If you love to retrace the footsteps of ancient cultures, myths and legends you certainly have to come to this part of India. If you are keen to explore more than just the century and measurements of temples then this is the place. If you share my fascination of mythology and the socio economic background of some of the most astonishing achievements of 3000 years ago, then Kumbakonam is the place to experience. This is the land before religion, where Shiva, the all-pervading form of existence is worshipped as the five elements and the nine celestial bodies, the planets. Take a step back into time when the Vedas and Upanishads were written, studied and explored. A time where sound was an understood as an in music manifested emotion. Shiva’s Tandava at Chidambaram is nothing less than the victory of our supreme self over the destructive elements of our ego.
If you take time to explore this area, you explore shrines and arts that reflect the spirit of ancient science, where the influence of the cosmos on our physical and mental system was studied and explored. The culture of South India right up to the invasion of the British indicates a socio political system of a very high order, where a loosely formed caste system set the base for a non violent coexistence. No surprise, that this culture was of great interest to others and travelled far and served as the foundation of the temples of Ankor Wat and the Hindu faith in Bali.
In compare to the Northern part of the country, South India was untouched by islamic wars and invasions and retained a less diluted form of its ancient knowledge.
The British in turn were after the material riches and even forcefully tried to eradicate local knowledge, rather than learning from it. Much of India’s wisdom was forced underground and is being gradually revived. Ayurveda, Yoga, Kalaripayattu and other forms of physical, mental and spiritual healing are rediscovered, to a large extend also fuelled by western curiosity and the recognition that western capitalism is turning into a proposition that raises more questions than providing answers. Besides this age old technics of healing there is an incredible wealth in art and music in this region.
For me a magical point of innate attraction and a must see is the Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja temple, considered to be the place, where Shiva danced his Tandava, the celestial dance of creation. The name of the city literally means “atmosphere of wisdom”. The temple architecture symbolises the connection between creative arts and the divine. The temple represents one of the five elements (air, ether) and is considered to be the geomagnetic centre of the earth.
Another very important cultural and historical part for Hindu faith are the Navagraha, or the temples of the nine planets. These shrines can be found in small villages or completely surrounded by fields.
Darasuram is not a living temple these days. Yet, it is a wonderful place to see the astonishing temple architecture in a smaller form. Its nice to observe the intricacies of the workmanship once not in neck craning heights. The temple boasts a wonderful insight into the temple art of South India including many fine and wonderful sculptures adorning walls and pillars.
Gangaikondacholapuram, another close by wonder, is known as an architectural and engineering marvel. It is open and without the traditional temple walls and has one of the largest statues of Nandi, Shiv’s bull in India.
When you look at one of the bronze idols in temples and shops, you look at a craft that goes back more than a thousand years. This art, is also known as the lost form. Statues are sculpted from wax, slowly covered in clay, dried, covered again and eventually baked in a kiln. The hot wax is drained from the freshly baked clay and and replaced with molten bronze. A fascinating art and by all means not as easy as it sound here, as only about 10% of the efforts prove to be effort of grace and beauty.
India and Saris is a love story dating centuries back and there is no garment that dresses a woman with more elegance than this 5 meter piece of woven craftsmanship.
In the village of Thirbuvanam almost every house owns a handloom. On my last visit, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Jothi, a master weaver. He explained, that the fine silk from the factory is too thick, so its manually split into three, producing an almost invisible thread, that is used to hand weave the most wonderful Saris, interwoven with artistic gold and silver patterns. This craft has been part of this region for generations. No wonder then, that these silk saris are considered among the finest in India.