In the last leg of our tour, the train from Madurai reached Kanyakumari Station just before dawn. The journey was smooth, and we slept unperturbed about missing our destination as Kanyakumari was the final stop.
The officer-in-charge of the Left Luggage was a middle-aged person. He quickly issued receipts for our luggage when told that we would like to attend the first service of the morning at the temple of the mother goddess (Bhagavati Amman as the locals call it). Auto rickshaws were waiting outside, and we took one of these to reach the temple in a few minutes. It was still dark, although the city was already up and awake.
Male visitors must not cover their upper body if they want to enter the Kanyakumari Temple. There is no such ‘code’ for female visitors. There was still time for the Mangal Arati. So, we and other visitors – the number was not too large – waited on a veranda behind the sanctum sanctorum.
The story of Kanyakumari is related to a demon king – Banasura whose kingdom was in the southern parts of India around Kanyakumari. He performed difficult rituals and prayed over a long period to please Lord Brahma, who gave him the boon that no force in the universe except a virgin girl could kill him. Bolstered by such a ‘shield’ Banasura soon became a dreaded tyrant. He even forayed into the domain of the gods and terrified them. It is said that, in response to the prayer of the gods, the Mother Goddess herself appeared as a virgin girl at Kanyakumari, which was the tri-junction of three seas.
The girl wanted to marry Lord Shiva and prayed to him to accept her as his wife. At long Shiva agreed to marry. The marriage procession reached Suchindram, a place near Kanyakumari. From there he was to reach Kanyakumari at the propitious time of marriage as determined by the priests.
Meanwhile, the gods became worried and restless as they thought if the Mother Goddess married Shiva, then she won’t be able to kill Banasura. The very purpose of her appearance at Kanyakumari would be defeated.
At the request of the gods, Deva Rishi Narada – well-known for his special ability to queer the pitches – arrived at Suchindram and somehow kept Lord Shiva busy in conversations so that he forgot all about the time when he should have reached Kanyakumari for the marriage. When that time had passed, Shiva gave up the idea of marrying the Mother Goddess and remained at Suchindram. The Mother Goddess was incensed and vowed to remain a virgin all her life and stayed on at Kanyakumari.
Days passed. Banasura continued with his deviltry and in his audacity coveted the beautiful virgin girl of Kanyakumari. When the demon approached her with an evil design, the infuriated girl took to her true form of the all-powerful Mother Goddess and vanquished and killed Banasura at once. Since then, the faithful believe, the mother is being worshipped at Kanyakumari, while Lord Shiva remains at Suchindram.
It is also believed that a body part of Sati – the consort of Lord Shiva – fell at Kanyakumari and, therefore, it is a place where “Shakti” (the Feminine Power) is worshipped.
The temple of Kanyakumari is not a huge affair like the other temples we saw at Tanjore, Rameswaram or Madurai. Its gopuram is not very tall and the corridors inside are not too impressive. However, it has a different kind of charm, which is to be felt, rather than described in words.
Two priests performed the first ‘service’ of the day by lighting brass lamps and showing them to the main deity and other deities in different shrines within the temple. These rituals are very elaborate but are nice to see.
After the service, we looked around a bit and then came out to the seaside for seeing the sunrise. Quite a crowd had gathered and all were eagerly waiting for the sun to peep out of the water beyond the brightly illuminated memorial on the Vivekananda Rock – located at a little distance from the shore.
Unfortunately, there was no spectacular sunrise as clouds on the horizon spoilt the view, but the changing of the colour of the sky from grey to blushing pink with a touch of magenta and finally a mix of shades of red and yellow was amply rewarding for the waiting crowd. There was a slight nip in the morning breeze that blew from the sea. A coffee stall, which was thoughtful enough to open at the right time, did brisk business.
Besides the Bhagwati Temple, several other sites in Kanyakumari are worth exploring. These include the Gandhi Pavilion (mandapam) and the Vivekananda Memorial on the Vivekananda Rocks.
After Gandhiji’s cremation, his ashes were immersed at the tri-junction of the three seas. The place where these were kept before the immersion is now the location of a solemn memorial.
Some five hundred meters into the sea, there are several huge rocks. According to Swami Vivekananda’s official biography, the Swami swam across the turbulent waters and spent three nights on these rocks in contemplation and meditation. There were some eye-witnesses to Swamiji’s presence on the rocks.
These are the Vivekananda rocks on which was built the Vivekananda Memorial overcoming stiff resistance from certain quarters and was inaugurated in 1970. An organisation named the “Vivekananda Rocks Memorial Committee” took the initiative in planning and executing this project. The structure reflects the different forms of temple architecture in India.
As per folklore, Devi Kanyakumari had also prayed to Lord Shiva on these rocks. In deference to that, Shripad Mandapam has been built beside the Vivekananda Mandapam over the spot where the footprint of the Devi is according to people’s belief.
The Vivekananda Rocks are located at the place where the waters of the Bay of Bengal, The Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean mingle. Waves are hitting the rocks without a break, forming pools of froths and foams. The strong wind makes it rather difficult to stand for long facing it. But the view of the vast seas on one side and the temples, churches and other buildings on the other is truly enchanting. Motor launches are ferrying hordes of people from the shore to the rocks throughout the day, but still, the environs are serene and peaceful.
Besides the Bhagwati Temple, the Gandhi Mandap and the Vivekananda Rocks, Kanyakumari has another place worth a visit. This is the “Vivekananda Kendra” – a serene retreat located amid wonderfully lush greenery by the seaside.
This Kendra is the brainchild of the late Eknath Ranade, the moving force behind the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. It is an organisation dedicated to the propagation of yoga among the youth and other related socio-cultural activities. Within the Kendra, there are simple accommodation facilities for visitors who like peaceful and tranquil life. The Kendra has its own “sunrise point.”
The wonderfully secluded and shady garden housing the memorial of Shri Ranade and a life-size bronze statue of Vivekananda is the right place to spend some time in quiet contemplation. The other attraction of the Kendra is the permanent exhibition on Swami Vivekananda, starting with the Bengal Renaissance and ending with Vivekananda’s propagation of the Vedanta in the West.
Kanyakumari – located at the tri-junction of three seas – is the ideal place for viewing spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The best spot for sunrise is near the Bhagwati Amman temple, and the ideal sunset point is at the opposite end of Beach Road.
To compensate for the rather hurried pace of our tour of Thanjavur and Madurai, we spent three nights at Kanyakumari. Early in the morning we would walk along Beach Road, visit the temple, and then wait for the sunrise. Unfortunately, on all the days, clouds covered the horizon to deny us any great view of the rising sun. The evenings, however, were clear. Sitting on a bench at the less crowded end of the promenade, we enjoyed some of the best sunsets we had ever seen.
On our second day at Kanyakumari, we visited the Shiva Temple at Suchindram and the Padmanabha Puram palace. I have already narrated the story related to Suchindram. Besides Lord Shiva, Murugan (Kartikeyan) and Ganapati are also worshipped here. It was less crowded than the other temples, and so we had a good view of the deities and the architecture of this beautiful temple.
Before India became an independent country, Kanyakumari was under the kingdom of Travancore. Padmanabha Puram was its capital. Although after independence Kanyakumari became part of Tamil Nadu, the palace of Padmanabha Puram continued to be under the care of the state government of Kerala.
This over six-hundred-year-old palace is almost entirely made of wood and is a unique specimen of Keralite architecture. The four-storeyed palace has many rooms, the walls and ceilings of s each of which are made of intricately carved wooden planks, beams and pillars.
One of the many pieces of furniture – the bed in the King’s bedroom – deserves a special mention. Every inch of this bed is most exquisitely carved. It is said that Dutch traders presented this bed to the king. The bed is reportedly made of wood from different medicinal plants, and it, therefore, has great therapeutic value. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that this bed is a specimen of the artistic skills of Indian woodworkers and perhaps it has no parallel elsewhere. It deserves more attention and care as a piece of art. Padmanabha Puram is just about an hour’s drive from Kanyakumari. A visit to this place is time well spent.
The morning train from Kanyakumari took us to Trivandrum Central railway station at about 10 A.M. As we had just one night and a day at Trivandrum, we had booked the Railway Retiring Room for the night. The station as well as the Retiring Room was quite clean. The main ++advantages of staying here are that the Railway Canteen serves all kinds of food cooked hygienically and secondly, transportation of all kinds is easily available night and day.
The major attractions in Trivandrum and its surroundings are the Padmanabhaswami Temple, the Kovalam beach and the Poovar backwaters, mangroves and the beach there.
Padmanabha Swami is none other than Lord Vishnu. His eighteen feet image is reclining on the huge serpent – Sheshnag. There are three doors to view the deity. Only the door near the image’s head was open when we visited. In the semi-darkness of the sanctum, we could see only a little portion of the deity. Men must wear a Dhoti, with a bare upper body, to enter this temple. The women, however, can enter wearing a sari. I had a dhoti with me, and I wore it from the Retiring Room itself. It was many years since I had worn a dhoti. There are counters from where one can also get a dhoti or sari for a few rupees.
This is a very ancient temple. One finds it mentioned in Puranic and Tamil Sangam literature. But, over the years, it has been subjected to several renovations. The last comprehensive renovation was made in 1731. Besides its antiquity, it is the richest temple in India, if not in the whole world. Some years ago, at the orders of the Supreme Court of India, seven out of the eight underground vaults of this temple were4 opened. A detailed assessment of the value of the assets was made by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.
Though that report has not been made public, it was learnt that the wealth of this temple surpasses the riches of the treasury of the Mughal Empire at its zenith. Valuables found in the vaults include several large articles like thrones for the deity made of solid gold, gold chains studded with diamonds, emeralds and other precious stones, an unimaginably large amount of bullion in the form of ornaments and coins, etc., besides silver and other articles.
The question arises why this huge wealth is not spent for the welfare of humanity. Of course, there is no answer to such uncomfortable questions.
We got a jovial and helpful guide-cum-taxi driver at the railway station itself. The amount he quoted for a whole day trip to Poovar and the surroundings, the Kovalam beach and finally drop off at the Trivandrum airport in time for our flight to Delhi was quite reasonable. So, after a cup of tea at the station canteen we riched Poovar in about an hour.
The river Neymar mingles with the sea at Poovar. It is not as wide a river as we find at the delta of the Ganga in West Bengal. However, its many branches flow through dense mangrove growths before draining into the sea. It is nowhere as big as the Sundarbans in West Bengal but has a rich variety of water birds and of course fish. Our small motor boat took us first to the “Golden Beach”, which is a small island or sandbank formed ed by the deposit of sand and silt brought in by the Neymar. Nevertheless, it is beautiful. Fishermen were busy casting their nets and the small market on the shore selling tender coconut and sundry items was just starting its day’s business.
While cruising through the tidal streams that crisscross the mangroves, we came across a large number of water birds and fishing eagles. The mangroves themselves were dense and lush green. In some places, the narrow water channels pass through a dark tunnel formed by branches of the trees from both sides touching each other. It was a lovely boat ride, but the operators charged an unreasonably high amount for a 45-minute ride. They insist that there is a “rule” that one boat was meant for one family, and family meant close relatives only. They will not allow more than one group to share the boat even if it carries just two people as it did for us. This is ridiculous, but tourists have no time to argue with the extortionists. Only a week before we visited the Pichavaram mangroves near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. There the boat trips are operated under the state government’s supervision and the only restriction imposed was on the maximum number of passengers in a boat! After the boating, we went to a small restaurant serving fresh fried fish and had lunch. The friend fish was excellent. However, the unsalted and bland mashed tapioca served on the side did not leave a good taste in the mouth.
The Aazhimala Shiva Temple is located on a hill on the way to Kovalam from Poovar. It attracts tourists because of its wonderful location overlooking a very nice sandy beach lined with coconut trees. Beside the temple is a tall concrete statue of Lord Shiva – a nice piece of sculpture made by a young local artiste, which looks so beautiful against the backdrop of the wide, open sea.
Another place worth a visit is the old lighthouse near Kovalam. It is now a kind of watchtower for the tourists. An elevator takes visitors up to a balcony below the top observation deck. From there they climb a flight of wooden stairs. It is a splendid view from the top. The lighthouse is located in a small manicured garden. A small café serves coffee and other beverages. We got a bench under the shadow of coconut palms. Sipping our lemonades and seeing the famous beach of Kovalam through the leaves swaying in the gentle breeze has such a soothing effect on the mind that one would not wish to leave the place. But we have miles to go…
Our ten-day tour of a part of Tamil Nadu (and a tiny bit of Kerala) ended at Kovalam. We could not visit the hinterland and the western coast of Kerala this time. Still, it was not without a great sense of satisfaction that we took our flight to Delhi from the Trivandrum Airport.
Note: All Photographs, except that of
Bhagvathi Amman Temple
taken by author