I had seen a great deal of Tamil Nadu on my first trip to India so I hadn’t really intended to go back, but I found that a short foray through Tamil Nadu would permit me to head North without retracing journeys I had already made in Kerala. Plus it would give me an excuse to return to one of my favorite South Indian temples the large early 11th century Chola built temple at Tanjore, now known as Thanjavur. I also included Kumakonam on my itinerary a temple city which I had not visited before and which is known for its Chola period temples. However, my first stop upon returning down to the warm humid plains of Tamil Nadu from the mountainous highlands of the Ghats was the massive and famed Sri Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. Unfortunately, its signature huge entry towers know as gopurams were mostly covered in preparation for the monumental task of repainting, a task which is carried out once every 20 years. The scaffolding in addition to the unseasonable rain made for less than ideal photographic conditions, nevertheless I enjoyed wondering the stone pillared halls with the echoing drum beat of various puja ceremonies which added to the bustling atmosphere. I also happened to be in Madurai for Holi, an exuberant festival in the North in which celebrators throw colored dyes on each other to celebrate the beginning of spring. Unfortunately, this festival is largely ignored in the south but there were at least a few kids in Madurai who couldn’t pass up the excuse to have an all out water/dye war.
From Madurai it was on to Thanjavur and the start of my Chola temple tour. The Cholas were a south Indian dynasty whose period of power lasted from the 9th through the 13th centuries. They are most noted in the art community for their exquisite and highly prized bronze sculptures, a fine collection of which grace the art gallery in Thanjavur. However, most impressive to me, are the Cholas’ towering stone carved temples. The finest example of Chola architecture is the Brihadishwara Temple at Tanjavur. While not as famous as Tanjavur, the temples in around Kumakonam were very impressive as well especially those at Dharasuram and Gangakondacholapuram. Kumakonam is a friendly city which sees relatively few foreign tourists. On the day I was leaving town, I had the good fortune to run into an enthusiastic and friendly local business man. He showed me a bit of the countryside and villages outside town, fed me some delicious homemade dosas, courtesy of his wife, and accompanied me as far as Trichy on the train to Coimbatore, my next destination, en route back up into the mountains and the hill station of Ooty.