Once part of the erstwhile Indian kingdom of Travancore, Suchindram is now in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. The village, though, is a lovely mix of Tamil and Kerala influences. So while the people there speak Tamil, there’s a very subtle Malayalam lilt to it; and when they speak Malayalam, the Tamil influence is audible.
While it’s not very clear just how old the Thanumalayan temple is, it most certainly is several hundred years old and played a vital part in the affairs of Travancore. According to P. Shungoonny Menon’s A History of Travancore published in 1878, the ruler of the erstwhile kingdom of Cochin signed a treaty of alliance with Travancore at Suchindram in 1685 AD. The book also has several other mentions of Suchindram, including references to rulers of Travancore worshipping at the Thanumalayan temple.
As you turn off the highway and head towards the village, the temple’s rajagopuram or tower appears, soaring into the cyan sky. For a moment, all your eye can take in is the gopuram, which dominates everything around it. And then you notice the large tank that borders the temple; but only for a moment. For you are immediately drawn to the fleet of exquisitely carved, wooden temple cars standing sentinel around the temple. A couple of them are large, massive even, and look like they’ve rolled in from another, timeless world. And perhaps they have, for they carry the gods during the temple’s annual festival in December.
That feeling of timelessness lingers as you enter the temple, with only your senses to witness the wonders within. You have to leave your camera — and if you’re a male your shirt — and other trappings of the modern world at the door.
Touts, however, are not left at the door and dog your first few steps, chanting, in a medley of languages, the services they offer. Shrug-off this band of polyglots though, and the pace drops a notch or two. And as you make your way through the temple, from one subsidiary shrine to another, your cloak of serenity is occasionally buffeted by the clink of anklets and the murmur of prayers punctuated by the ringing of a bell.
What makes the Thanumalayan temple a very special place of worship is that the idol in its sanctum sanctorum is of the Hindu trinity — Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma; a rather unique configuration. Equally special is the temple’s distinctive, 22-foot statute of the god Hanuman, believed to have been carved from a single block of granite.
The mood in front of Hanuman’s idol is ebullient; a mix of piety and delight, as people exclaim at the size of the statue. Or marvel at the fact that the temple priests need to climb a flight of stairs and clamber onto a scaffold of sorts to anoint the idol with butter. In the chamber in front of the sanctum sanctorum though, the atmosphere is more restrained. And through the haze of the oil lamps and incense sticks, the gentle radiance from the sanctum sanctorum seems to reach out and enfold you and, for a moment, you can almost see eternity.