Madurai is home to a number of sacred sites whose origins have now passed into the land of myth and legends. The original temple structures built on the sacred sites no longer exist today for over the centuries, they have been added to or rebuilt or renovated to become the temple complexes they are today. Along the way their myths, legends and history have intertwined to create a tradition of rituals and festivals that continue to present day.
The Kallazhagar and Koodal AzhagarKovils are two such temples in Madurai. Both are Vishnu temples and are part of the 108 divya desams or divya kshetrams — temples mentioned by the Alvars or the poet-saints of the Srivaishnava tradition. The main deities in both the temples are called Azhagar, which means beautiful / handsome in Tamil. Both the Azhagar Kovils have their own unique origin story or sthalapuranam, and are significant in understanding the region’s political history, religious traditions, and architectural landscape.
Let us first begin with an exploration of the KALLAZHAGAR KOVIL.
The Kallazhagar Kovil and its setting in the lush green Azhagar Malai in the background
Earlier this year, on the 2nd of January, I took a flight out of Mumbai for Chennai to join a small group of music and culture enthusiasts for a 3-day tour of Madurai.
Known variously as Halasya Kshetram, Koodal Nagaram, Aalavai and Kadamba Vanam, among others, Madurai is better known today as a temple town and is synonymous with the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. But Madurai has rich history that predates the temple and one that goes back to more than 2,000 years making it one of the oldest cities in the country. The city has been the seat of Tamil literature, culture, learning, politics, religion, and more.
An overnight train journey later, our group was in Madurai looking forward to exploring the city and getting to know it better. This was my second trip to Madurai, but it could very well have been my first for the previous visit in 2005 was only about visiting the Meenakshi Temple ! This trip, too, began with a visit to the Meenakshi temple — considered to be the heart of the city and the point from where the city is believed to radiate out like a lotus — before we moved on to explore other parts.
About 180 km south-west of Jaisalmer, where the Thar Desert meets some isolated outcrops of the Aravalli mountain ranges, lie the ruins of the temples of Kiradu. It is believed that there were around 108 temples on this site, but today only 5 temples remain — 4 of those are dedicated to Shiva and 1 temple is believed to have been dedicated to to Vishnu.
I first heard about the temples at Kiradu when I received an invitation from Suryagarh. The itinerary attached with the mail included a visit to these temples. I was intrigued enough to look up for more information on the internet immediately — even before I accepted the invitation. To my surprise, I found little substantive information online. This only made the temples more intriguing and mysterious for me and I couldn’t wait to see them for myself when I visited Suryagarh in July 2016.
And after lunch on my last day at Suryagarh, we set off to see the Kiradu temples. It was a beautiful, but long, drive through the Thar, through dramatic changes in the landscape from desert to hilly.
It was around 6 pm when we arrived at the Kiradu temples, which meant I had an hour or so before sunset and before the light faded. The next hour saw me racing from temple to temple, pumped with adrenaline, trying to take in as much of the details as I could and photographing whatever I thought was interesting or significant.
A nritya (?) mandapa with elaborately carved toranas and pillars. One of the pillars has been reconstructed as part of the restoration work undertaken by the ASI at Kiradu
The mid-day sun in July is hot and harsh as is the landscape around. I am somewhere in the Thar Desert — about 30-40 km west of Jaisalmer city — and the ground is hard, dry, and stony in most parts with some sandy patches. It is the end of summer in this region and I scan the skies for signs of monsoon clouds, but there are none to be seen.
All around me are limestone and sandstone ridges with the meanders of rivers and streams that once flowed here cutting through the rock layers. In the distance, cenotaphs and memorial stones to the dead can be seen. The occasional pops of green from the desert flora provides visual relief (and shade !) in the otherwise arid and barren landscape (see photograph below).
Millions of years in this one frame !
It is a sight that leaves me awestruck for this one frame encapsulates millions of years of history of the region — natural as well as human. A history that is as rich as it is varied and one that has changed and evolved through space and time.
To say I was surprised when I received the invite from Suryagarh to visit them in July 2016 is an understatement. The reason? I had already visited them in 2013 as part of a group of bloggers and was puzzled as to why I was being invited again. My first reaction was that the invite had been sent to me by mistake, and I re-read the mail just to confirm!
The invite brought back memories of a visit of many firsts for me. Suryagarh was my first invite as a travel blogger; it was also my first stay at a luxury hotel — a memorable, if somewhat overwhelming, stay. Like many firsts, the Suryagarh experience also set a benchmark for many things — the attention to detail, the hospitality, the warmth, the music, the celebration of all things local, and the food.
Curiosity soon replaced the surprise over the invite. A curiosity about whether Suryagarh had changed in the three years since I’d been there or if it was still the same. Added to this curiosity was the tempting itinerary sent with the mail that included a visit to the temples of Kiradu near Barmer, about 160 km away. This ‘deadly’ combination of curiosity and temptation was enough to make me accept the very gracious invite.
And on the 20th of July, after a flight from Mumbai to Jodhpur and a road journey from there to Jaisalmer, I reached Suryagarh where familiar faces and a traditional welcome by the Manganiyar singers and dancers awaited me. The chandan ka tikka and the fresh, chilled watermelon juice followed. The Suryagarh experience began. Again.🙂
Nothing seems to have changed, I thought to myself happily. I was both right and wrong about this as I was to find out during the course of my stay at Suryagarh.
I had very unusual local travelling companions during my visit to Landour and Mussoorie earlier this year in June — the mist or rather the clouds that accompanied me wherever I went. They were a constant companion from the time I arrived in the area till I left.
Sometimes the clouds would be wispy and scraggly; but mostly they were the kind that covered everything, obscured visibility and lent an air of mystery to everything and everyone it enveloped. It was magical to see the clouds descend and disperse and descend and disperse… Most of the time they were the perfect companion for leisurely walks and strolls; at other times, a spoil sport of sorts like on my first day there which was all about exploring Mussoorie.