We recently went on an eight-day trip to Southeast Tamil Nadu from Tiruvannamalai. The final goal was to get to the island of Rameswaram and visit the famous temple there. We wanted to go through some historic Tamil locations, too. These included the ancient Chola temples near Kumbakonam, and the historic mansions of the Chettinad region, near Karaikkudai. Coming back, we would stop at Madurai and visit the Ramana Mandarim and Meenakshmi Temple. Our last stop would be at Shanti Vanam, co-founded in 1950 by the Dominican brother Henri Le Saux, who took the Hindu-style name of Swami Abishiktananda, and wrote a famous book about his experiences with Sri Ramana Maharshi, called "Secret of Arunachala".
This is a trip through time. Our plan is to visit great temples from around 1000 CE (around Kumbakonam and in Rameswaram), Chettinad mansions from the 1800s and early 1900s, and the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai with its roots that date back to 100 BCE.
It was a great trip, and one that people visiting Tiruvannamalai can make, too, while theY are here. We will write individual posts about some of our stops. This post is an overview of the trip.
Below, a photo of our destination, the famous Ramanathaswamy Temple in Rameswaram, considered a very holy pilgrimage site. The Temple is also one of the 12 Jyothirlinga temples, where Siva is worshipped in the form of a Jyotirlingam, "pillar of light".
The overall trip was about 1050 km and only about 20 total hours of driving over eight days. We made it an easy trip, never travelling more than about 3 hours in any day. We hired a car and driver for the trip, and stayed in nice places (mainly from the top places listed in TripAdvisor.com).
Here is an overall map of the trip.
Chola Region around Kumbakonam
The first leg of the trip was to go from Tiruvannamalai to Gangai Konda Cholapuram, one of three ancient temples that comprise the UNESCO World Heritage site “Great Living Chola Temples.”
This was the main temple complex of the Cholas about 1000 years ago, when they had one of the biggest empires on the planet. Here is a map of the Chola Empire (from http://tamilvaralaru.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/rajendrachola-i/)
Here is the main tower of the Gangai Konda Cholapuram temple, built by Rajendra Chola-I in the 11th century CE in the Chola capitol of that era. It is similar to the third Great Living Chola Temples, Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur. We are not visiting Brihadisvara Temple on this trip, having done so earlier (see this post).
From Gangai Konda Cholapuram to our hotel in Kumbakonam, the fabulous heritage hotel, INDeco Swamimalai. Kumbakonam is the location of the second World Heritage temple, Airavatesvara Temple, and a center of Chola culture around 1000 CE.
This is a giant Siva bas-relief on the wall of the museum in the INDeco Swamimalai. We particularly enjoyed the tour of this museum.
We also toured a few of the many temples in the Kumbakonam area. For this we had the hotel get us a guide. Here I think this is important, because each temple has its story and history. It was also important that the guide could show our driver how to get there.
The first place we stopped was the oldest Chola Temple. It does not look like much, especially since the temple tower is covered during the refinishing that is part of preparation for a Kumbabishekam, spiritual renewal of the temple. It is a goddess temple, dedicated to Parvati. I wonder if the thinking of the Chola king was like what we found in Rajasthan, that he needed to gain the power – the shakti – only available from the goddess in order to assure a successful reign?
Another stop was at an important local temple we had never heard of, the Suriyanar Koil, a Navagraha temple in Kumbakonam. This temple id dedicated to the sun god, Surya. It also has individual shrines to each of the other nine planets, the Navagraha. Kumbakonam has a full set of individual Navagraha temples, one for each of the planets. If you wanted to visit these, the Suriyanar Koil would be the first you would go for your darshan. Of the smaller temples we visited, this one was the most active, so this Navagraha worship is important to many Tamils.
From Kumbakonam we journeyed to the Chettinad area of Tamil Nadu, and stayed in the small town of Kothamangalam, in a wonderful hotel in one of the great Chettinad Heritage buildings, the Saratha Vilas Heritage Hotel, a restored Chettinad mansion.
Here is the Chettinad Palace in Kanadukathan, also known as the Raja House. It was designed and constructed by Dr. Annamalai Chettiyar, founder of the Indian Bank and the Annamalai University. Construction started in 1902 and took ten years to complete.
An interior room in another Chettinad mansion in Kanadukathan. The Nattukottai Chettiars (the people for whom this region is named) were merchant princes, with business interests as far-flung as Vietnam and Malaysia. They became very wealthy and built grand houses in this area from about 1800 to 1940.
Some of the later mansions are Art Deco-style, like this one below. It is now a grand heritage hotel, the Visalam Heritage Hotel.
It is about a 3-hour drive to Rameswaram from where we stayed in Kothmangalam.
Rameswaram is an island. We drive there on a bridge. Many fishing boats are in the water here. Ocean fishing is the major food production of Rameswaram.
A train track (with a drawbridge) connects Rameswaram island with the mainland. We saw a train go by as we drove over the bridge. The train moved over the drawbridge very slowly.
The big attraction in Rameswaram is the main temple, the Ramanathaswamy Temple. This is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to god Siva.
According to the Ramayana, Rama, the seventh incarnation of God Vishnu, prayed to Siva here to absolve any sins committed during his war against the demon king Ravana in Sri Lanka. To worship Siva, Rama wanted to have the largest lingam anywhere. He directed Lord Hanuman to bring the lingam from the Himalayas. It was taking too long to bring the lingam, so Sita (the wife of Rama) built a small lingam, which is said to be the lingam in the inner sanctum of the temple.
Temple Tanks (from Wikipedia)
There are sixty-four Tīrthas (tanks, holy water bodies) in and around the island of Rameswaram. According to Skānda Purāṇa, twenty-four of them are important. Bathing in these Tīrthas is a major aspect of the pilgrimage to Rameswaram and is considered equivalent to penance. Twenty-two of the Tīrthas are within the Rāmanāthasvāmī Temple. The number 22 indicates the 22 arrows in Rama’s quiver. The first and major one is called Agni Theertham, the sea (Bay of Bengal).
In the early morning many people are gathered to bathe in Agni Theertham. Many bring new clothes which they wear after all the many baths. You cannot take the final darshan in the Inner Sanctum in wet clothes. Old clothes are usually discarded, and are found all along this beach.
Ramanathaswamy Temple. The gopuram is bright in the morning sunlight. You cannot take bags into the temple, so there are shops where you can rent a locker, for your camera, phone and shoes.
In Rameswaram we stayed at Hotel Brindavan Residency. It is close to the beach, Agni Theertham, and Ramanathaswamy Temple.
We wanted to go to Madurai again. We were here several years ago (see this post).
The most important thing we wanted to do was to go to Ramana Mandir, near to Meenakshmi Temple, so we would sit and meditate in Ramana’s realization room. Carol and I find this most special. Carol felt the eyes of the 21-year-old Ramana, in the painting in this room, drill deep into her being.
I love meditating in this space. There is something so special about it for me.
Here is Meenakshi Amman Temple, its North Gopuram.
This gopuram has nicely painted figures going all the way to the top. Each figure has a story. If you knew all these stories, I think you would know much of Hindu lore.
In the temple, there is a tank, a Tīrtham, that is ancient. It is said to be the place where the Sangam, the royal collage of poets and scholars, met during the Sangam period of 100 BCE. This makes the roots of this temple more than 2000 years old! (Photo courtesy of BuzzInTown and www.tushky.com.)
While in Madurai we stayed at Simap Residency, right near the temple and Ramana Mandir. I think the gopuram on their entrance says a lot about them.
Shanti Vanam Ashram, Trichy
An important part of the trip for us was to go to Shanti Vanam. We drove first to Trichy.
Then about 60 km west, to Kulithai, a small town.
A sign pointed to Shanti Vanam on a road to the right before we got into the town.
Here is the entrance to the grounds.
That Henri Le Saux, Swami Abishiktananda, was so moved to establish this place after being with Ramana and living upon Arunachala seems important. It was founded with the idea of it as a place where Christianity and Hinduism can exist together. There is a small number of monks connected to the Benedictine order who live here. Shanti Vanam is open to anyone of any faith who is drawn to the quiet contemplative life. I think this place may offer what some who come to Tiruvannamalai are looking for. I am surprised that more Ramana devotees do not stay here for a while. Some do now.
Here is the newly rebuilt chapel.
In Trichy we stayed at Hotel Grand Gardenia.
Back home to Tiruvannamalai
Finally, three hours and we are home again in Tiruvannamalai.
This was a great trip for us. We saw so much of interest, and places, like Rameswaram, that we had wanted to visit for years. And it was an easy trip for us. Maybe you might take such a journey yourself someday?