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A town of temples

Tamil Nadu has a plethora of towns famous for their temples. But Kumbakonam is special among these. Part 14 of an Outlook special on lesser-known destinations in the state.

In Tamil Nadu, you will find a beautiful temple – big or small, ancient or new - almost every kilometre. But in Kumbakonam especially, history, spirituality and beauty come together to make a charming town. 

Famed for its ancient Hindu temples, Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district lies between the two rivers, Cauvery and Arasalar and is on every spiritual tourist’s pilgrimage list. As one of the oldest documented towns in Indian history, Kumbakonam is equally a must-visit for history lovers. 

The mark of history
First ruled by the Pallava Kings between the 4th and 9th centuries, Kumbakonam then came under the Cholas, who erected many shrines. During this period, the town was an epicentre of art, culture and literature.

After the fall of the Cholas in the mid-12th century, the Pandyas and then the Vijayanagar dynasty ruled. Legend says that Vijayanagara king Krishna Devaraya II visited Kumbakonam in 1524 and took a dip in the Mahamaham pond.

Points of interest
The Abhimugesvarar Temple is a specimen of Dravidian architecture. The Bhagavatha Padithurai Ghat on the Cauvery is believed to wash off a person's sins. These places are visited by thousands during the Mahamaham fair. 

The Gowthameswarar Temple, devoted to Yagnabhaveetheswar and his companion Sundaranayagi, is another famous site. The Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham Mutt, founded by Sri Adi Sankara in 482 BC is a must-visit. The Nageswarar Temple here is among the most notable Shiva temples while the Venkatachalapathy Swamy Temple, just two kilometres from Kumbakonam, is significant for Vaishnavites. 

Another significance here are the Navagraham temples - a set of nine temples, each dedicated to one of the nine planetary deities. Dotted in and around Kumbakonam, these were built between the 7th and 11th centuries by the Cholas.

The Airavatesvara Temple, built by the Chola emperor Rajaraja II, is a historical and architectural marvel. The King was a great patron of Tamilian art and architecture this mighty temple bears witness to the remarkable achievements of the Chola in art, architecture, sculpture, painting, and bronze casting. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is one of the three Great Living Chola Temples and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Mahamaham
The Kumba Mahamaham, held every 12 years, is one of the reasons for Kumbakonam’s fame. Pilgrims come from all over the world to take a dip in the sacred Mahamaham tank as they believe that this will wipe away all their sins. 

Food and fun
Kumbakonam, being a temple town, offers mostly vegetarian fare. Fresh and delicious, the food here keeps tourists happy. Apart from the South Indian staples of dosas, idlis, utthapams, upma and paniyarams, the town is known for kozhukattai – a rice flour dumpling stuffed with a mixture of coconut and jaggery. The paruppu vada (channa dal fritters) and vazhakkai bajji (banana besan fritter) are popular snacks available here. Delicious non-vegetarian food is also available – especially combinations of curries with idiyappam or parrotas.

If one wants to shop for souvenirs and gifts, handloom silk sarees top the list. Idols of gods and goddesses carved in stone or cast in metal are ideal as both stone workers and metal casters of the region are highly skilled. The must-buy is the filter coffee of the area – the Kumbakonam Degree Kaapi – distinctive and special. 

Getting there
By Air: Trichy is the closest airport, 96 kilometres away. 
By Rail: Kumbakonam is well connected by trains with Chennai, Rameshwaram, Kollam, Tirupati and many other destinations of India.
By Road: Travelers can take private buses from Chidambaram, Bangalore, Thirunallar, Trichy, Chennai and other cities

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