My wife and I, along with my mother and brother, recently made a trip to India to take care of some final rituals related to my dad’s passing last fall. His home village is close to
the larger town of Kumbakonam, a city with a rich history dating back at least 2,000 years. We had a couple of hours to spare before heading back to Chennai, so we took a quick tour of the
town, not knowing when we’d be back.
Location and History
Pallavas, and Pandyas, and later was an important regional center under the British Raj. The town is sometimes referred to as the “City of Temples”due to the enormous number of temples
within the municipal limits – 188 within the city limits itself, and several thousand within the surrounding area – many of which date back several centuries. The city had its heyday
during the Chola empire, which once had its capital a few miles away from the present day city, and again during British rule, when it was called by some the “Cambridge of South India” due to
its importance as a center of Hindu and European education. Today, it is a primarily agricultural town of approximately 140,000 residents, though in recent years, it has become something of a
tourist attraction for both Hindu pilgrims and others interested in seeing the unique South Indian temple architecture.
km to the west), or Madurai (approx. 220 km to the southwest), or hiring a car and driver from those cities. Driving time is also approximately 6 hours, but the road past Viluppuram is in
poor condition – get ready for a lower lumbar adjustment for the last 3 hours or so. Train fare in second class A/C is 600-1,000 ($10-16) rupees per person each way. It’s been years
since I’ve taken the bus there from Chennai, but you are probably looking at 200-500 rupees each way depending on how fancy a bus you take. An A/C car with driver can generally be had for
1,000-2,000 rupees per day.
earlier that morning, we set off to have lunch, see a little bit of the town, and then head back to Chennai later that afternoon. First, a view towards town from our hotel room.
Now, a photo of our lunch at the Hotel Archana – poori with potato curry and coconut chutney. I found it a bit strange that they’d serve the food on a banana leaf, but put the leaf on
a metal plate. Seems kind of redundant if you ask me.
Here, a huge temple pillar looms over the chaotic streets on a Sunday afternoon.
A garland maker shows off his wares (garlands are commonly used as an offering to the gods during ceremonies).
Street vendors selling a variety of fresh fruits.
At the end of the street is the imposing Ramaswamy Koil (Temple), one of the town’s “newer” temples built in the 16th-17th centuries by the Nayak kings. The tall, colorful pillar is
typical of South Indian temples. My wife, mom, and brother are in the last photo.
My mom decides to play with a calf sitting on the sidewalk.
This is a temple holding tank down the street. Many temples built these tanks as a source of holy water for ceremonies, and so devotees can bathe in the water. This tank was
built for the Someswaran Temple behind the tank, part of a larger temple complex known as Sarangapani Temple. This temple complex dates back to the Chola empire, and is probably at least
1,000 years old. Most of these photos show the tank with the imposing Adi Kumbeswarar Temple in the background; that temple was also built by the Cholas, and is reported to be approximately
1,300 years old. The second photo is the pillar of the Someswaran Temple.
Meanwhile, a cow munches on some leftover sugarcane.
And finally, the Kaveri River as we head back to my aunt’s house.
While you’re here, make sure to try the town’s specialty drink, “Kumbakonam degree filter coffee”. It is a type of drip coffee produced using a two-level metal filter with pure cow’s
milk. You can find it in most restaurants in the city, and on the highway south of Chennai leading towards Kumbokonam. Just make sure that you specify that you want “filter coffee”;
otherwise, you are likely to be given the instant Nescafe that has unfortunately become ubiquitous across South India over the last 20 years or so.