Pazhayarai, the moment this writer heard that the place was close to Kumbakonam, it became a must visit – it was the ancient capital of the Cholas and most importantly, for anybody who is a fan of Kalki’s historic novel, “Ponniyin Selvan”, visiting Pazhaiyarai is like a pilgrimage !
The medieval Chola dynasty, founded by Vijayalaya Chola began with Pazhayarai as its capital. Just to give you a historical briefing, the early Chola dynasty ruled a major part of South India around 300 BCE – 200 CE, with the legendary Karikala Chola, who built the Kallanai Dam, being the most famous king of that era. For the next 600 odd years, the Pandyas, Cheras, Pallavas reigned over the land until Vijayalaya Chola re-established the Chola supremacy and his regal capital was Pazhayarai. It was at Pazhayarai that the young Arul Mozhi Varman, the hero of Ponniyin Selvan, grew up and it was here that he went on to become the best of the best, Raja Raja Chola ! After he was crowned the king, Raja Raja Chola shifted his capital to Thanjavur.
A major part of the action and politics in Kalki’s magnum opus happens in Pazhayarai and when we stepped into Pazhayarai, this writer could visualise the grand palaces and glory of the times. Cut to 2016, Pazhayarai, now includes several villages. The famous Chola era temples are living proofs of one of the greatest dynasties to have ever ruled this country.
Dhenupureeswarar Temple, Patteswaram
From Darasuram, we drove to the temples of Pazhayarai. The first temple, was the Dhenupureeswarar Temple at Patteswaram. As always, the temple Gopuram welcomes you inside.
Tall gopurams, temples tanks, huge premises, outer and inner Prakaras and the main shrine – typical architectural style of any ancient South Indian temple built since 900s A.D !
Though the origins of the temple belong to the Chola period, a lot of additions, renovations, and rebuilding has happened over the centuries since when the temples were first built.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, worshipped as Dhenupureeswarar and Goddess Durga. The beauty of these temples is the serenity, especially on non-festival days when there are no crowds and you have all the peace and quiet to take a tour at your own pace. We can’t bring you more pictures of the temple except this pillared hall in front of the Goddess’s shrine because photography is not allowed inside the temple.
Going by the sculptural and architectural style, we suppose this hall was built at a date later than the Cholas, may during the time of later Pandyas or even Vijayanagar kings. This looks very similar to the 1000 pillar mandapa at Srirangam. A short 20 minute visit and then we moved to the next temple.
Honestly, there are so many temples around Pazhayarai, it is hard to chose which ones to visit, in the process, we may have missed some of the important ones because we had not done too much research and the whole idea of Pazhayarai came about only a couple of days before the trip.
Following the internet and Google Maps, after going around a narrow village road, we arrived at this tiny shrine, which was closed. Google Maps told us it was Pazhayarai Metrali (Aarai Metrali) temple. When we saw the temple, we were not sure if this was really such an ancient temple.
There is only a single shrine, no compound wall and located by the road side. There was no one around except an old lady, who was slight annoyed with us when we repeatedly asked her if she was sure this was a Chola era temple ! She told us the priest had performed the Puja for the day and left. Walking around, we stopped in our tracks when we spotted an entirely ruined gopuram covered by overgrowth !
From the road, the gopuram was not visible because of the shrubs and bushes covering it. The dilapidated state of the gopuram spoke volumes about antiquity of Pazhayarai !
Another 5 minutes drive following Google Maps, got us this gem of a temple, the Someswarar Temple. The Gopuram at the entrance is sure to make hit the brakes !
Just look at the Gopuram, imagine how it must have looked when new? We had seen a picture of it online while planning the trip and when we couldn’t find it in Pazhayarai, we were almost disappointed but persistent search when internet signals were poor, paid off and we learnt the temple was called Someswarar Temple, also known as Keezha Pazhayarai, Pazhayarai Vadathali.
The temple has the Chola stamp all over it.
It would even remind you of Darasuram, especially this mandapa looking like a chariot drawn by horses and elephant.
There were no other visitors except us because the main shrine had closed for the afternoon. We sat down for sometime, taking in the silence and the beauty of the time weathered temple. These architectural jewels make you go quiet, you also feel at peace within. Is it the aura of the temple, the vibes of the devotion of the people who built these temples or the fact that you are away from your daily grind and feel like you have travelled in time to 1000 years ago?
A quick visit and we were set to leave but we could never get enough of this Gopuram, ragged yet standing stubborn for a millennium, these structures seem to have a character of their own.
Who built this Gopuram, how high was it supposed to be? With just 3 stories, it looks like a massive wall built by giants.
As we were exiting, we spotted steps leading to the higher levels of the Gopuram.
Obviously, you are not allowed to climb up but how would it feel taking the steps to highest point of the Gopuram and get a panoramic view of the temple and its surroundings?
Lunch time was long gone but we were still in the mood for a little bit more touring, that’s the power of a Pongal breakfast !
The little known memorial for a legend
Our next stop was Udaiyalur, a tiny hamlet, 5 minutes drive from Someswarar Temple. The purpose of our visit to Udaiyalur was to pay our respects to this writer’s favourite historical character, the one and only Raja Raja Chola.
In the Chola times, Shiva temples were built over the spots where ashes of kings and warriors were buried, these temples were called Pallipadai. At Udaiyalur, pillars with inscriptions referring to one such Pallipadai built in the glory of the king Raja Raja were found in a Goddess’ temple, the pillar it was discovered did not belong to that temple. Further research led to the finding of a Shiva Linga half buried in a field, this, historians believe is where the Pallipadai of Raja Raja Chola was originally located. Obviously, people did not know the significance of the mandapam that was demolished and the pillars were used in building the Goddess’ temple in the village.
Even today, not many people know about Raja Raja Chola’s samadhi. When you reach Udaiyalur, there is a board citing the history of Raja Raja Chola and directing you to the location of the Pallipadai. One has to walk through the village to arrive at the field where the Shiva Linga was found.
This is the Shiva Linga that was supposed to be placed in the Pallipadai.
A small shelter has been built in recent times over the Shiva Linga.
This humble shelter is all we have for the king who gave us Brihadeeswara Temple, which we proudly proclaim as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Of course, there are differing views on the location, some historians don’t agree that the inscription refers to this spot. Whether this is the place or elsewhere, the fact is that we have not given the great man the honour he deserves. Our pride seems to be limited to sloganeering alone !
We bowed in respect to Arul Mozhi Varman, Sivapathasekaran, Parakesari, Raja Raja Chola. One gets a bit philosophical at moments like that, whatever greatness one achieves, at the end of it all, everybody turns into dust.
- There are several temples in Pazhayarai, whatever we tried reading up on the internet was a little confusing, we are sure we missed visiting some of important ones, we only visited those that we could find on Google Maps. Those interested in visiting all the temples, should do some research on the internet.
- Almost all temples are within 2-4 kms of each other, so one could finish visiting them in less than a day including Darasuram, if you start after breakfast, considering temples are closed between 12 and 4 PM.
- If you are not driving your own vehicle, you could probably hire an auto rickshaw from Kumbakonam, we are not sure about the ideal fare.
- If you are looking for lunch options, you may have to come back to Darasuram or Kumbakonam, Pazhayarai is composed of small villages which do not have good food options.
- For those who swear by Ponniyin Selva, Pazhayarai is a must visit, for those who appreciate history, a visit to the ancient capital of the mighty Cholas would be interesting.
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