The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu is rich in history and culture. There are many old forts, temples, palaces and mansions left behind from years of various ruling dynasties. They all demonstrate a different side of life throughout the area’s history.
The state of Tamil Nadu was ruled by the Hindu Nayak Dynasty for over 200 years. When the ruling 17th century Nayak King, Tirumalai, became ill he had a dream. In the dream the Hindu Goddess Meenakshi told him that if he moves the capital to Madurai he will be cured of his illness. In the morning he was healthy, and not only did he decide to move the capital from Trichy (see below), but also to invest in religion and Tamil culture. Madurai was already an important city in the spice trade, but under his rule, it became more prosperous and the Tamil culture became firmly ensconced.
A very important Hindu temple was re-built in Madurai under King Tirumalai. Meenakash Amman Temple is a huge complex dedicated to the three-breasted goddess Meenakash. The legend is that she was born with three breasts and when she first saw her husband, she would lose the extra breast. Meenakash is a manifestation of Shiva’s wife Parvati, so when Meenakash met Shiva, the third breast vanished. This temple is one of the most impressive complexes we’ve seen. Like most south Indian temples, this complex has a wall enclosing all of its 6 hectares. At the four entrances were colourful Gopurams. Gopurams are monumental towers with entryways providing passage through the walls. The Gopurams at this temple are built in Tamil style and are tall, tapered at the top and plastered with stucco pastel figures of god, goddesses and deities.
The interior of the temple is the most interesting part. There are a series of long, windowless hallways with large stone columns and arched doorways. The walls and columns are covered in carvings of demons, gods and goddesses. Walking through the maze of stone passages, it feels more like a castle than a temple. In the centre of the complex is a large holy pool, many shrines and a few Hindu-only temples. At the far end, there’s a large column covered in gold where devotees can be seen prostrating. No cameras were allowed inside the temple.
Not far from the temple is King Tirumalai’s Palace. Only a quarter of the original palace is left today, but what is remaining is gorgeous. The main hall has a large open area with walkways on either side with white pillars and arches on the ceiling. There are colourful paintings and detailed decorations on the roof line. The walkways lead to a magnificent area with carvings and designs on the arches and pillars. The ceiling has 6 small domes with intricate carvings and moldings lining the domes. Its breathtaking. This area is in front of a large open area with a golden throne.
Behind this room is a small entrance to a grand Dance Hall. The walls and trim are covered in intricate sculptures of people and dragons in all sizes. Bright red pillars line the outside walls around a large dance floor. It’s a beautiful room where the king and his wives watched dancers perform to live music.
East of Madurai is the Chettinadu region. In the early 1900s merchants in this area were very successful and very wealthy, building elaborate mansions. They filled their extravagant homes with Italian marble, Burmese teak and rosewood and French chandeliers. At the end of WWII, the trade heyday had come to an end and the merchants sold off most of their valuable possessions and left the mansions to decay. At one point there were up to 30,000 mansions in Chettinadu, today approximately 10,000 remain standing and most of those are in disrepair. A few mansions have been restored as luxury hotels and museums.
After 14 months on the road we decided to treat ourselves to a stay at one of the palatial mansions. We chose Chidambara Vilas located in a small village of Kadiapatti in the centre of Chettinadu. It is a beautifully restored, opulent mansion. The exterior has four minarets with detailed features and colourful designs along he roof’s many levels. Inside is a large grand entry with thick, carved wooden doors. It has grand rooms with high ceilings and large wooden and granite pillars. The guestrooms are re-fitted with new, modern plumbing and flooring, but they retained the old look with their electric plugs. We even had a hand-operated cloth fan above the bed that worked surprisingly well. From our window we could see cheeky macaque monkeys playing on the roof.
We walked through the nearby streets and found at least 30 mansions in various states of disrepair in this small village alone. Most of the mansions had been beautiful, Mughal style palaces with interesting sculptures and designs on the outside. As we toured the area, we could envision how grand it used to be. We imagined the families trying to outdo the others with parties, jewelry and artwork as displays of their wealth.
Today though the Chettinadu wealth is gone and locals live in some of the mansion ruins or in run-down shacks. They are very friendly in this small town, almost every resident said ‘hello’ as we walked by. We are starting to get used to being asked to be in other people’s selfies, but in Kadiapatti and in the neighboring town, a group of school girls and then a family asked us to take their picture with our camera not with their phone. They seemed to love posing for other people’s pictures!
The next village has an interesting fort built on top of large granite boulders. There’s not much left inside Tirumayam Fort now, except a small cave temple that was carved into the boulder. It’s dedicated to Shiva so has a large lingam inside. The fort is on top of a small hill and offers views of the surrounding farm lands.
Further east is the town of Tiruchirappalli, commonly called Trichy, where there is a very old and interesting temple. Rock Fort Temple was originally only a small 6th century temple carved into a massive granite rock. In the 16th century, the Nayak king built two more temples on the rock and chiseled 400 steps into the granite to reach the top temple. It’s a great spectacle from below the massive rock where you can see the temples high above.
Across the river is an unusual temple setting. A series of 7 Gopurams lead the way to Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, making it the largest, functioning Hindu Temple in India. The unusual part is that between the Gopurams, instead of temple grounds, is a busy market with many shops and eateries. The narrow lane is crowded with shoppers, temple goers, motorcycles and cows. At the final Hindu-only temple, we found a long line of people waiting to enter. Looking at the line, we were almost pleased that we weren’t allowed inside. Instead we got another blessing by a temple elephant.
Coming up next: Palaces, Mansions and Temples in Southern India, Part 2
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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