Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu: A Childhood Come Alive

By Shreya Ramachandran

My sister and I have never been particularly religious, but growing up, we interacted a lot with the stories and mythology of Hinduism. My sister would sit in my grandfather’s room and ask him to tell her stories of Krishna, how he would sneak away and steal butter from all the neighbours’ houses, how he killed demons and snakes, how his mother once saw the whole universe in his throat when he opened his mouth. When we would play dress-up, I wore a blanket around my shoulders and put on an old turban on my head and pretended I was Lord Shiva, and I pointed through the window at the house opposite ours and said that was where my children, Ganesha and Muruga, went to school. I adapted the story to fit modern urban life!

Whenever we would pray, like on festival mornings, we would always have conversations with whichever God we were praying to. We’d read Amar Chitra Kathas, the comic books telling these mythological tales, and at night the stories would play again and again in our heads. These were real characters for us, populating our world as tangibly as people did.

So for me, visiting Kumbakonam this December, a small town in Tamil Nadu known for the number of temples crowded onto its lanes, was a bit like entering the toy-town of my childhood. I had heard about the temples but was not prepared for just how many temples there were: at least five on every street. Some were bigger, of course; the well-known temples ‒ Sarangapani Temple; Chakrapani Temple; Ramaswamy Temple. But even the nameless temples that got no attention were quietly slotted onto the streets next to front porches, food stalls, the occasional restaurant or guest house, reminding you that there was a big world of cities and travel that had even made its way here. The temple towers were painted blue, green, yellow, as in the comics we’d read. As we walked barefoot into the Ramaswamy Temple and saw the paintings on the wall telling the entire epic tale through stick figurines, I thought of my grandfather, and I could almost hear his slow, shuffling footsteps, the laugh in his voice after he drank his evening coffee.

Temples, then, can be free of sectarian or even religious charge. I myself have always had a skeptical, distant relationship with religion and its reality, but I found that I too could see in it something more; that connection that people are always talking about, that draws them again and again to travel, to visiting certain places that remind them of a simpler or stronger version of themselves.

Kumbakonam is a beautiful town, and religion and art enthusiasts, as well as tourists eager to see amazing sights, often visit just to see the temples. But to me, the town was made beautiful through the meaning with which I imbued it. Two young children are reading about Ganesha and Krishna somewhere, and messily smudging blue paint onto their faces. Take them to Kumbakonam; they will know what to do there.

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