So, on Day 5, we had two major places of interest, both of which are central to both history and the plot of Ponniyin Selvan. In the novel, Senthan Amuthan is introduced as a young man who tends to the flower garden attached to the Thirumazappadi temple. I was determined to see this one and once we got there, we realised that this was one of the most beautiful of Chola temples we’d ever seen.
Day 5 – Stop 1 – Thirumazhappadi – Vaidyanatha Swamy temple
This temple is a good 2 hours from Trichy, considering that you go through Thiruvaiyaru and across the Grand Anaicut. I’ll get to the Grand Anaicut in a while, because on our way out, our focus was entirely on the temple. We arrived at the Thirumazhappadi temple thanks to Google Maps. We realised as we drove that the temple was literally on the banks of the river Kollidam, the larger branch of the Kaveri. The temple is about 3 feet below current road level and one flight of stairs leads us to the entrance. As we stepped inside, we realised that this temple was very special for one reason: that the entire temple structure is perfectly intact from the 9th Century AD. Two things in this temple are quite unlike any other. The entire prakara is two-storeyed, which makes us wonder if the Imperial Cholas also built two-storeyed prakaras that were destroyed by the ravages of time. Also, we are used to seeing the Somaskanda as a relief sculpture only, or as a bronze in later temples. In Thirumazhappadi, the Somaskanda is a standalone stone sculpture, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if such a sculpture exists elsewhere in Tamil Nadu. This temple is a must-visit if you go to Trichy or thereabouts and is not at all difficult to find on Google Maps.
Day 5 – Stop 2 – The Kallanai or the Grand Anaicut
If anything stands testimony to the greatness of the Chola dynasty, it is the Grand Anaicut. Built entirely with granite, this dam stands strong even after almost 1200 years of existence. Built by Karikalan I, the model was emulated later in the 18th Century by the British to build the Lower Anaicut further downstream the Kaveri. There is a memorial to Karikalan I near the Anaicut that is now maintained by the state government.
As we left the Anaicut, Google Maps asked us if we want to cut 40 minutes of travel time and we of course, said yes. So, that took us on yet another tiny trail that we’ll never forget. As soon as you get off the dam, there’s a road that veers off to the right and takes you past the town of Thiruvaiyaru and back on the road to Trichy. This road is not more than 25 feet wide, narrowing to about 20 feet at times and needs careful navigation. Thankfully, it seemed to be a one-way because no four-wheelers were coming from the opposite side. The road runs alongside the Kaveri. The river teases us moving away and coming close every now and then. At its closest, the river was about 5 feet away from the wheels of the car. Perhaps we didn’t end up saving 40 minutes, but that’s a route I would take any day rather than the boring, characterless highways.
Day 5 – Stop 3 – Kodumbalur
Kodumbalur is important not to the Ponniyin Selvan plot, but to the history of the Cholas. Rajendra I’s mother and Rajaraja I’s wife, known as Vanathi in the novel and as Thirubhuvanamadevi in history was the princess of Kodumbalur. We realised that Kodumbalur was less than 50 km from Trichy. So, off we went after lunch. The monuments, called Moovar Koil and Aivar Koil, are protected by the ASI and maintained as heritage monuments. We could not get into Aivar Koil as the gates were locked. Moovar Koil, however, is testament to the architecture of that era. We stopped in our tracks because, right in the middle of Chola country, we found a monument that resembled the temples of Mahabalipuram and the Pallava dynasty. Perhaps there was a connection? Our suspicions were confirmed when we found inscriptions on the monuments that Sriram recognised as Pallava Grantha and not the Tamil used by the Chola kings. Also, the Sivalinga that still survives resembles the one in the recently excavated part of Tiger Caves near Mahabalipuram. What a fascinating find!
With that, we ended the Vanthiyathevan trail, resolving that we would plan more trips to complete the circuit of Chola temples and monuments, not just in India but across South East Asia. Perhaps the next time, the travelogue will get written a bit quicker than this one did!