photo is a 100 pillared hall, an exquisite example of Vijayanagara architecture. The pillars are carved with scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
As with most temples, photography isn’t allowed in the innermost part of the shrine, where the idol of the main deity is. The walls and ceilings there are covered with gorgeous murals from the Vijayanagara period.
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
A small shrine on the way to the main one of Varadharaja Perumal. The temple was shutting down for lunch.
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
A small shrine under a peepal tree in the huge open corridor around the temple.
Travel

Kanchipuram Diaries II

The Kailashanathar Temple is the most beautiful temple in Kanchipuram (read about the city here), and probably the most beautiful of all Pallava temples. It was built between 685 and 705 AD – its construction was started by Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman II and completed by his son Mahendravarman III. It was during the reign of Narasimhavarman II that the practice of building structural temples began. By structural temples, we mean the kind of temples we see today – built from scratch, as opposed to carved out of rocks. The Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram was built during his rule as well, and you can see the similarity in the shikharas of the two temples.
Kailashanathar Temple, Kanchipuram
The entrance wall is lined with 8 small shrines and a doorway to enter the temple
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
A chamber with a blue door flanked by huge dwarapalas or guardian deities supports the main gopuram
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
The entrance to the inner compound that houses the main shrine
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
The main temple with a pyramidal shikhara that resembles Mahabalipuram’s Shore Temple
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
All along the wall enclosing the shrine, are 58 small shrines decorated with carvings and frescoes.
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
Small shrines supported by lion pillars all around
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
Erect lions in different directions all around the base of the shikhara
Kailashnathar Temple, Kanchipuram
Intricate carvings and paintings fill all the small shrines and niches between them
Our next stop was the Ekambareshwarar Temple (also called the Ekambaranathar Temple), Kanchipuram’s largest temple, also dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are 5 Shiva temples in South India that represent the 5 natural elements. Of these, the Ekambareshwara Temple represents the Earth. The temple was built in the early 7th century, when the Pallavas were in power. But the 57 meter high main ‘gopuram’ and a thousand pillar square corridor around the central shrine were built later in the 16th century under the rule of the Vijayanagara ruler Krishnadevaraya.
Ekambareshwara Temple, Kanchipuram
An idol of ‘nandi’, the bull, facing the inner shrine
Ekambareshwara Temple, Kanchipuram
One side of the thousand pillar square corridor
Ekambareshwara Temple, Kanchipuram
1008 Shivalingas line the outer edges of the corridor
Ekambareshwara Temple, Kanchipuram
The imposing entrance tower or gopuram
Travel, World Heritage Sites

World Heritage Site : Darasuram

The temple town of Kumbakonam, about 3 kms from Darasuram, is where my grandparents live, and also where my mom grew up (more on that some other time). My dad and I went there on a 1-day trip, and squeezed in a visit to Darasuram, to see the Airavateshwara temple, built by the Chola king Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century AD. The presiding deity of this temple is Airavateshwara, a form of Lord Shiva.