No trip can be termed more shoddily planned as this weekend out – basically, there was no plan. Friday evening, at 10 in the night, I decided to go out somewhere and zeroed on Thanjavur big temple and Chidambaram. I was thinking about Chidambaram for a long time, actually. Initially, I thought of going to Tanjore first, spend the day and then go ahead to Chidambaram and turn back to Chennai by the end of second day. But, when I understood I am going to get up late, I shuffled it as Chidambaram first, stay depending on when I come out of the temple.

I started by 11:15 and due to some meaningless acrobatics, reached CMBT only by 12:45 after having a lunch. Entering the bus bay, the first bus I saw was to Trivandrum. I was told that the bus will start by 2 and will reach Trivandrum by 6 in the morning. Chidambaram plan scrapped off again.

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Got confused which state Trivandrum is in?

I had to wait  half an our for the room which I booked to get ready and I was out towards the temple by 9. The temple was a kilometer afar and I decided to go by walk. After asking for instructions and through Google maps, I hit the temple by around 9:30. It was a very serene view across three temple pond with the Rajagopuram dominating and people ambling around. These Kerala temples have got a typical rule. You will have to wear a dhoti only. You can user a towel or a shawl to cover your torso but you should remove that when you are before the Lord. In Kerala, you won’t see people wearing dhotis in the traditional style. For Andhra people, what they wear is a white lungi. Even that was visible in the temple – I didn’t see even a single person wearing dhoti in the traditional style. I saw one after coming out, another of my age, ironically. The usage of this sort of dhoti, which they call double dhoti can be gauged from the fact that the lady in the counter had to open a bundle for me to get one.

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Security check was simple just because you wear nothing but a dhoti and a towel and hold your purse. The temple is not a big one and an old one. Even, the main statue is new. This temple is a clear example of the concept of Prana Pratishta – the statue we see is a personification of the shapeless divine godhead – the place is what matters, not the statue. The organization of the temple is thus – there is a traditional Keralite temple in the centre with all its slanting roofs and there are other shrines. These are enclosed by a massive wall topped by a Rajagopuram and then, by a corridor for the people to walk. The Gopuram, unlike whatever I saw elsewhere, is more wider. The corridor is a long, pillared one as like in temples like that of Madurai with sculpted pillared supporting it, each one having the statue of a lady holding a lamp. Each pillar has carved images on each side and every side has three images, one below the other, the topmost one, almost always an animal motif. The other ones are both religious and social. Well, the presence of erotic sculptures, sculpted by some frustrated person, was much higher than any other temple and some ones are too extreme to be shown in a public place. There was a tinge of violence in the theme as well. There is a gallery just before the entry into the next level consisting of four very huge sculptures, very beautifully carved. One thing which I missed there was a pillared hall with some exquisitely carved pillars. It was a paid entry and I thought of going there, but forgot completely. The next chamber is where the Dhwajasthamba is located, along with some other statues. It’s a very small room leading to the main temple area. The temple is located on an elevated platform which you need to climb either from the side or from the front. There are other small shrines in and around, though. One great advantage with this temple is that the main statue is very near to see from. It is a 6 metre reclining statue of Lord Vishnu with Brahma coming out from his navel(Padmanabha reclining on Ananta – AnantaPadmanabha) visible through three chambers – one for the head, one for the torso and one for the feet. However, it is to be noted that the platform, the statue and even the temple are no more than 350 years old, even though the tradition of praying at that place is from antiquity. The statue is made of 12000 Salagramas and is covered with some herbal coating. No one is supposed to have their torso covered before the idol. I came down, and after ambling around for some time(there were a few other temples as well, one for the goddess I think, which was crowded), it’s time to go back.

Before collecting my luggage, I came across a board directing to a museum. It turned out to be a royal palace. Unlike other palaces I saw, this is not imposing or majestic. It looked like another house with not so big rooms, but you will only understand the scope of it once your legs start aching. Kuthiramalika Palace by name, it was built for Swathi Thirunal between 1842 and 1846. The palace was left unoccupied after Swathi Thirunal passed away at a young age in 1848(because it’s south facing). The palace is named Kuthira Malika/Garland of horses going by the 122 horses carved into the brackets supporting the roof. The floor is pitch black, made with a combination of charcoal, egg white and burnt coconut shells and is unmaintained all this time. The palace in itself is a sort of arranged guided tour in a museum setup amalgamated into the features of a house. It houses the treasures of the Royal Family as well as a considerable number of paintings and photographs. The entry in itself starts with portraits of the kings, with one, a very large one with the eyes of the ruler which appear as if they are looking towards you wherever you stand. One of the highlight is a crystal throne and another, made of ivory. There is an assortment of items related to warfare, music, religion, collectibles and items of day to day use. It is an end to end setup with everything from a bath tub filled with rain water to a dance chamber to a library to private rooms to formal chambers. Some parts of the roof are made of very high quality rosewood and rest of it with teak. The private chamber of the king contains a sealed door which directly leads to the temple. There is a window in that chamber through which you can see seven windows one after another. Even, the roofs were interesting to look at. It was a guided tour conducted by ASI and the interest shown by the guide was commendable. The tour ended on a platform – a Natya Mantapa with a few interesting carvings – a sliding ring which the sculptor left there and a baby squirrel. It is interesting to note that what we covered was only a part of the building – another 60 rooms in the palace were locked off. This ended, now, it’s time to go to another building in the complex, this exclusively a photo gallery of the royal family, a superb one encompassing all sorts of life and a set of paintings over Krishna Leela Tarangini I guess. Even, eroticism there. One important thing I learnt during the visit to the second building was, Trivandrum was also like Venice – no roads, only water to travel. Well, it means that Trivandrum rulers decided comfort is more important than show off while the rulers of Venice decided otherwise.

Time to collect the luggage deposited, I found it not so comfortable to change from the Dhoti into a trousers and went on city exploration on a dhoti itself. The next target was Napier Museum. Even though I was standing in a bus stop, there is no way for me to tell what bus to take – there are no bus numbers whatsoever. I had to take an auto to go to the destination. Located in the city zoo, it is a small museum but with a great collection of bronze, ivory and East Asian art.

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Frankly, I haven’t seen ivory carvings of that great quality anywhere and is a must visit for those interested in that field. The finishing in statues of Lord Krishna or Lakshmi or others, it’s a must watch. So are the bronzes. The painting gallery is closed I guess, there was no hint that it existed there. Even, the park in which it is set is very well maintained.

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The view from the Museum

Just outside the park complex, there is another one, run by the Kerala Government in the tourism department complex. This is the first place where Tipu’s cannons made sense. He tried to invade Travancore and failed. The museum is a general one talking about every aspect of Kerala life – prehistoric earthenware, stone axes, replicas of murals, a setting of a traditional house, bronze and stone sculptures and everything. Though not exceptional, both the museums are worth the time you spend there.

I had the first taste of Kerala only after I reached my room. On lunch, the water provided to me was in pinkish red colour and warm. Looks like it’s some medical concoction which people use it day in and day out.

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For some reason, I had a nagging doubt that the Shahi Paneer which I ordered as main course was made with coconut grate. All done with Trivandrum now, I will have to move to a different place to spend the next day. The options I got – Guruvayur and Kanyakumari. Being a long weekend and that too on the last day, I feared Kanyakumari – the time it takes there, the rush and the availability of seats back Chennai. I decided on Guruvayur. Now, the question is how to go. There are no bus numbers written, I had to ask every passer by if this bus goes to Calicut. Unwittingly, I entered a bus going to Alleppey(even though it’s written in English) and asked him Guruvayur. He pointed me to the next bus, an AC Volvo going to Kollur Mukambika and asked me to get down in Thrisur. Luckily, there were seats and the journey started by 4 PM. A road trip in Kerala will clearly show you some things – narrow roads, continuous civilization(cross Kollam, the road is continuously dotted by houses), abundance of greenery, water and money. There are many very rich houses, there are many streams and backwaters. The projecting waters near Kollam, near Alleppey and Kochi are a beauty.

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You can feel the water even if it is dark as what I saw in Kochi. I reached Thrisur 1:30 hrs late at 12 in the night and took a room then and there.

Next day morning, I went to Guruvayoor, 25 km from there. That was the widest stretch of road(Thrisur-Calicut) I saw in Kerala. Once I neared Guruvayur, I understood the mistake I did – I should have stayed in Guruvayur itself, not Thrisur. Had I did that, I would have been in the temple by 3 or 4, not at 10:30 in the morning. The organization was haphazard, with 30 minutes(an average of 3-4 minutes per person) at the cloak room to surrender the luggage) and no indication whatsoever why the line to the temple is stopped. The line to the main temple almost stood without moving for more than an hour, but no complaints there. The temple, unlike Trivandrum which is a Keralite one in the middle and surrounded by Dravidian outside, is completely Keralite with pyramidal domes.

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The central shrine was decked in gold covering and the entrance to the temple in silver.

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Since there was a bus leaving Chennai by 1:30 in the afternoon, I had to pray the lord from outside itself and hope only to go there some other day. As it looks, there is a musical festival going on in the temple premises and I guess, this is a regular happening. This temple is much bigger than that of Trivandrum and what I heard later, it’s better not to hit the temple on Thursdays, Kerala’s first day of month and between 5 and 8 in the morning (that time is dedicated only for the old and infirm). The temple opens by 2:45 and either 1 in the morning or 12 in the noon are the best times for visit. I don’t know, but unlike in Trivandrum, I was allowed to wear my shirt; may be I should remove it when I enter the main temple. Two very interesting sights enroute – a Siva temple just near to the Krishna Temple of Guruvayur, which people are supposed to visit(that’s the first temple where I saw an elephant in Kerala – not even in Anantapadmanabha Swamy temple) – a moderate sized one, but packed to the hilt;

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and a mahout stopping at a tea shop with his elephant(I will always regret not taking that photo) . There is one another thing, the day was August 15 and that is the first time I saw those many tricolour flags anywhere.

Time to go back home, an interesting trip worth remembering, a very long one with no aim whatsoever. I cut across all the big cities of Kerala and Tamil Nadu except Calicut in an epic journey of 1800 km, all in public buses. May be, I should visit these temples and these places once again with a better plan the next time – the trip was great but it was not complete.

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