Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Southern spice: where the water is sweet

These are little travel nuggets from various trips in Southern Tamil Nadu, each of which is too small to form a complete post in itself, but which (hopefully) forms some good reading together.


This was during one of my numerous visits to the heartland of Southern most India, Tirunelvelli. It’s a wonderful, medium sized, somewhat sleepy town woven in to Tamil folklore, with many songs and stories written about the sweet water of the Tambaraparani river, and the majestic Nellaiappar Temple. Tirunelveli sometimes also makes it to the news for the wrong reasons (when a very rare, violent riot breaks out). Anyway, this is Thevar country, and in older times the prevailing stereotype believed that the hearty folks down here were brave, honorable, proud and easily provoked. If you’ve seen the Kamal Hasan flick Thevar magan, which tells of a feudal tale like a thousand true stories from this region, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Anyway, here I was, at my cousins’ place, sitting on the porch and chatting with the toothless, shirtless, aged family retainer/watchman/all purpose handy man, Karuppa. He (then) must have been around sixty-five at least (he didn’t know his own age), and was almost as blind as the proverbial bat (stubbornly refusing to get rid of his cataracts), and needed to squint to see some one at a fifteen-foot distance. I asked him about the (in)famous sickle-swords of the region, the aruvaal. Warriors would carry one of these (often three feet long), hidden behind their backs. I asked him if he had ever held one of them.

”Aruvaal la yennale? Athu yellaru kitta irukum” (“what’s the big deal in an aruvaal, every one has one of those”), was his nonchalant reply.

I stared at him incredulously. He took me up to his little corner, and emerged, victoriously swinging an old, rusty, three-foot aruvaal. Yup, that polite, laughing, half-blind old man sporting a big, toothless grin, had a sword.

It was one of the few times when I was both shocked, and thought something was unbelievably cool as well!


By far the BIGGEST thing in town (yes, “town” is where the folks here say they are going to, if they mean they’re going down to the city center) is the Nellaiappan Temple, with Shiva in the “Nataraja” form. As you go to “town”, you see laid-back vesthi or lungi clad (and folded to just above the knee, revealing dashing red or blue “boxer shorts” of sorts) men sitting outside tea stalls, catching up on the latest “happenings” in town. There would be lots of pretty Tamil girls, mostly still clad in paavadai-thavani, or the more fashionable Salwaar kameez (jeans or skirts were a rarity), with flowers in their hair, usually walking around in small groups, chatting. And then, you see the massive stone temple gopuram rising over the landscape.

The temple, built by Pallava kings, is around 1300 years old, though it has been renovated and expanded many times over the centuries. An important Shivasthalam, it is one of the largest Shiva temples in India. Legend has it that some farmer harvested his paddy (nel), left it out to dry, and asked Shiva to protect it. Some time later, there was a huge thunderstorm, and the farmer feared that he had lost his entire crop. In anguish, he ran back once the rain stopped, to find that his grain was dry and untouched. ”Nellaiappar” Shiva had saved the day.

This temple, like most temples of the deepest south, commands awe with its sheer size. A major highlight of the temple is the 1000 pillar "cosmic-dance hall", which seems to stretch for miles. Deep, dark corners (when explored) reveal the distinct odor left by bats. And you stare in amazement at the scale of it all. Another major highlights of this temple undoubtedly are the musical pillars. Made of stone, select sets of pillars (closer to the sanctum) emit distinct notes (sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni, or solfa notes) when thumped with the palm. Hidden along the long corridor leading from the Shiva shrine to the Kantimati (Parvathi, Shiva’s consort) shrine is a rusty sign, with the paint peeling off. It’s by the ASI (Archeological society of India), and forlornly (almost apologetically) notes that the greater temple complex is the largest ever built in any Hindu temple, after the complex at Ankor Vat.


When I mentioned earlier why Tirunelvelli is part of Tamil folklore, I forgot the single most important (and greatest) contribution of Tirunevelli to the world. Tirunelvelli is also the land of that sublime creation, “Tirunelvelli” halwa, There are over a dozen shops that sell “original” Tirunelvelli halwa, but any old timer will tell you that there’s only one original.

Heading out from the temple, and walking a few blocks, one arrives at a dark, gloomy looking shop, known fondly as ”Irutukadai” (the dark shop!). At about 5:30 in the evening, the shop is closed, but a small crowd begins to line up outside it. By 5:55 it is restless. At the stroke of six, the doors open, and the crowds move in for the kill. The only thing sold in this shop is the hot, sweet, brown, wheat halwa, dripping in ghee. Customers go crazy, buying kilogram quantities of the stuff to take home, while others (such as myself) order more modest quarter-kilo servings (served in plantain-leaves) for immediate consumption and instant moksha.

Apparently, this most Tamil of creations is not Tamil. Rajput immigrants, who came here some eight decades ago, and who still own the store, set up the shop. Their “formulation” is a well-kept family secret (And it’s true. The irutukadai, halwa is somehow superior to other pale imitations elsewhere). It must be the sweet waters of the Tambaraparani that makes the difference.

(The second part of these posts is here)


Anonymous said...

the tiruvnelveli halwa is not tamil? I protest - this is a conspiracy by the (y)indi speaking northeners to take away what is rightfully ours.
but yes, as you travel down south, you come upon new worlds - I always used to think tamil movies presented a world that just did not exist anywhere - but even the large cities like Coimbatore and madurai retain a very basic charm...

Anonymous said...

great post sunil...

I've travelled a bit over tamil nadu as a student of architecture, and there is a certain beauty and charm in south india that is missing in north india.

hope to explore more someday soon.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Again a very nice post.
I will have to visit Tirunelvelli is we visit southern Tamil Nadu.

I am curious about this: is wheat halva similar to kesari?

Dreamer said...

Hey Sunil,

Nice post. The musical pillars seem to be a highlight in a lot of temples and monuments in the south- Madurai Meenakshi temple and the ruins at Hampi to name a few. In fact, the guide at Hampi mentioned that the music for court dances used to be played on them and there were pillars for percussion effects too!

Sunil said...

Charu....I agree...these inthi speakers are causing havoc! :-)
Anyway, the owner was born and brought up in T'velli. His grandfather started the irutukadai. So we'll claim him as Tamil. And as far as the charm goes.......I totally love being in smaller cities in the South. And i'm very fond of listening to the sing-song Tirunelvelli Tamil, it's really sweeter and more melodious than the Tamil heard in Northern Tamil Nadu. The only dialect I enjoy more is the Coimbatore dialect.

Arzan.....yeah, and you architects have it good. Travel so much to see the sights, in the name of "study".

Michael......yeah, its a fun small town. But Tirunelvelli halwa is unique. Most people (especially those not from Tamil Nadu) wouldn't even have heard of it. It's not really like Kesari (that's made out of semolina). This is soft and fine, not coarse and grainy.

It has to be eaten to be understood!

Sunil said...

Dreamer.....yes indeed. I've been struck by that as well.....and haven't seen them in temples in northern India. The first time I saw them, I was quite amazed. These pillars are more common in the deep south, Pandya country (Madurai and Tirunelvelli both being part of this land), so i'm not surprised at all that the Meenakshi temple has similar pillars......

Hampi really took the best in all southern architecture to create a magnificient city...........

Anonymous said...


Well we travel to study so we can build good homes and offices for you all to live and work in.

*backslapping* *self-praise*....aah the vanity in mankind !!! :):):)

Sourin Rao said...


I've never heard of Tirunelvelli halwa, and the mouth waters at your description of this delicacy.
The problem for me travelling in TN alone was the language problem. Without knowing Tamil its difficult to get around on your own.

Anonymous said...

Sunil..thats a nice post on Tirunelvelli and i would like to add that the folks down in south india (MRT) still have the trait -- "brave, honorable, proud and easily provoked" You would need to see it to believe it.

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

sniff sniff... idhu ongalukkey nanna irrukka? kalankaarthala, kulur-mazhaile halwa aasai vandhuduthu

Minal said...

Looking forward to more similar posts. And I have to plan my visit
to Tirunelvelli sometime in near future:-)

Minal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gawker said...

I didnt know Kamal Hassan and Aamir Khan were long lost twins

Sujatha Bagal said...

Nice collection of posts Sunil. Brings back memories of summer trips to Palani, Salem, T'malai...

Sunil said... do have the good life. Keep on backslapping :-)

Sourin, you're is a tad hard to travel without at least a working knowledge of the language, but it's do-able. You're fine in the bigger cities (more or less).....still, since there's so much to see, it's worth it. It's the same in many places in India. In the northern belt you're sunk with out Hindi. In smaller towns in Andhra or Karnataka, you need a working knowledge of the languages there. In the north east, it's a lot harder to travel.......but it's always been worth it.

Bala.....I don't like avoid those labels :-). But yes, i'm very familiar with how it is down south. Even in my college days, i used to go down to T'velli a couple of times a year. I haven't visited in about 5 years....but that's not toooo long.

shoe apologies :-)Treat yourself to some carrot-cake instead, while you await your next trip to TN. Kavalai padaama iru, antha naal seegarama varum.

Minal...go for a nice long tour of the South.....starting with Karnataka.....plenty to see and enjoy.

Gawker....yeah! good one :-) But that aside, the Kamal look in Virumandi or Thevar Magan are actually very, very common in the deep south (big mustachios and all).

Sujatha, thanks.

Pennathur, yup. And I've been planning a post on Dharwad pedas (& Baby Singh's peda's) too some time.....I just love those, and they're so different from any other. Now i'm drooling over this list you've written up, early in the morning!

Anonymous said...

I too have visited quite a number of temple towns in Tamil Nadu (part of being an Archi.student) and have always found the smaller town temples to be better suited to my taste than those bustling big-city 'commercial' temples

R.Nandakumar said...

a nice little bunch of snapshots from the aruvaal to the temple to the halwa - nellai truly seems to come alive there.

i guess rajput is a very catch-all word, somewhat like 'kshatriya'. it need not probably, necessarily imply the folks who run the iruttukadai have come all the way from rajasthan.

Sunil said...'re one of those lucky architects as well...keep on travelling. I'll agree with you.......though Tirunelvelli is not a temple-town, but a district capital :-)

Nandakumar....actually, it's not Rajasthan...they're UP Rajputs, who are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Tamil Nadu. Most of them came around 75-100 years ago, and still speak Hindi, but with a Tamil accent :-). They also speak Tamil fluently (it's almost their first language, understandably). Infact, there were even some Tamil freedom fighters, who were UP Rajput. In this case....i think the owner's name is Bijili Singh (i am not 100% sure....) and his grandfather migrated here to start the shop...

Like Pennathur pointed out.....the Karnataka chief minister, Dharam Singh, is also one of the South Indian Rajputs.....their families migrated down south some years ago. Actually, TAmil Nadu has a number of major (and very old) migrant communities. The Sourashtra community is fairly large, so too are the Marathas (who have been around since the Marathas ruled Tanjore). All of them speak and know Tamil so well, it's often hard to tell.

Kaps said...

good write-up sunil. nellai has a distinct dialect of tamil and that it is one of the unique things about the place. I haven't been to the place in recent times....should plan a visit soon. Lot of shops in Chennai also claim that they sell Original Tirunelveli Halwa.

Minal said...

@ Sunil: I have been to most places in South. Fell in love with Kerela. It's heaven. But haven't visited the small locales. That's where the true beauty lies!

Anonymous said...


I always look forward to your posts!
I have read in a number of places that non-Hindus are often not welcome inside
some temples (or that the priests are rude to them and make them feel uncomfortable). Is that the case in

Sunil said...

Kaps......those guys in Chennai are amateurs. The real stuff in only in Nellai.

Minal....yes, indeed. I totally agree with you.

Anonymous, thanks for your comment............Nellaiappan is not a crowded pilgrimage spot. There are many temples where non-Hindus are not welcome inside........the Ananthapadmanabhan temple in Trivandrum, or Guruvyaur for example, but I suspect Nellaiappan is not like that, mostly because it's not such a crowded temple. I don't think any one there has given that a serious thought, because it may have never occured to them. It's just one of those ancient, large temples in a small town. A large number of temples are like that, and any one can go inside. Additionally, I haven't seen temples in Tamil Nadu that separate visitors........though i've seen that in many other places.

Anyway, I hope it's not. I find that very wrong. No one's stopped me from visiting Cathedrals or Mosques to admire the architecture........

Anonymous said...

Nellaiappar temple was not built by pallava kings as you told in your post . It was built by Pandian kings and then enlarged by Nayaks.