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Monday, August 06, 2001

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Simply South


Lalitha Sridhar

Can anything equal the pure joy of an Indian discovering the wonder of his own land, its breathtaking historical and natural diversity?

Just an overnight journey away from chaotic Chennai is this idyllic world of rustic innocence, of quiet railway stations and breezy platforms enlivened by the odd goat chewing grass, looking up only when the rare locomotive thunders into the tranquil pic ture. The Cauvery belt, the verdant rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, is rich in undulating carpets of lush paddy and richer still in the kind of temple architecture so unique to the State of Tamil Nadu.

For a home (sometimes) even better than home, check into the Sterling Swamimalai Heritage Resort -- an establishment not just unique to the region but of a kind not to be found elsewhere. This is an authentic Agraharam (cluster of austere brahmin homes) which has been restored to its original glory. The four-acre property purchased from a family, whose heirs have moved to the anonymity of suburbia, has been retained as it were, with changes engineered to respect the spirit of the original.

The thinnai (traditional sitout) is a place where you can play old-worldly games even as you watch a vaikaal (little canal) of the Cauvery waters meander by. The lobby (as many other nooks) is home to examples of antique interiors ranging from life-size bronze statues to Thanjavur mirror-worked paintings. The teakwood pillars which line the restaurant in the mutram (central courtyard) have now been polished to a genteel shine and the rooms try to be spiritual and 21st century at the same time (they offe r amenities such as air-conditioning and western-style toilets but no cable television!).

Brass urulis (wide, heavy-bottomed pans), white khadi-clad enthusiastic staff, a typically long oonjal (swing), straw screens, lotus ponds, early morning kolams (the traditional rice flour patterns which decorate the doorways of Tamil homes), ayurvedic m assages, meditation, yoga, live performances by vocalists, dancers and percussionists, pottery and sculpting displays, bullock-cart rides and Saivite food (vegetarian, high on variety and taste, but easy on the digestive system, cooked by an orthodox mam i and no alcohol) complete the pretty picture of a hotel which wishes to respect the fact that this home once played host to the Mahaperiyaval of the Kanchi Mutt. If the Rs 1,500 per night/twin-sharing tariff (10 per cent off during off-season) sounds af fordable, then this rural experience in a modern setting is not to be missed.

Alternatively, check into one of the many mid-range hotels in Kumbakonam town and chalk out an itinerary which covers the famous and the unforgettable. The small town itself is legendary for being the sacred land upon which a kumbh (hence Kumbakonam), co ntaining the seeds of creation and borne here by flood waters, was broken by Lord Shiva. There is a popular saying in Tamil -- in whichever direction you bend to pay obeisance in Kumbakonam, you will find a temple.

Chakrapani, Sarangapani, Ramaswamy, Adi Kumbeshwarar -- you can walk down to any one of these extravagantly stone-worked shrines. Plan trips to the historical, ASI-restored Gangaikondacholapuram (Rajendra Chola's tribute to his father's style, showcasing an ornate tower), the 12th-century heritage site at Dharasuram with its unique miniature sculptures and the 22-hectare Chidambaram temple complex housing the four superb gopurams (soaring, decorative towers at the entrances), dedicated to Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer.

The ancient Cholan capital of Thanjavur (or the anglicised Tanjore) remains the cultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, a legacy bequeathed by the glorious Chola kings. The greatest of their emperors, Raja Raja, built the grand Brihadeeshwara Temple in 1010 A. D. Constructed from a single piece of granite, the tower's shikaram, estimated to weigh around 80 tonnes, had to be hauled across a six-km long ramp. The 25-tonne single-rock Nandi is as impressive as the four-metre tall Shiva lingam whose circumference is all of seven metres. Other places of interest which ought not to be missed are Serfoji II's Royal Museum, the Durbar Hall and the Art Gallery nearby as well as the Saraswati Mahal Library which was established in 1700 A.D. and contains over 30,000 pal m leaf and paper manuscripts. Although closed to the public, the adjacent museum gives a fair preview with impressive exhibits such as the entire Ramayana written in palm leaf.

There are several shops selling bronze icons (some so modern that the accommodating Lord Ganesha is seen working on a computer or reading a book!) though it may be difficult to authenticate claims and costs. The same applies to the justly famous Thanjavu r paintings -- this writer felt safer shopping with major Government players such as Poompuhar (Tamil Nadu) or Cauvery (Karnataka) whose outlets in Chennai house fabulous collections worth a walk-through. Besides these, there are a host of other beautifu l temples in the region -- Thiruvidaimarudur, Oppiliyappan, Patteeswaram, to name only a few -- they dominate the scenery and the senses.

A trip to Kumbakonam opens our eyes more than a little wide -- if the simplicity of the people and their cuisine comes as an unexpected perquisite, the endless stretches of emerald farmland linked by a canal here, a stream there and the river everywhere make this rice bowl delta of the quiet Cauvery a place which urges us to stay on and forget the world just a little longer.

Fact file

How to get there

By air: The nearest airport is Tiruchirapalli or Tiruchi.

By train: Overnight trains plying the Tiruchi route are the most convenient -- day-travel on slow passenger trains is avoidably tedious.

By road: Very well connected from Chennai with both State Transport and private operators plying the route. Once in Kumbakonam, hire a cab from one of the many agencies (average fare is Rs 5 a km) -- the cabbies assist well in planning the itinerary (mos t temples fall within a 50-km radius, some a little more) and come up with reliable suggestions.

Where to stay: Accommodation is available depending on the budget. For those on a high-end budget, the Sterling Swamimalai Resort is the best option and mid-range hotels are also available.

When to visit: The best season to visit the Kumbakonam area is the post North-East Monsoon season, from mid-November to end-January. The festive air around Pongal, the harvest festival, lends plenty of additional colour.

Picture: The Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur.

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