With the first streaks of dawn, I hear the familiar rhapsody of the morning rituals, sprinkling of water, swishing of brooms and the white, rice powder kolams taking shape outside entrances to homes. We are on our way to the erstwhile princely state of Pudukottai, 390 km away from the Tamil Nadu capital on the Chennai-Rameshwaram route. Travelling along the ECR (East Coast Road) in our Innova, we skirt the coastal regions of Sadras, Tranquebar, and Nagapattinam before halting for the night at Tiruvarur, the ancient town in Chola heartland, home to the famous Sri Tyagarajaswamy Temple.
A bruised and swollen sky eclipses the sun as we embark from Tiruvarur on the final stretch to our destination – Pudukkottai town and capital of the district. Pudukkottai, colloquially called Pudhugai, is nestled between the districts of Thanjavur, Ramanathapuram, Sivaganga and Tiruchirapalli and is fringed by the waters of the Palk Strait on its southeast. It was formerly one of the princely states of India comprising the three taluks of Alangudi, Tirumayam and Kulattur, with headquarters at Pudukkottai. However, it was formed as a separate district on 14 January, 1974.
Tall trees interspersed with verdant fields of sugarcane, banana and other vegetation flank the highway, forming green-grey tunnels in stretches. Soon there is a downpour and our vehicle cruises along the well laid roads at a slower speed, to the symphony of a dozen different notes of the falling rain that switches tempo and momentum before fading to a scattered plop-thump of fat drops within the hour.
Peacocks are everywhere in Pudukottai – on the fields and on the roads, dashing from one side to the other. I spot a sprightly one in the midst of a cluster of Eucalyptus trees, opening its bright plumage and waltzing gently to the rhythm of the mild drizzle. Before I can capture this awesome spectacle on my camera, it scampers away.
A wealth of culture and antiquities meet our eye in the numerous megalithic dolmens spread across the district. While ancient archaeological ruins and monuments lie cheek-by-jowl with bustling towns, the district boasts rock-cut cave temples, predominantly belonging to the Pandya and Muthariyar eras. The large numbers of burial sites discovered in the district testify to the existence of pre-historic man in some of its villages.
Pudukottai gave birth to illustrious poets Ollaiyur Budha Pandyan, Perumchattan, Avurkilar, and Erichi, who made contributions to Sangam Tamil literature. The Pandyas, Cholas, Pallavas, Hoysalas, Vijaynagar and Madurai Nayaks exercised their sovereignty over Pudukottai at various times and helped establish and develop its eco-socio and cultural fabric. Several temples and monuments of outstanding architectural beauty reveal an amalgam of styles of the various dynasties.
The ancient, 9th century Kunnan Andavar Temple, 13 km from the capital town of Pudukottai is our first halt. We are treated to delightful views from the low rocky hillock upon which the temple stands – a rich mosaic of scenic landscapes, dotted with historic monuments. The processional idols of the temple dedicated to Shiva are being taken in procession as we enter its precincts, which reveal a wealth of sculpture in its assembly hall and interior.
Keeranur, 20 km away, home to the Uththama Nathaswamy temple, has us spellbound with its sculptural grandeur. A Mutharaya edifice dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is an ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) declared heritage monument that has epigraphs from the Chola and Vijayanagar periods. We are amused to see a queue of young boys waiting their turn to whisper into the ears of the huge stone Nandi at the temple entrance. The belief, we are told, is that prayers so delivered would be answered by Lord Shiva!
Before breaking for lunch, we visit the Pallava period, gigantic, rock-cut Thiru Gokarneshwara Temple, also known as Vyagapuriswara-Brahadambal Temple in Pudukkottai town. Built during the reign of Mahendravarma Pallava, the temple’s presiding deity is Gokarneshwara, with his consort Brahadambal. While the temple attracts tourists by the droves for its sheer architectural and sculptural magic, devotees throng it since they believe it to be a powerful wish-fulfilling place of worship. On the towering rocks that form the background to the temple, are carved the idols of the 63 Nayanmars or Saivite saints.
We visit the Pudukkottai Museum nearby. It is one of Tamil Nadu’s finest and also its second largest museum. Established in 1910, it boasts rare collections of fine sculptures and bronze images, paintings, musical instruments, copper plates, weapons, wood carvings, coins and more.
The Pudukottai Palace, residence of the Tondaiman rulers, who ruled here from 1673 till 1948, now houses the district collector’s office, but the royal descendants still live in a mansion opposite.
Post lunch on the first day of our stay in Pudukottai, we visit the rock cut cave temples at Kudumianmalai, Sittannavaasal, Annavaasal and Narthamalai. These are most alluring sites where history breathes, legends come alive and the landscape is most panoramic and inviting. Each one of them makes a good picnic spot with several trails for adrenaline-pumping rock climbing activities.
Kudimiyanmalai is gorgeous poetry on rock with its exquisite 1000-pillar hall and sculptural extravaganza. An interesting inscription in this temple dedicated to Sikharagiriswarar, is one relating to Mahendra Varma Pallavan who is known to have made a treatise on music here.
Rich megalithic sites are found in the Jain caves at Sittannavasal, one of the oldest human habitations in the district, and predominantly a centre of Jainism in the 2nd century B.C. A huge rock rises 70 mts into the skies, surrounded by abundant greenery. We pass a little garden to reach a flight of uneven steps that takes us to the cave temple of Sittannavaasal, the name being a distortion, perhaps, of the Tamil word chirran-nal vaayil, meaning “the abode of great saints”. While the hilltop affords a spectacular view of Pudukottai’s environs, the temple itself is characterized by an ardha mandapam, the side walls of which contain the images of the Jain Thirthankaras while the ceiling hosts frescoes of the 9th century, similar to the paintings at the Ajanta Caves. Essentially a Pandyan contribution, the paintings, done from natural dyes, portray the Dharma Chakra or the ‘wheel of law’, pertaining to Jainism. The central theme relates to the special audience hall with the lotus pond, Jain monks, apsaras, bulls, elephants, swans and other floral patterns. Though the paintings have lost their original sheen, much of it is visible and has been preserved for posterity.
We wind up our first day’s sojourn with a visit to Narthamalai, a small cluster of hills, originally known as Nagarathar Malai, for a group of merchants engaged in a trade route between Pudukottai and Tiruchirapalli. We immediately warm to the locale that seems a perfect picnic spot. Though the hills are rocky, the surrounds provide ample verdure. Monkeys rule the roost in the dense forests that are interspersed with tall cacti plants that hold up little yellow blossoms. Fortunately, the weather gods being cooperative, we brave some thrilling rock-climbing to the hill top that overlooks a village pond. Narthamalai is home to some of the oldest rock cut cave temples built by Mutharayars and by Vijayalaya, the first king of the later Cholas. We also see here, the longest rock-cut edicts that are similar to the Ashokan edicts, a rarity in South India.
We begin our second day at Pudukottai with a trip to the abode of Lord Muruga at Viralimalai, also a peacock sanctuary, about 40 km from Pudukottai. We climb 200-plus steps to reach the temple that is ensconced amidst green forests from which we constantly hear the call of peacocks. We learn from a self-appointed guide here that cigars are a unique offering made to the Lord here. According to legend, the Lord is believed to have appeared in the dream of the reigning sovereign, Ramachandra Thondaiman, and requested the offering of cigars for a couple of pujas performed here. The king, who was ailing from some disease, is supposed to have been cured of it after he offered the cigars to the Lord! Thus began the tradition of offering cigars to Lord Muruga at Viralimalai.
I am at once struck by the serene ambience that is all pervading as we approach Kodambalur, 36 km from Pudukottai. It is perhaps the oldest historically recorded sites, more popularly known as Moovarkoil for the trio of shrines it once comprised. The highlight of our trip was a visit to the Tirumayam Fort, declared a heritage site by ASI. Towering over the townscape, the historic fort is built on huge boulders encircling a small hillock, 20 km from Pudukkottai town on the Karaikudi-Rameshwaram-Trichy highway. Tirumayam is the birth place of the famous freedom fighter Satyamurthy and its fort, built by Sethupathi Vijaya Raghunatha Thevar, served as a hiding place for the freedom fighter Veerapandiya Kattaomman, the Indian chieftain from Panchalankurichi, who along with his brother Oomadurai, revolted against the British imperialists in the 18th century. The British on the other hand, used the fort as an armory during the Second World War.
Besides the wonderfully carved stone statues, chains and pillared mandapams, the 1000-year old temple boasts a marvelous chariot, known for its wood carvings. It is the first sight that meets our eye, standing majestically by the side of the temple entrance.
We are glad we reserved one of the best for the last as we take leave of Manickavasagar and Athmanatha. We remain mesmerized having feasted on the artistic wonders that perhaps, effortlessly emerged from the hands of some of the most skilled craftsmen and artisans that Tamil Nadu and India could ever boast of – the country’s plethora of unsung heroes who passed into oblivion, leaving behind masterpieces etched in timeless history. On our way back we visited some of the fabulous mansions built by rich Chettinad merchants in nearby Kanadukathan.