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The great temple town of Kumbakonam, one of the oldest and most important religious centres, lies between the Kaveri and Arasalar Rivers in the “Chola Heartland” of eastern Tamil Nadu.

Once the ancient capital of the Chola dynasty in the 7th century, at first glance Kumbakonam is just another chaotic junction town, but on closer inspection one can pick out numerous colourful gopuram rising above the town; there are eighteen temples and a monastery in its town centre alone – a reminder that, at the height of its importance, this town was a significant South Indian seat of power. There are temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, as well as a rare Brahma temple.

The Mahamakam Tank is Kumbakonam’s most popular religious site. According to tradition, this large, man made water tank is said to have been formed when Lord Shiva broke a pot and the water poured out, and now draws its water via underground springs from India’s holiest rivers. Every 12 years the tank is the location of a major Hindu festival which attracts thousands of pilgrims who come to bathe in the holy water and wash away their sins. The last festival was in 2016, and the next dates are in 2028 and 2040.

Just a stone’s throw away from the tank is Kumbakonam’s earliest religious structure, the Nageshwara Swami Shiva Temple, which was founded by the Chola’s in 886 and houses some superb Chola stone sculptures, and the nearby Sarangapani Temple is the town’s most important shine to Vishnu. There is also the Kumbheshwara Temple which, as legend has it, marks the spot where the waters of the cosmic pot, or kumbh, fell to earth, broken by Shiva’s arrow. This is where the temple and the city’s name originated from. Inside the temple there is a lingam, said to be made from the broken pieces of the pot and placed there by Shiva.

The small and little-visited town of Dharasuram lies three kilometres west of Kumbakonam, and the superb Airateshwara Temple is one of three great Chola temples collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unlike the temples in Kumbakonam, this archaeological monument has not been subjected to modern additions and repainting, so the beautiful golden stone carvings rank alongside those at Tanjore. Built by Rajaraja II, Airateshwara is one of the finest examples of 12th century Chola architecture in existence, with fine murals of dancers, niches filled with gods paying tribute to Shiva and wonderfully carved temple guardians, exquisite in proportion and detail. There is also a museum, a fine collection of sculptures and a soaring gopuram, and close by is also a small but talented community of silk sari weavers, where you can see saris being woven in the homes of the local artisans.

Kumbakonam is equidistant between Tanjore and Tranquebar, so it is easily visited on a day trip, although it is worth noting that most temples are closed from noon until 4pm. The Mahamakam Tank is next to the main road bringing travellers from Tranquebar, and visitors coming from Tanjore may wish to start their visit from Dharasuram.

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