India
TRAPPED IN SILENCE IN SWAMIMALAI

Towering temple spires that jut into the sky, swirling rivers, mosaic of rice fields, the heavy smell of incense, evenings so tranquil that you can almost 'feel' peace seeping into your pores. In other words, a weekend that is low on activity and high on soul food, and Thimmakudy near Swamimalai promised to meet our requirements. If you believe in astrology or have a thing for antiquity, then Kumbakonam, Swamimalai's more illustrious neighbour, is straight up your road. Nine temples to represent the nine planets or Navagraha in Hindu mythology are all located within a 60-km radius of Kumbakonam, making this little town a one-stop shot at visiting the heavens. But a tryst with the celestial beings could wait, we told ourselves, as we set out for Swamimalai.

Seven hours later, a huge kolam (rangoli) in a courtyard indicated the end of our long drive. We were at Indeco Anandham, a house, more than 100 years old, which has been lovingly restored to look like a traditional agraharam (Brahmin village). We were all eyes for the lazy, sleepy village scenery that surrounded our home for the weekend. A long row of papaya, jackfruit and coconut trees snaked its way into the horizon. A meandering stream beckoned us to dip our tired feet into its cool waters but we decided to leave that for later. It was time to take a look at what lies within and the scene there, thankfully, was much in sync with the untouched beauty outside. Our room, quite naturally, was replete with restored furniture. Grand Tanjore paintings adorned the walls while old-fashioned windows looked out at a traditional courtyard, complete with a well.

The Tanjore theme stayed with us even as we shifted our focus to the dining room, having decided to pamper our tastebuds. Wait staff dressed in khadi shirts and dhotis piled our thalis with powder-soft idlis and tangy sambar and we slotted a short visit to the in-house museum soon after. An esoteric collection of old articles--fans, cradles, coins and even a kerosene-operated fridge--held our attention for the next hour as we walked around the small museum at a leisurely, 'post-lunch' pace. Sepia photographs of people from the village shared wall space with paintings. A rickshaw and a palanquin--both requisitioned to transport Queen Victoria during a visit to India that was subsequently stalled--marked the end of our museum tour. As warm-up to the more active programme for the next day, I decided to spend an hour or two at the ayurvedic centre. What treatment my masseuses chose for me I do not know. What I do remember is the wonder they worked on my body. A haze of dreamy contentment enveloped me as the therapists got into action. At the end of the massage, I had even forgotten what a mobile phone looks like.

Morning dawned bright and clear, and conveyed a sense of urgency. A whole new world waited outside the gates of the resort and there was no time to be lost. On our way out, I did a quick recap of whatever little I knew of Swamimalai's history. The town was the epicentre of the lost-wax metal casting trade, an art preserved for over 4,500 years by craftsmen who claim descent from the emissary of Lord Brahma. The banks of the river Cauvery yielded clay so fine that the Sthapathys settled here in an era of great temple architecture. We visited Rajan Industries, headed by Rajan, who broke away from the family trade of stone sculpting and moved to the art of metal casting. A hungry fire, ready to turn any metal red hot, greeted us at the thatched workshop. Under the rattan roofs were the pits where the hot moulds are buried. In rapt attention, we observed the complicated process by which idols are made. First, a model of beeswax and resin is made and then encased in clay and left to dry in the sun for a week. When the pack is heated, the wax runs out leaving behind a mould into which metal is poured to create the idol. The details are carved out later and a statue can take as much as six months to finish.

Feeling refined for having viewed some great art, we proceeded to yet another centre of, well, great art. The Darasuram Temple, built by the mighty Chola dynasty, catapulted into the historian's hotlist when the UNESCO granted it heritage status. According to legend, Airavata, Lord Indra's vehicle, is believed to have worshipped the shivalingam here. The pillared hall that leads to the sanctum is built like a giant chariot drawn by horses. Paintings and sculptured panels portraying dance poses, musicians, sages and deities abound here. Pillars are decorated with panels that illustrate stories such as the penance of Parvati, Shiva's marriage and his fight with the Asuras. We headed towards our second temple of the day, another UNESCO World Heritage Site at Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This temple, built by Chola king Rajendra I to commemorate his march to the Ganga, stands like a brave sentinel out of a flatland. They say water from the Ganga was brought in golden pots and poured into the temple tank, now called ponneri. This temple, dedicated to Brihadeeswara, has a thousand-pillar hall and a 50-m tower.

On our way back, we pay our homage to a rare temple theatre art at Mellatur, a tiny hamlet tucked into the Cauvery delta. A Tamil village steeped in Telugu history, it made for a bewitching trip back in time. Back at the resort, we regather our faculties with a cup of the famous Kumbakonam degree coffee. Dusk is the bewitching hour at Anandham when we enjoy a relaxing evening walk and the sybaritic pleasure of reading a bestseller on the breezy thinai (a raised platform for sitting). Discounting the symphony of cicadas, we try to breathe in the silence of the place--a magic potion to take back and whiff in the midst of the urban chaos that's home.

Travel stats

Getting there: From Chennai, it's a six/seven-hour drive to Kumbakonam. Swamimalai is four km from here. You can also fly to Trichy and reach Swamimalai by road (91 km).

When to go: Winter and early summer.

We recommend

Stay: Indeco Anandham Swamimalai; tel: 435 248 0044/385/406; e-mail: swamimalai@indecohotels.com

Eat: Traditional South Indian thalis, idlis, dosas and vadas. Drink the legendary Kumbakonam degree coffee.

Buy: Decorative lamps and Tanjore paintings from Kumbakonam.

See: The magnificent Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, which, undoubtedly, is the finest example of Chola art.

Look out for...

Musical stone panels: In front of the temple at Darasuram, there are stone panels which produce tunes of varying pitches corresponding to the notes of Indian classical music--Sa Re Ga and so on.

Rock Fort, Tiruchirapalli: If you're flying to Trichy, there's no way you can miss the unique Rock Fort. A colossal rockface dotted with the remains of an ancient fort, it is the only outcrop on an otherwise flat land.

PUBLISHED IN INDIA TODAY TRAVEL PLUS,2009