3 Tamil cities in 3 days – Day 2 and 3

It took me some time, around 2 months, to work on the second leg of the post on the trip to 3 Tamil Nadu cities in 3 days. Infact I have traveled to a few places in this while and was confused whether to complete the backlog or to post about the new trips, but here I am writing about the day 2 & 3 of the trip to Tamil Nadu, as promised. The earlier post touched upon the history of Tamil Nadu which paved the way to the written, clicked and sketched material on the 3 cities I and Disha had visited – Trichy –> Madurai –> Tanjore. Here is the link to the post on day 1 of the trip – 3 Tamil cities in 3 days – Day 1. Alright then.. the last post ended with we preparing to leave for Madurai from Trichy, let’s pickup from there..

The city of Madurai was first described by Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to India, in the 3rd century BC. The 2500 year old city has seen rulers come and go… starting with the Pandyas and then followed by Cholas, to the Mughal invaders who demolished the original Meenakshi temple, to the Nayaks who restored Madurai to its former glory. Meenakshi temple is the vivid and living landmark architectural marvel that defines not just the city of Madurai but the whole of the South India.

The temple is the geographic and ritual center of the ancient city of Madurai. There is one large tower, Gopuram, on each of North, West and South directions while the East has two towers. Apart from these there are four smaller towers inside the campus enclosed by the bigger towers. The famous southern tower, rises to over 170 ft (52 m) and was built in 1559.

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Legend has it that the reigning deity Meenakshi was born out of holy fire as an answer to the prayers of King Malayadwaja and his wife Kanchanamalai. She was born with three breasts – a reminder that she was divine – and it was foretold that the third breast would disappear when she met her Lord. She was named ‘Taadathagai’, but was called ‘Meenakshi’ – the one with the fish-shaped eyes. As the only child, she was loved and pampered, but also taught all the arts she would need to rule the land. She learnt to wield weapons just as well as she did the needle, and in time, took over the reins of her kingdom. While her father had ruled the land well, content with all he had, she was ambitious, and chose to extend her reign over the whole of the subcontinent. She led her army past the Deccan Peninsula to the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, where she eventually met her divine consort – lord Shiva. It took but one glance, and her third breast melted away, showing her that it was indeed he who was her match. The temple was said to be constructed commemorating their marriage at Madurai.

It was really difficult getting the whole of gopuram in a single shot, mostly because there is little space outside the compound walls of the temple. There is just a road that separates the grand temple and the town market. What you have is not a architectural monument that people come to visit as tourists, it’s a living temple where a lot of people come to worship and not to observe its architectural/cultural beauty. The southern gate, the largest one, with the outer compound wall can be seen in the photo below.

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Here is an attempt at capturing one of the inner (smaller) gopurams –

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I personally think that the temple has too much designed in a little space. It is as if the whole universe has been depicted on the walls and towers. There is not an square inch of empty space anywhere. A little relaxed design would’ve come out better. Below is a shot that captures the details of the sculptures on the gopuram towers. It is really difficult to decide where to cut your shot, because one would definitely end up cutting some of the body parts at the edges. Hope you can live without knowing whom the 16 hand demon is trying to kill.. (bottom of the frame)

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While I was fussing about not getting good shots, Disha came up with this, she obviously didn’t have the space constraints I was facing –

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The temples have a common ending at the top of the tower, the creature that you see on the top, with huge eyes, is actually a lion/tiger. This is a common motif that I noticed in Hoysala and Vijaynagar architecture as well.

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Once you get inside, you’d see an entire city that lives inside the temple, there are markets and museums but most importantly many more temples apart from the main shrines of Meenakshi and Sundareswara. I particularly loved the circular designs that were hand-painted all over the temple.

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I wasn’t allowed to click inside the temple, but once you are in the main chamber, the first thing you see is the shimmering Garuda Stambha. The stambha is gold plated rod that protrudes out of the temple ceiling and has a flag tied to it at its top end. The rod reflects the sunlight, all through the day, that manages to enter through the square block hole. It was almost like a divine intervention to see the light being reflected in every direction inside the temple hall through the pillar. It definitely makes a lasting image in your mind and invites you to explore the temple..

There was one particular point where the sunlight was entering the temple in a very unique fashion, almost as if it was being guided along the way.. Disha couldn’t leave the place without sketching it, here is what she drew –

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The queues in the temple to see the main shrine were expectedly long and seemed never-ending. We did not bother even enquiring the expected time to darshan, just offered our wishes from outside and went ahead to get some lunch. After lunch, it was time to head towards the other famous building at Madurai – Thirumalai Nayak Palace

Thirumalai Nayak ruled Madurai between A.D 1623 and 1659. He was the most notable of the thirteen Madurai Nayak rulers in the 17th century. The palace that we visited was the one he had commissioned during his rule – AD 1636 to be precise. The place would remind you of Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, but it was done much before that style was brought in by Britishers in India. The building was done by an Italian architect who rightfully mixed European styles in Indian design which by then was taking a lot of influence from the Islamic architectural style. Thus the end result was a very contemporary building that would have been called a modern marvel in its time.

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One thing that is easily noticeable is that the interior is richly decorated whilst the exterior is treated in a more austere style. The palace was divided into two major parts, namely Swarga Vilasam (Celestial Pavilion) and Ranga Vilasam. The royal residence, theatre, shrine, apartments, armory, palanquin place, royal bandstand, quarters, pond and garden were situated in these two portions. This however is just quarter of the original palace.

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Here is a shot of the ceiling patterns inside on of the halls. The palace is definitely a must-see was truth be told, I liked it more than the temple, as it had a real story behind it.

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Anyhow, there wasn’t much to do in Madurai after this and we took our own sweet time while covering the 2 buildings, thus it was time to head out. But before leaving, I decided to have to much hyped summer drink of Madurai – Jigarthanda. Jigar is the hindi word for liver and thanda means cool, thus the drink apparently cools down your liver! It is basically a milk based kulfi with lots of dry fruits and fruit jellies, some which I personally couldn’t even identify while they were being poured in my glass. Do try it while you are there, you’d easily find a shop at every second turn in the city.

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Alright, it was time to head to the next destination – Thanjavur, Being about 60 km east of Trichy – our starting point, Thanjavur is close to 200 km from Madurai. Thus, we lost close to 3 hours of daytime in travel, but it didn’t harm us because we learnt that the Thanjavur temple was still open at 8 PM.

We checked-in a hotel and quickly went back to the temple to see it in the full-moon light of Holi. Here is the shot, i was missing my tripod though..

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Thanjavur was the capital of Chola empire, and the rulers of this city were infact defeated by the rulers of Madurai, where we had just come from. But rulers of Madurai has earlier been defeated by Cholas in the past, so it was just history balancing itself as we learnt in the first leg of this 2-part post.

We returned to the city, had thanjavur special dosa for dinner and then went back to the hotel. Next morning, it was time to explore the city of cholas. we started with the Maratha Palace as it was at walking distance from the hotel.

The marathas at the time of their rule were as good as any other foreign invading army, the only thing that set them apart was the fact that they were Hindus by religion. The Thanjavur Maratha palace was originally constructed by the rulers of Thanjavur Nayak kingdom. After the fall of the Thanjavur Nayak kingdom, it served as the official residence of the Thanjavur Maratha. When most of the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom was annexed to the British Empire in 1799, the Thanjavur Marathas continued to hold sway over the palace and the surrounding fort.

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What you see above is the top structure of the palace called Sarjah Mahadi, which served as the residential part, while the halls on the ground floor served for general assemblies and town halls. Below is the shot of the hall with a statue of an important king of Thanjavur Marathas – Serofji II, who ruled Thanjavur from 1798 until his death in 1832.

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The building although seemed like just another historical building that was past its prime and would vanish into nothingness, it sure did have some interesting elements like the lotus like dome structure of this particular room in the photo below. It is a squinch dome that is used in such stepped dome applications. Another crazy thing that we saw there that couldn’t have been expected was an original skeleton of a whale! The board there said there was no other space to keep it, so it was either to be dumped or kept in the palace!

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But surely, the most picturesque building there was the bell tower with its many symmetrical arches, photo below

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We were one of the few travelers there, and it showed that this place was just an add-on to the Brihadeeswara Temple. So, without further delay, we went ahead to the main attraction. Below is the entrance to the temple –

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The temple just completed 1000 years in 2010, thus you can imagine why it is called ‘The Great Chola Temple’. The Brihadeshwarar Temple was built to be the royal temple to display the emperor’s vision of his power and his relationship to the universal order. The temple was the site of the major royal ceremonies such as anointing the emperor and linking him with its deity, Shiva, and the daily rituals of the deities were mirrored by those of the king.

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When the Brihadeeswara temple was completed in 1003 CE, it was the tallest temple in India by an order of magnitude of 10. A thousand years later, standing at 216 feet, it is still the tallest temple in India.

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Surrounding the temple, there was a pillared corridor that had numerous paintings from the Chola period and the Nayak period. The chola frescos are as important as the ones in Ajanta. But because of being in open air, they are now getting damaged, a lot of them already have. A lot of Nayak paintings were actually done over the Chola paintings as it is quite possible that the Chola paintings had already started chipping off by then. There were good 500 years between the 2 time periods.

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The temple was built at a fair clip, completed in mere 7 years, amounting to moving and placing almost 50 tons of rock each and every day, not to forget carving and aligning it. The huge kalasam or Vimanam (top portion of the shrine) is believed to weigh 80 tonnes of single stone block and was raised to its present height by dragging on an inclined plane of 6 km using elephants. Imagine that!

While I was clicking, Disha came up with these –

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The outer wall of the upper storey is carved with 81 dance karanas – postures of Bharathanatyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu. The starting school of this dance is said to be this very temple. Try n see if you can locate them in the picture below. Another unique thing here is that the Gopurams, the entrance towers, are smaller than Shikhara, the main structure. This is not a regular feature in dravidian temples. Anyhow, forget all this and enjoy the beauty of the Shikhara of the temple, its intricate carving done on hard granite!

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After exploring the temple for good 2 hours, we still had a lot of time at our disposal. I had read about the town of Kumbakonam for it was the focal point to visit the Navagrah temples – the temples of the 9 planets! Even though we knew that there wasn’t enough time to cover everything, we still went ahead to see what we would find there.

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Kumbakonam is a small temple city and it sure is an old one. You could find a temple, big or small, after every 200 m! The temples ranged from being as small as a room to as big as a few acres in area. We decided to remain in the city because the time we reached the city, around 3 PM, every temple was closed. We were told that they would re-open only by 4.30 PM. We ended up having a long lunch and still had to wait for temples, as the gates finally opened by 5 PM.

I was looking up the places we should be going by then on my phone. One interesting thing that I noticed was that this town seemed to be so overflowing with religion that it had Shiva and Vishnu temples in vicinity of each other. So far, I had only noticed that cities were inclined towards Vishnu or Shiva. Trichy had Vishnu temple, Madurai and Tanjore had Shiva temples. We decided to go 2 temples, the biggest Shiva temple – Nageswaran Temple and the biggest Vishnu temple – Sarangapani Temple, and this would be the end of it.

First we visited the Nageswaran Temple, it was a small temple but it sure was old and big in terms of land area it covered. The complex extended to include living quarters and there was another temples besides the shiva temple which was in the shape of a chariot. What struck me the most were these idols that were sculpted on the temple walls. They seemed to be much older than the main temple, again supporting the fact that the temples were made in parts as the funds were sanctioned by the kings. There was also a group of students there, possibly architects who were trying to translate the writings on the walls of the temple in order to preserve them.

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Next destination came in quickly, we reached the Sarangpani temple, which was also the biggest temple of the town. The gopuram in the blue hour just around the sunset was a delight to click. Here are the shots –

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Although this Gopuram was also equally adorned as the the ones in Madurai, this one seemed more serene and less puzzling to the eye.

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Yet if you sit in front of it, exploring each of the sculptures, you could easily spend an hour without noticing it.

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After all this travel and hunting temples one by one,  it was time to end the journey and head back to Bangalore. I had a good time, so did Disha, hope you too feel the same. Thanks for reading the 2 long posts!

3 Tamil cities in 3 days – Day 1

North and South India can be totally different cultures and it shows in celebration of festivals. Coming from the north,  Holi and Diwali are the biggest 2 festivals for me, but here in south, we pretty much don’t celebrate both. Instead, there are other festivals, some of which I had not even heard about before shifting to Bangalore.

Similar was the case for this year’s Holi. A lot of offices were open and one didn’t feel anything different about the day. I actually shouldn’t be complaining so much as I was in a good enough state to have the day off from office and even better so because it was a Monday, so I had a 3 day weekend at my disposal. I had my friend, Disha,  take the day off from her office to join me for yet another trip and this time we decided to cover Tamil Nadu. Since we had 3 days and no agenda as such, we decided to cover the maximum distance we could. After much debate and reading up of blogs, we decided to cover the following 3 cities in our 3 day trip – Trichy –> Madurai –> Tanjore. Other close contenders were Rameshwaram, Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram but we had just 3 days, no more. It turned out to be a good decision as we were able to extend the trip on day 3 (from Tanjore) to another closeby city – Kumbakonam.

After much reading and re-reading of the history of South India, I finally have some sense of the many dynasties that ruled the area and in which timeframes. Speaking about the places that we visited, the earliest recordable mentions of the cities of Trichy and Madurai date back to around 3rd century BC. Let’s get the needed perspective before we move onto architecture and the places we visited –

Tamil Nadu had always been ruled by multiple dynasties at any point in time. The smaller southern part was the stronghold of Pandyans. The bigger northern part was earlier in control of Cholas till around 2nd century AD and then in the control of Pallavas, who ruled both Tamil and Telugu areas. The frontier between these north and south Tamil territories was Kaveri river. Cholas were driven into a complete oblivion only to return to power in 9th century AD and but this time they gained control over not just the Pallava territory but also the Pandyan territory. However in 13th century, Pandyans returned to power, overthrew the Cholas and regained not just their territory but also the Chola territory.

But interestingly, by the 13the century, Hindus were not the only ones fighting for power. Around this time, whole of India was being raided by Muslim Sultanates of the west and the rule of the great Indian dynasties faded away. The Vijaynagar kings of Karnataka however took lead in re-establishing a Hindu empire and the areas previously under the Cholas and Pandyas came under the rule of the Vijaynagar empire. The Vijaynagar empire was defeated at the hands of Deccan Sultanates and the control shifted back in Muslim hands but not completely as some of the areas were being ruled by Nayak kings, who previously were feudatory to Vijaynagar empire. To take back the control of the land under Hindu kings, this time, Maharashtra took lead as Marathas captured large part of South India back in their hands. Interestingly, they themselves had started out as feudatory to the Deccan Sultanates. But by now European powers, mainly English and French had entered the scene to gain control over the area. Britishers defeated Marathas and resisted French to took over the areas of South India. Finally, only in 1947, the area came back under the Indian rule. This is probably the smallest history lesson one can get on Tamil Nadu, hope it did some good and not just confused you further!

Speaking of cities, Trichy was the capital of early Cholas, but when Pallavas took control of the region, the capital remained at Pallava stronghold of Kanchipuram. Madurai had always been the capital for Pandyas. Cholas after re-emerging in 9th century established Kumbakonam as the capital for a brief time. The capitals kept shifting with kings but Tanjore was the one which is most famous. Beyond this, the region never had strong local rulers, and was ruled by foreign powers mostly from central India which later paved way for Britishers who clubbed the Southern territories under Madras Presidency.

Ok, now let’s start the journey.. The trip, as I said, was for 3 days and we covered the cities in following order   –    Trichy on Saturday –> Madurai on Sunday –> Tanjore and Kumbakonam on Monday. In total, we visited 8 sites, 2 per city, which covering individually would’ve been a stretch but when I look back, I think we did pretty good. I had initially thought of posting about the whole trip in a single mega-post but then it would’ve been too much of scrolling of the mouse, so I’ve decided the post into 2 parts – Day 1 and Day 2 & 3. The places we covered are listed below –

Trichy –

  1. Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam island
  2. Jambukeswarar Temple at Thiruvanaikaval

Madurai –

  1. Meenakshi Amman Temple
  2. Thirumalai Nayak Palace

Tanjore –

  1. Brihadeeswara Temple
  2. Maratha Palace

Kumbakonam

  1. Nageswaran Temple
  2. Sarangapani Temple

Let’s cover the cities one by one… Trichy is well connected to Bangalore (and other big cities nearby) and one can easily find overnight buses that reach Trichy in early morning. Trichy  is an old city, well atleast when you’re coming from Bangalore. It’s best to stay close to rock fort area. There are regular buses from bus stop to the monument. Well, there are only a few sites to look out for, so you’d know the names and location by the time you’re done with your planning. So, we booked a hotel which was close to the main attractions at the city and covered all three sites on the first day itself as expected.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, the biggest operational Hindu temple in the world! Here is the list of the 10 biggest Hindu temples, incase you were wondering.. The temple is spread across 150+ acres of area and has a whole city inside its walls. Well, it’s no simple temple structure, there are 7 concentric walls that surround the shrine and in between each wall, you’ll find people living their daily lives. There are shops and even lodges to stay in between the first (outermost) wall and the second wall. Each of the walls have huge entrances gateways – Gopuram. This is no ordinary temple, it’s a temple city! There are 21 gopurams among which the outermost – Rajagopuram is the largest one. The 72m high 13-tiered Rajagopuram was built in 1987 and dominates the landscape for miles around, while the remaining 20 gopurams were built between the 14th and 17th centuries. Below are the pictures of the Rajagopuram..

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A closer look at the straight lined patterns, both me and Disha found this gopuram to be better than the overly complex gopurams at Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

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Below is Disha’s sketch of one of the internal Gopurams highlighting its chaotic structural design

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And here is Disha’s rendition of the Gopuram’s elevation

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After crossing the first gate, one can see that there is a complete city inside. The gate that you see in  the photo below is not the main gate but the one after that..

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There is an interesting story that I came across while I was reading up on the place. This blog said that it is believed that after Rama defeated Ravana, he made Ravana’s brother Vibhishana as the King of Lanka. Rama was having this little sculpture of Ranganatha (Lord Vishnu) which he gave to Vibhishana before bidding adieu to him. He was instructed never to keep the idol on ground on the way and to keep it down only when he reaches Lanka. On his way to Lanka, while passing through Trichy, he gave the idol to a local shepherd boy for a few moments when he went for some chores. The boy couldn’t bear its weight for long and he kept it down. On coming back, Vibhishana could not remove it from the ground. This sculpture got permanently fixated here and this place where Ranganatha resides became Srirangam. Upon prayers, Lord Vishnu appeared before him and said that He’s prefer to stay here, however his glance would be towards Lanka, That’s why this is a south facing temple. Another interesting thing that I found out at Trichy was that the below symbol, used by Iyengars, is the symbol for Vishnu, not sure if this is followed up in north!

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Here are some more shots of the people and places inside the temple..

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Here is the sketch that Disha was working on while I was clicking the photos..

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Sagar manthan (legend of the churning of the sea to get the immortality potion) depicted in the gopuram below..

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We obviously couldn’t cover all the shrines inside the temple complex just because there was too much to cover. Also, neither of us was here to pray, we were more interested in the architecture and exploring the history and culture of the place, so we skipped places wherever we found long queues. After exploring Srirangam for good 3-4 hours, we took a local bus to Thiruvanaikovil to visit the Jambukeswarar Temple. This temple is famous for being one of the 5 sacred elemental temples of Shiva. Below is the gopuram of the temple..

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Below is what Disha was doing when I clicking the temple, sketching the Rath

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All these elemental temples are located in South India with four of these temples at Tamil Nadu and one at Andhra Pradesh. The five elements are believed to be enshrined in the five lingams and each of the lingams representing Shiva in the temple have five different names based on the elements they represent. In the temple at Thiruvanaikovil, Shiva is said to have manifested himself in the form of water (Appu Lingam). The other four manifestations are Prithivi Lingam (representing land) at Ekambareswarar Temple, Akasa Lingam (representing sky) at Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram, Agni Lingam (representing fire) at Annamalaiyar Temple and Vayu Lingam (representing air) at Srikalahasti Temple. Below are some shots from the water temple..

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One odd thing about these temples is that none of them had a regular floor plan since they were constructed in parts and over long time by many different kings belonging to different empires. So the floor plan ends up looking like that of a maze rather than a big worship hall. There would be rooms that lead to a section of the temple as big as the ones you’d have just covered. There are many extensions to the original enclosure of the shrine. Each sections would then have its own nitty gritties such as ceiling patterns, curtains, architectural motifs, Shivalingas. Below is the photo of  a row of Shivlings at the edge of one of the walls of the temple.

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Another famed landmark in Trichy is the 83 m high rock which is the only outcrop in the otherwise flat land of the city. The most amazing fact about the rock is that it is said to be one of the oldest in the world – approximately 3,800 million years, which makes it older than the Himalayas. There are a couple of small temples situated on the top of the temple but I had read that the temple were not really architectural wonder and we decided not to go up the 500+ stair steps. Also, I was not very impressed by the city of Trichy as such and had not much hopes left that the rock fort temple could turn the situation around. But still there were a lot of good things as well, like this painting that was present on the ceiling of one of the temples inside the bigger temple completes at Thiruvanaikovil.

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We returned back to the hotel by evening, rested for a while and then went out for dinner. The whole city it seems is located in the vicinity of the rock fort and we decided not to explore further at night. We had dinner at one of the local restaurants and called it a night. We had to get good enough rest as well because we were to leave early morning next day for Madurai. This brings us to the end of Day 1 of the trip. As I mentioned earlier as well, I’m splitting the trip post into 2 parts – 1st post that had the elaborate introduction and then the exploits from the city of Trichy! Following this post is the post on adventures of Day 2 & 3. See you at Madurai!