Kumbakonam- An Ancient Temple Town Once Called Cambridge of South India


Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu is an ancient town once called ‘Cambridge of South India’. Referred as Coombaconum by British, it is most famous for Mahamaham festival that attracts people from world over. The town has been ruled by many kingdoms including Early Cholas, Medieval Cholas, Pallavas, Later Cholas, Vijayanagar Empire, Thanjavur Nayaks, Pandyas, Madurai Nayaks, and Thanjavur Marathas before British gained it. Kumbakonam was previously known as Baskarashetram, Kumbam, Kudanthai, Kudamukku, and Kudavayil during various kingdom rules and even served as capital for many.


Kumbakonam got its name from the words ‘Kumba’ and ‘Konam’ that literally means ‘Pot's Corner’. The pot belonged to Lord Brahma, one of the trinity gods of Hinduism alongside Shiva and Vishnu. Legend goes that the pot with seeds of all living beings on earth, was displaced by deluge that submerged everything on earth, and after the water receded it was found here, as such it is now called Kumbakonam and Mahamaham festival is held to celebrate it. The festival held once in every 12 years, commemorates entry of Sun and Jupiter planets in Aquarius and Leo constellation respectively as per astrology. Mahamaham tank is an important part of the festival and devotees consider taking a dip in tank as auspicious.


The town has witnessed many wars, but after Maratha ruler Serfoji II of Thanjavur ceded it to British in 1799, grew as a center of Brahminism, Hindu religion, European education and salt production in Tamil Nadu. Situated west of Kumbakonam-Shiyali ridge that runs alongside Kollidam river basin separating Ariyalur-Puducherry depression from Nagapattinam depression; the town is surrounded by huge tracks of agricultural fields, making it the rice basket of region. The town is also a major producer of betel leaves and betel nuts, considered best in quality in world.


Kumbhakonam, sometimes called ‘city of temples’ due to thousands of temples in and around town attracts pilgrims throughout the year. Most famous temples here are Adi Kumbeswarar temple, Kasi Viswanathar temple and Nageswaraswamy temple both dedicated to lord Shiva. The town also has one of the few temples dedicated to god Brahma. Other temples that attract hordes of pilgrims are Sarangapani Vishnu temple; Chakrapani temple and Ramaswamy temple, both built by Govinda Dikshitar, a minister of Nayak rulers; who also built shrines or mandapams and stone steps around the Mahamaham tank.


Other important temples include Thiruvidaimarudhur Shiva temple, Sakthivanesvara Temple, Sivagurunathaswami Temple, ThirudevanKudi Shiva temple, Oppilliappan Vishnu temple, Nageswaram Shiva temple, Ayyavadi Pratyankara Devi temple, Nachiyar Koil Vishnu temple and Tirucherai Saranatha Swamy Vishnu temple. Kumbakonam can also be used as base to visit mathas around the town such as Raghavendra matha, Sri Vijayendra Mutt, Vaishnava Ahobila mutt and Vellalar mathas in Dharmapuram and Thiruppanandal. Temples that can be visited with city as base are Thenupuriswarar Temple at Patteeswaram; Oppiliappan Kovil; Swamimalai Murugan temple; Brihadeeswara Temple at Thanjavur; Gangaikondacholisvaram Temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram; and Airavateswarar temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by Rajaraja Chola II at Darasuram.


Bound by Cauvery river in north and Arasalar river in south; Kumbakonam is well connected by road and rail with rest of India; Tiruchirapalli provides air link. The city is famous for its bronze metal works, making it an important handicraft hub, a must buy for tourists. Tourists can also shop for Thirubuvanam silk sarees; and many shops in several markets across the town sell silk sarees. Silk made in Kumbakonam is considered one of the finest in the Indian subcontinent. Tourist and art collectors come to town to buy intricately designed panchaloha idols, exquisite designed brass wares especially lamps made in Naachiyar Kovil near Kumbhakonam.


The town is well known for Kumbhakonam Arts College, where mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan studied. It is also known for Kumbakonam Degree Coffee, a special thick-strong blend of coffee prepared with undiluted pure milk. There are many hotels, resorts, guesthouses and lodges in the town where people can stay as per their budget, but advance booking is must during festival season. The best way to move around town for tourists is autorickshaw that can be hired for full day. Many restaurants here sell vegetarian south Indian and non-vegetarian food.


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