The strong aroma of filter coffee fills my lungs and I follow the trail to find a tiny shop. Sacks bursting with coffee beans are stacked against dusty walls covered in portraits of gods and goddesses. Freshly ground coffee powder seems to be suspended in the humid air.
On the table, there’s an array of filters, davaras, and tumblers, all the accoutrements required to make and serve filter coffee the traditional south Indian way. “This isn’t ordinary filter coffee, it is the famous Kumbakonam degree kaapi,” says the vendor as he pours the dark brown decoction into a tumbler and mixes it with boiling milk. This is the signature brew from the town of Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district and almost every coffee shop here claims to serve the original drink.
There are many explanations for why it’s called degree coffee. Some say it refers to the purity of the cow’s milk used, while others claim it’s the exact temperature to which the milk is boiled. To me, it is the perfect cup to sip on a warm morning as I soak in the vibrant atmosphere of the town.
A walk through the lanes is an assault on the senses. Autorickshaws and motorcycles vie to overtake each other. A cart filled with pearly-white jasmines is thrust in front of me. I turn onto another street to find shops filled with bronze lamps and vessels. At almost every corner, there is an ancient temple. According to the guidebooks, the town has more than a hundred of them. I am not keeping count, but the number doesn’t seem improbable.
Kumbakonam is steeped in antiquity, dating to the Sangam era and ruled by every dynasty from the early Cholas to the Vijaynagara kings, the Nayaks, and the Marathas. Tracing the legends that speak of the town’s origins, I wind up at a massive tank filled with water and glittering in the morning heat.
The giant water tank at Mahamaham is the physical and cultural nucleus of Kumbakonam, surrounded by 21 wells and 16 shrines. When I had arrived there the previous evening, it was resounding with music and speeches from a political rally. In the morning, though, it has transformed into a picture of serenity. I stand there watching people at their morning prayers. The waters reflecting the clouds and the gopurams of the 16 shrines cut a pretty picture against the treeless landscape.
According to legend, when Brahma’s pot (kumbha), containing the seeds of life, was destroyed at the end of an epoch, its nectar flowed into this tank giving the town its name of Kumbakonam (the corner where the kumbha fell). Once in 12 years, the massive Mahamaham Festival takes place here, when millions of devotees gather to take a ritual dip in the tank. It is often described as the Kumbh Mela of the South; the next festival will take place in 2016. At the Kasi Vishwanathar Temple next door, there are only a couple of priests. The silence is soothing.
Kumbakonam’s skyline is dominated by towering gopurams, some of them over 100 feet tall and covered with sculptures of gods and goddesses. There’s something in these temples for everyone, from the devout to the curious.
I find a great guide in Subramani, an autorickshaw driver who seems to know the lore that surrounds each shrine. We strike a bargain and for two hours he shows me around the five temples in town that he says should not be missed. We begin with two shrines dedicated to Shiva, then visit two Vishnu temples, and end the trail at Ramanathaswami Temple. A bit of Kumbakonam comes alive for me at each stop.
The corridors of the grand Adi Kumbeshwara Temple, dedicated to Shiva, are filled with colourful floral motifs and paintings. It was built by the Cholas nearly 1,300 years ago and is spread over four acres. At the Nageswaran Temple, I’m taken in by the architecture. Built by King Aditya Chola in the ninth century, it has a sanctum designed to look like a chariot.
The Vishnu temples are impressive because of their majesty. Sarangapani Temple has the tallest gopuram in Kumbakonam: 15 tiers that go up to a height of 175 feet. The Chakrapani Temple has an awe-inspiring eight-armed idol of Vishnu, known as the Sudarshana Chakra avatar. The walls of Ramanathaswami Temple are covered in murals from the Ramayana and it has larger-than-life sculptures of Rama and Sita.
Every temple has a story, mostly of passionate devotees who were rewarded by the deities. But it is at the Adi Kumbeshwara Temple that I learn more about the legend of the town. When Brahma dropped his pot in the deluge at the end of the epoch, Shiva disguised himself as a hunter (kirata) and shot the pot with an arrow. When nectar flowed into the Mahamaham tank, Shiva used the clay of the pot to carve a lingam, earning the name Kiratamurti or Adi Kumbeshwara.
As the tale ends, silence reverberates through the temple. I experience a moment of bliss with the divine that can be felt only in solitude. I sit amongst the ancient pillars until the temple elephant trumpets and draws my attention.
There are several more temples in the town, and quite a few in the villages surrounding it that have religious significance. Even if you’re not too interested in them, the drive offers a glimpse of the countryside. Amidst the green fields and clusters of small shops, there are quiet villages that were once the abodes of gods, saints, and kings. Each village has an ancient shrine with artistically carved pillars and massive mandapams. Whether you are a pilgrim or a heritage enthusiast, the melange of art, architecture, culture, and myths is fascinating. Of the many temples around Kumbakonam, the Navagraha trail of nine temples, dedicated to the planets, is most popular.
The most breathtaking moment of my trip is when I stand in front of the Airavateswara Temple in Darasuram, just four kilometres from Kumbakonam. This chariot-shaped temple located in the middle of the village is nothing short of poetry in stone. Miniature carvings that narrate stories from the epics, fill the walls and pillars of this shrine built by Raja Raja Chola II.
This 12th-century temple is one of three accorded joint UNESCO World Heritage status. The other two Great Living Chola Temples are Brihadeshwara at Thanjavur (40 km south) and its incomplete replica at Gangaikondacholapuram (35 km north).
Brihadeshwara Temple is Raja Raja Chola I’s masterpiece. The inside walls of its 216-foot tower are painted with frescoes. His son, Rajendra Chola aimed to better it at his new capital Gangaikondacholapuram but left the structure incomplete. I’m humbled by the grandeur of the deities carved on the walls. This is my personal favourite, perhaps due to the mystery behind its incomplete structure or the melancholy that resonates around the town—a grand capital that once brought kings to its knees, now lost on the highway.
I am fixated with local handicrafts, so not surprisingly, I’m like a kid in a candy store in the markets of Kumbakonam. The bustling by-lanes have shops selling brass, bronze, copper, and lead vessels. The pots, lamps, and davaras remind me of my childhood. My grandparents used to cook in huge pans, drink water in tall tumblers, and prepare coffee in brass filters. I browse happily, looking for something that will add a traditional touch to my home.
I get lucky in the market near the Nachiyar Temple in Thirunarayur (10 km/15 min south) where local artisans are applying finishing touches to brass lamps. Enamoured by one shaped like a graceful swan, I struggle to make up my mind, until I see another lamp designed like a woman who appears to give me a charming smile. Together they are irresistible (lamps and vessels cost from ₹500 to several thousands).
In the town of Tirubhuvanam (7 km/10 min northeast), I go in search of the eponymous pure silk saris that are woven there. I get a chance to meet some of the weavers whose families had settled here many generations ago. In nearby Darasuram, where the craft is also practised now, I’m invited home by weavers to see their looms. There are several shops in Kumbakonam’s markets that sell these saris, but buying from the weaver is special. I purchase one in shades of peacock blue with golden motifs on it (saris from ₹3,000; to meet the weavers, just ask at any of the shops).
Kumbakonam has several small hotels, and there are some resorts and homestays in the nearby towns of Swamimalai and Darasuram.
Rayas Grand is a three-star property, located in the heart of the city near Mahamaham Tank, while still being away from the melee. Rooms are clean and neat. Rayas has other properties around town as well (98429 23170; www.hotelrayas.com; doubles from ₹1,875).
Kasi International Hotel is a budget hotel located close to most temples (89032 32027; www.hotelkasiinternational.com; doubles from ₹550).
Mantra Located at Veppathur, 10 km/15 min north of Kumbakonam, this eco-friendly set-up on the banks of rivers Kaveri and Veera Chozha has a relaxed resort-like ambience (98412 88000; www.mantraveppathur.com; doubles from ₹7,000).
The food in Kumbakonam is largely vegetarian and visitors can get a plate of idli-sambar almost everywhere. A handful of eateries serve non-vegetarian food. Try Maami’s Mess at Bhakta Puri Street for its simple homemade food (₹150 for two) and the vegetarian restaurant at Rayas Grand (₹300 for two). Don’t miss the Kumbakonam Degree Kaapi at Murali’s Café, located on Mutt Street, well known to most auto drivers.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Poetry In Stone”.
Kumbakonam is located along the banks of the Kaveri and Arasalar rivers in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. It is about 40 km/1 hour northeast of Thanjavur town, 400 km/8 hours from Bengaluru, and 280 km/5 hours south of Chennai.
The closest airport is at Tiruchirapally, 100 km/2 hours south of Kumbakonam Taxis charge ₹3,000 for the one-way journey, which is why most people prefer to rent a cab for the day. There are trains to Kumbakonam from cities like Chennai (6 hours) and Bengaluru (11 hours). There are frequent buses from the nearby towns of Thanjavur and Tiruchirapally.
Local buses are available, but renting a cab is the most convenient way to explore some of the offbeat destinations around town (rentals start at ₹8 per km for eight hours). Autorickshaws are available for short journeys within town. There are no fixed rates so prices depend on individual bargaining power.
Kumbakonam is pleasant in winter (Oct-Feb), with the temperature hovering between 20-25°C. Summers (Mar-May) are hot and humid at 35-40°C when travel is best avoided. If you don’t like crowds and don’t mind the rain, you could visit during the monsoon (June-Sept) as the rain is not very heavy. Sometimes, there is heavy rainfall in Nov-Dec when the northeast monsoon hits the town again.
Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer and blogger from Bangalore who quit her corporate career in media to travel. Her passion is all about exploring the nooks and corners of the world and telling stories.