There is a certain fascination, a sense of a timeless journey, an anticipation of a discovery when you look at a map. Pouring over the colourful piece of paper that marked countless villages and towns, I stood there ,imagining the contours of the map changing while we took a journey down history. We were looking at a map of the present day Nagercoil and Kanyakumari districts in Tamil Nadu, but the stories took us to the times when parts of the region was referred to as Naanjil Naadu.

Ruled by various rulers from the Sangam Age to Travancore kings , with a bit of influence from the Cholas, to early Pandyas, this region had the reign of the Ay rulers, the Venad kings and had also seen battles fought between the Cheras and the Pandyas. Ringed in by oceans and mountains, the locale is scattered with  temples, forts, rock cut caves, palaces with paintings, inscriptions and carvings – monuments left behind by these rulers as souvenirs of their reign. God’s own country found its origins here, long before , Kerala the state was formed. Steeped in cults, we learnt about both facts and folklore, while I got lost in the landscape painted in front of me – natural, social, political, historical, spiritual.

We travelled to towns and villages, to deserted lakes and lush fields, to the banks of small rivulets, up a hillock, into dense forests to look for the remnants of the many dynasties that ruled Naanjil Naadu.The Ay rulers who had reigned for a long period from Sangam era to even 9th century had  left their stamp here. Temples such as Parthivasekarpuram are testimony of their workmanship. Early Pandyas had built monuments that led us towards Tirunelveli. The Venad rulers who were the founders of modern day Travancore state ruled from Padmanabhapuram palace here.

Our guide and expert, Dr V Vedachalam, Retired Senior Epigraphist from Tamil Nadu State Archaelogy Department told us that one of the earliest references to Naanjil Naadu dated back to a song sung by the legendary poetess Avvayar in the Sangam era . The song was in praise of the generosity of a Naanjil Valluvan, a tale of how the Vallavan had sent an elephant loaded with sacks of rice to people who had asked him for a small quantity of rice.

The landscape of the present merged with the past as we heard snippets of legends and history woven together . We stopped by the monuments to step into the milieu of the those times. One of our earliest stops was to Suseendram, where the temple was amidst a flurry of festivities.Dedicated to the trinity – Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, the shrine was also thronged by devotees who worshipped Hanuman, an 18 feet tall diety. Dr Vedachalam however took us around the temple to show us some nondescript rocks tucked away behind the shrine. As we crowded around him, we saw various inscriptions  that dated back to the Chola and Pandya periods. We then climbed up the dingy dark tiers of the Gopuram, disturbing the bats residing there to see some of the most colourful paintings lost in the darkness here. Deities and mortals found expression in rich tapestry of colours as the walls were painted by the artists of a bygone era, only to be vandalised by locals.

Naanjil Naadu tour for me was not just about a dynasty or a religion. The influences were varied, as Dr Vedachalam explained that most of the monuments had altered as beliefs and cults changed over the passage of time.   We were at the Nagaraja temple at Nagercoil when we learnt of the cults relating to Jaina yakshis and snake worship and how they had been woven together and transformed over a period of time.  Jainism had been prevalent here in ancient periods and several Jaina sites tucked away in hillocks  took us back to the era.

As we climb a small hillock called Chitharal near Kanyakumari,  Dr Vedachalam explained to us that the site was known as  Thirucharanattumalai in the ancient times. “Jains believe that this is the abode of the monks who had lived in the natural caves here. In fact “charanathar “according to Jainism refers to those celestial beings who fly in the skies and are seen in places of worship which could be mounds or mountains, sometimes inside towns and living spaces too,” he said.

Atop the hillock, the rocks were carved with bass relief sculptures depicting Thirthankaras and yakshis. There was the serene Mahaveera, the snake hooded Parshvanatha along with Neminatha, the yakshis – Padmavathy and Ambika, also known as Dharmadevi looking out into the open. Hillocks surrounded us in the distant horizon as we saw pools of water reflecting the colours of nature.

Dr Vedachalam said that the sculptures dated back to the 9th-10th centuries as inscriptions referred to the patronage of the AY dynasty ruler, Vikramaditya Varaguna who reigned around the period. More inscriptions written in “Vattaezhuthu “ (one of the oldest Tamil scripts) referred to monks and nuns who had lived here .

Right atop the cave was a small structural temple dedicated to Bhagavathy. Dr Vedachalam said that it was earlier a Jaina temple as the yakshi cult gave way to the Bhagavathy cult over the passage of time. A later 19th century inscription in Malayalam belonging to the Travancore king Moolam Thirunal Maharaja referred to the shrine here.

Our journey took us into fields and plantations. We were inside a dense rubber plantation, watered by a small stream called Nandiaaru . Watching the morning sun streaming through the trees and listening to the call of the birds, we were in the village of Thirunandikarai, which literally translated to the banks of the River Nandi, bordering Kerala. We stumbled upon a Shiva temple that resembled most monuments built in the architecture typical of the state. The sanctum was circular in this 10th century shrine , which had a few inscriptions that dated to the period.

However, nestled behind the temple, a path led us through the dense plantations to a rock cut cave temple, probably a Jaina monument that dated to 7th century or even older. The frescos painted on the walls of the caves had completely faded ,though some of the outlines still existed, leaving us to guess the images.  An inscription mentioned that an 8th century monk called Veeranandi had stayed here and spread Jainism in the region.

Dr Vedachalam told us that an 11th century inscription relating to Raja Raja Chola was found here and it indicated that the monarch had celebrated his birthday here and had defeated Muttom . Inscriptions relating to Vikramaditya Varaguna of the AY dynasty were found here as well.

Our journey took us to more temples such as Tiruvattaru, more rock cut caves as in Rettai Pothal, palaces like Padmanabhapuram, forts like Vattakottai , reservoirs like Veeranarayanam and finally we ended up inside the jungles  of Western Ghats to visit Nambiyaaru , a temple located uphill close to Thirukkurangudi shrine. We had travelled across the districts – Nagercoil, Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli and even to villages close to Kerala border. We climbed hillocks, went on the sea shore,  crossed rivers, drove though the mountains and forests to revisit the Naanjil Naadu of those days. We had probably travelled back to the Sangam era in just three days as we travelled down the historic and spiritual route.

This story was published in Sunday Herald recently. Coming up soon is Five places that you must visit in Naanjil Naadu, an article published in Yahoo. For more Naanjil Naadu posts on backpacker, read here.

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