LIKE KANCIPURAM Kumbakonam is one of the most sacred cities in Tamil Nadu. Located on the southern bank of the Kaveri river, this is an ancient city where, as legend says, Shiva’s arrow shattered the cosmic pot azumbb) containing the divine nectar of creation (amrit). This myth has given Kumbakonam both its name and sanctity. Today, the city represents the traditional cultural values of the Tamil heartland. It is also the region’s main commercial and craft centre, famous for Its textiles, jewellery, bronze cast.
ing and the superior quality of its locally grown betel leaves, It is believed that when the divine nectar emerged front the pot, it filled the huge Mahamaham Tank. This is Kumbakonam’s sacred centre and the site of the great Mahamaham Festival, held every 12 years (the next one will be held in 2004). At the auspicious time, thousands of devotees enter the tank for their holy dip. This is when the purifying power of the water is said to be at its height The devout believe that all of India’s nine sacred rivers (Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati, Sarayu, Godavari, Narmada, Kaveri, Payokshini and Kanniyakumari) also bathe in the tank to cleanse themselves of the sins of humanity accumulated in their waters.
The tank, renovated by the Nayakas in the 17th century, has steps at the four cardinal points, and 16 ornate pavilions in honour of the 16 mahadanas (great gifts bestowed by a ruler on a spiritual centre). A fine example of Nayaka art is a relief depicting a king being weighed on a balance against gold (a ceremony known as lulapurushadeva), carved on the roof of a 16-pillared mandapa that stands at the northwest corner of the tank. the north is the Kashivlshvanatha Temple, which has a small shrine facing the water; this is dedicated to the nine sacred rivers, personified as goddesses. The shrine representing the Kaveri river occupies the central position. To the east of the tank is The 17th-century Adikumbhrshvara Temple, built on the legendary spot where Shiva shattered the pot. A unique feature here is the depiction of 27 stars and the 12 zodiac olgns carved on a large block of stone in the Navaratri Mandapa. It also has a superb collection of silver vahanas • (vehicles) which are used during festivals to carry the Irinple deities. The grand, storeyed Sarangapani ‘temple, to the east, is the Most important Vaishnavite mlirine in the city.
Nearby is the 9th-century Nageshvara Temple, a fine ,A mple of early Chola archir. . lure. The town’s oldest mple, this is the site of an usua l festival that celebratesworship of the linga by di,. sun. Niches on the sanctum walls contain exquisitely red figures depicting the hows of Shiva, and scenes the Ramayana.
ENVIRONS: The spectacular Airavateshvara Temple at Darasuram, 4 km (2.5 miles) west of Kumbakonam, was built by the Chola king, Rajaraja II (r.1146-73). This temple is dedicated to Shiva, who is known here as Airavateshvara, the , “Lord of Airavata”. Legend claims that after Airavata, the white elephant of Indra, the God of the Heavens, regained his lost colour, he worshipped Shiva at this spot.
The four-tiered temple has a sanctum and three halls, of which the finest is the Rajagambira Mandapa, conceived as a stone chariot drawn by caparisoned horses, with Brahma as its driver. The outer walls have fine friezes and carvings of musicians, dancers and acrobats as well as depictions from the Periya Puranam, a Tamil treatise on the 63 Shaivite poet-saints, the Nayannars. The late Chola temple at Tirubhuvanam, 8 km (5 miles) northeast of Kumbakonam, is dedicated to Kumbheshvara, the “God who Removes Fear”. This is also an old silk weaving centre. About 8 km (5 miles) west of Kumbakonam is Swarnirnalai, one of the six sacred shrines devoted to Lord Murugan who, legend says, propounded the meaning of “Om”, the sacred mantra, to his father Shiva, and thus assumed the title Swaminatha (“Lord of Lords”). The temple, situated on a hill, has an impressive statue of Murugan in the sanctum; interestingly, he has an elephant as his vehicle instead of the typical peacock. This small village is also an important centre for bronze casting, where artisans still use traditional methods to create beautiful images for temples.