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Tamil Nadu

In Photos, Travel

Matangeeshwarar Temple, Kanchipuram

On a recent visit to the historical town of Kanchipuram (read my earlier posts here), I went to a small but very beautiful shrine called the Matangeeshwarar Temple. It is an early Pallava temple, maintained now by the ASI. The temple is hidden away behind a tiny gate on a busy road, and I’d never have been able to find it, if not for google maps. Once you enter the gate, it feels like you’re in a different world – a silent and ancient one.

 

The temple seems to have been built in the 8th century. The lion pillars typical of Pallava architecture are present here, along with beautiful depictions of forms of Lord Shiva. Sadly, the carvings in the temple seem to have been eroded by the ravages of time. I haven’t been able to gather much else about the temple – if I come across any more information, I’ll come back to this post and add to it. Until then, here are some photos 🙂
Mathangeshwara Temple, Kanchipuram

Matangeeshwarar Temple, Kanchipuram

Mathangeshwara Temple Wall Carvings

Wall carvings on either side of the sanctum.

On the left of the above diptych: Shiva performing his cosmic dance or tandav. I don’t recognize the depiction on the right.

Carvings on either side of the sanctum

Carvings on either side of the sanctum

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

Carvings on the exterior of the temple

A typical Pallava lion on the outer wall of the temple

A typical Pallava lion on the outer wall of the temple

Sadras Dutch Fortress
Travel

The picturesque ruins of the Sadras Dutch fort

A not-so-well-known fact about Tamil Nadu is that there were three major (and some smaller ones) Dutch settlements along its coast in the 17th-19th centuries. One in Pulicat, straddling the state’s border with Andhra Pradesh, one in Nagapattinam, and one just about 80km south of Chennai, in Sadras, short for Sadurangapattinam.
 
If you are driving to Mahabalipuram from Chennai, Sadurangapattinam, anglicized to Sadras, is just about half an hour further. The erstwhile settlement, adjacent to the Kalpakkam (of nuclear plant fame) township, has the ruins of a picturesque seaside brick fortress built by the Dutch after their arrival in the mid 17th century. Sadras was famous for muslin, that was woven (or spun?) in its looms. During the Carnatic wars, the warring parties would often conduct their negotiations in the fort, because while the British and the French picked sides and got involved, this Dutch settlement was neutral territory. Back then, the Sadras fort was referred to as Fort Orange, because orange is the colour of Dutch royalty. The British captured it from the Dutch in 1781, but returned it to them in about 40 years. Later, in the 19th century, the Dutch once and for all ceded all of their Indian settlements to the British. Greenery In Sadras
The fort is mostly in ruins, but has some intact structures like a granary, stables and a Dutch cemetery. I don’t know if it is always so beautifully lush, but I went right after the colossal rains of December 2015, so maybe that was it.
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Sadras Dutch Fort
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Apparently, this structure was to help people climb onto elephants:
Sadras Dutch Fort
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Sadras Dutch Fort
If you go to the back of the fortress and climb up the steps there, you can see a lovely blue sliver of the sea!
View of the Sea from the Dutch Fortress of Sadras
The next one is a blurry iphone photo, sorry about that, but I had to include it because it shows a part of the roof in one of the structures of the fort, that has caved in, leaving a gaping hole!
Sadras Fortress Caved In Roof
The ornate tombs in the cemetery date back to the 17th century. It is usually kept under lock and key, but the details on the graves are really beautiful, so make sure you find the caretaker and request him to open it for you. The double decker tomb in the following picture, apparently belongs to two brothers.
Sadras Dutch cemetery
Sadras Dutch cemetery Sadras Dutch cemetery
And finally, a little bit of greenery 🙂
Sadras Dutch Fortress
Greenery In Sadras
Greenery In Sadras
Greenery In Sadras
Ganesha, Brahmapurishwarar Temple
Travel

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!

Great Living Chola Temples
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 🙂
Avudaiyarkovil, Pudukottai
Travel

Avudaiyarkovil

 Avudaiyarkovil
I had the opportunity to visit Avudaiyarkoil (or Avudaiyarkovil), a really small temple town near Pudukkottai in Tamil Nadu, some days ago. These parts are very close to the popular Chettinad region, which I unfortunately didn’t visit. Some other time, I hope!

 

The Avudayairkovil Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva was built by Manikavasakar, a 9th century Tamil poet who was the Prime Minister of the reigning Pandya king. Apparently, he used money meant for purchasing horses for the army, to build the temple. And then Lord Shiva had to appear in the angered king’s dream to sort things out! Additions and modifications were probably made over time, and most of the current structure is believed to date back to the 15th century. What’s special about this temple is that there is no idol of the main deity – he is called Atmanatha, which means formless! Hot pulihora (tamarind rice) mixed with bitter gourd (karela) is spread out on a stone slab and the steam that rises from it is the only offering to the deity.
 
The temple is a treasure trove of intricate sculptures based on Hindu mythology, but it doesn’t get too many visitors. The temple is about an hour away from Pudukkottai, which you can reach by train or road from Chennai. You could also drive down if you are visiting the Chettinad region and have a few hours to spare. We were shown around by a very knowledgeable gentleman Mr. Manikam – do ask at the temple if he is available – he will show you hidden gems that you’ll never spot on your own. Read more about Avudaiyarkovil here.
Avudaiyarkovil AvudaiyarkovilAvudaiyarkovil Avudaiyarkovil AvudaiyarkovilAvudaiyarkovilAvudaiyarkovil Avudaiyarkovil
Armenian Church, Chennai
Travel

From Armenia To Madras

In the 7th and 8th centuries, groups of merchants from a small land far beyond the Hindu Kush mountains started coming to India to sell silk, muslin, spices, timber and precious stones. Starting with the Malabar coast, over the next many centuries, they formed small settlements in different parts of the country from Kerala to Kolkata, and from Agra to Madras. By the 17th century, there was a sizable population of their people in Madras, and the street where most of them lived, came to be known as the Armenian Street.

 

These merchants were Armenians. Armenia is an ancient mountainous country in Eurasia, surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is said that Noah’s Ark came to rest on the Ararat mountains in Armenia after the flood waters receded. It is one of the oldest Christian civilizations, and in the 4th century AD, it became the first officially Christian state in the world.
Armenian Church, Chennai
The Armenian street is home to the Church of St. Mary, India’s oldest Armenian Church. At this point, I’m beginning to count the number of times I use the word ‘Armenian’ in each sentence! The church was first built in 1712, but after getting destroyed in a French siege in 1772, it was rebuilt in its present location – the grounds of what was an Armenian cemetery.
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, ChennaiSince it is built on a cemetery, hundreds of flat graves with inscriptions in the Armenian script are scattered all around the church and in some places it is difficult to move without walking on them. 
Armenian Church, Chennai
Armenian Church, Chennai
While all the other graves are flat and at ground level, a raised one in the garden adjoining the church is clearly special. Buried here is Rev Harutiun Shmavonian, who printed the first Armenian newspaper in the world, sitting in this church! And hence, the open stone book on his grave 🙂
Armenian Church, Chennai
There are no Armenians in Chennai anymore, and the church is maintained by the Armenian Church Committee in Kolkata, which still has a small population of Armenian Christians. Regular service is not held here, but the church is open to visitors from 9 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon. Here’s more about the church if you are interested.

 

After we spent a while at the church, Ashwin’s father took us to a cafe called Hotel Zum Zum (yes, seriously) where he’d hang out sometimes when he was young 🙂
Hotel Zum Zum
For lunch, we went to an old restaurant called Menaka in Hotel Palm Grove. Coincidentally (it wasn’t father’s day or anything 😛my dad regularly ate at this restaurant when he was young (he went to college in Chennai). I had the ‘Madras Meal’, a traditional thaali – simple and very yummy.
Hotel Palm Grove
My birthday was earlier this month, and Ashwin gave me a Fujifilm X-Pro 1. I love the camera so much – it is small and unobtrusive, the colours are gorgeous, the lens (I’m using an 18-55 at the moment) is brilliant and the shutter sounds beeeeautiful ! I used it to shoot the pictures in this post.
Venkatramana Temple Gingee Fort
Travel

Two temples in the Gingee Fort

I shared this photo in my last post – do you see a temple tower on the top right?
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
That is the stunning Venkatramana Temple inside the Gingee Fort. I never imagined I’d use the word eerie for a temple, but I really cannot think of another word to describe it. It was built by a Nayak king in the 16th century, but is now dilapidated and not in use even for worship. When we went, free food was being distributed outside the temple, but there were very few people, and inside, there was hardly anyone. It probably looks a lot more cheerful when it is sunny, but in the rain, it was very dramatic and super gorgeous despite the decay. It was raining pretty heavily by now, so those strange circles you see in some pictures are raindrops on my lens!Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Now the next temple – I don’t remember for sure, and am unable to confirm looking at my photos, but I think this tiny temple by a pond is dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Isn’t it charming?
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Check out my earlier posts part 1 and part 2 for more about the fort and how to get there.

 

Edited to add this warning: This was on a rainy day – on a regular day, the place gets ridiculously hot – don’t get misled by the mist in these photos 😀
Gingee Fort
Travel

Gingee – The Fort

Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
The Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji, is believed to have considered the fort of Gingee (also called Senji or Chenji) India’s most impregnable fort. And yet, the fort has apparently been occupied by most dynasties that ruled the region, like the Cholas (who built it), the Nayaks, the Vijayanagara empire, the Marathas, the Mughals, many others in between and finally the British.
 
Located about 160 kms from Chennai, the fort is built on three hillocks – Krishnagiri, Rajagiri and Chandrayandurg. When you drive into the fort area, it is easy to see how hard it must have been for an enemy army to invade while being attacked from 3 hills simultaneously. Since it was raining pretty heavily when we got there, we could only do one hill, Rajagiri, and did not even climb too far up. A friend said he climbed all three on one day and couldn’t even feel his legs by the time he was done!

 

The Archaeological Survey of India keeps the Gingee Fort really clean. The Rajagiri hillock has an assortment of structures like temples, stables, granaries, tanks and pavilions. Let me now show you some pictures from the hill – mostly from around the base. What would have otherwise been just another (very beautiful) fort, was transformed into a mysterious wonderland by the clouds, the rain and the mist.
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
Gingee Fort, Tamil NaduGingee Fort, Tamil NaduGingee Fort, Tamil NaduGingee Fort, Tamil NaduGingee Fort, Tamil NaduGingee Fort, Tamil Nadu

Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu

After spending some time walking about the ruins, we went to a couple of temples at the foot of the Rajagiri hill before beginning the drive back to Chennai. I’ll show you those in the next post 🙂 
 

If you happen to be in Chennai and have a day to spare, definitely visit Gingee. The road is pretty great most of the way, but traffic can get rough – we saw a very gruesome accident on the way back 🙁 Gingee is stunning in the rains, but slippery roads obviously make the drive riskier, so that’s a factor you must consider. You might want to carry snacks and water with you – there are no shops around the fort. There is a lot of vegetation all around the fort, so it is a nice place for birdwatching too.
Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu
A lily pond on the way to Gingee
Rainy drive to Gingee
Travel

A Drive To Gingee In The Rain

It’s been sooooo long since I posted anything on either of my blogs. When the new year began, I honestly meant to post regularly, but between sheer laziness and other projects that took up my time, I never got around to it.

 

Gingee is a beautiful fort about a hundred miles from Chennai, and I visited it in February. The day before we went, Ashwin, who’s been there many times, kept warning me that it would be really really hot. But when we woke up in the morning, it was drizzling! And then it rained all the way to Gingee and back, right through the day! Such good luck!

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the drive, and we stopped every now and then to take photos – some through the windshield too. So how about I make this post about the drive and the next one about the beautiful fort?
Now that we are well and truly into summer, even looking at these pictures is making me all wistful 🙁
This was how misty the fort looked when we got there!
My first owl spotting on the way back. A Spotted Owlet.
Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary
Travel

Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary

Happy New Year, people! I hope all your dreams come true this year 🙂

 

Almost 3 months ago, we drove to the Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary about 75 km from Chennai, only to find it closed. In the weeks that followed my interest in birds kind of waned. And then last month, when we heard that the birds have arrived and the sanctuary is open, my interest shot up again and we went back 🙂 The drive was even lovelier than the first time because the weather was brilliant.
 
The Vedanthangal lake is dotted with clusters of trees and attracts migratory water birds from many parts of the world that have very harsh winters. The relationship between the birds and the villagers of Vedanthangal is symbiotic – the lake provides a warm and safe feeding ground for the birds, and the bird droppings that fall in the lake fertilize the surrounding fields that receive water from it. The water in the lake recedes in summer, and fills up once the North-East monsoon sets in, just in time for the birds to arrive. One side of the lake is lined by a bund with a tiled walkway and a couple of watch towers for bird watchers, and the rest is surrounded by fields.Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary Vedanthangal Bird SanctuaryCheck out this pelican (I think) landing in the water. I was amazed at how wide the bird is when its wings are open – at least as large as an adult human’s arm span, I bet.Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary