India // Tamil Nadu //

Kanyakumari

At the southernmost extremity of India, KANYAKUMARI is almost as compelling for Hindus as Rameshwaram. It’s significant not only for its association with a virgin goddess, Devi Kanyakumari, but also as the meeting point of the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Watching the sun rise and set from here is the big attraction, especially on full-moon day in April, when it’s possible to see both the setting sun and rising moon on the same horizon. Although Kanyakumari is in the state of Tamil Nadu, most foreign visitors arrive on day-trips from Kerala. While the place is of enduring appeal to pilgrims and those who just want to see India’s tip, some may find it bereft of atmosphere, its magic obliterated by ugly concrete buildings and hawkers. Kanyakumari was seriously affected by the 2004 tsunami, though the seafront and jetty have since been rebuilt.

The seashore Kumari Amman Temple is dedicated to the virgin goddess Devi Kanyakumari, who may originally have been the local guardian deity of the shoreline, but was later absorbed into the figure of Devi, or Parvati, consort of Shiva. The image of Devi Kanyakumari inside the temple wears a diamond nose stud of such brilliance that it’s said to be visible from the sea. Male visitors must be shirtless and wear a dhoti before entering the temple; non-Hindus are not allowed in the inner sanctum. It is especially auspicious for pilgrims to wash at the bathing ghat here.

Resembling a prewar British cinema, the Gandhi Mandapam, 300m northwest of the Kumari Amman Temple, was actually conceived as a modern imitation of an Orissan temple. It was designed so that the sun strikes the auspicious spot where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were laid, prior to their immersion in the sea, at noon on his birthday, October 2.

Possibly the original sacred focus of Kanyakumari are two rocks, about 60m apart, half-submerged in the sea 500m off the coast, which can be reached by the Poompuhar ferry service from the jetty on the east side of town. Known as the Pitru and Matru tirthas, they attracted the attention of the Hindu reformer Vivekananda (1862–1902), who swam out to the rocks in 1892 to meditate on the syncretistic teachings of his recently dead guru, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Incorporating elements of architecture from around the country, the 1970 Vivekananda Memorial houses a statue of the saint. The footprints of Devi Kanyakumari can also be seen here, at the spot where she performed her penance. The other rock features an imposing 40m-high statue of the ancient Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar.

For more on the life and teachings of Vivekananda, visit the Wandering Monk Museum (Vivekananda Puram), just north of the tourist office on the main road. A sequence of forty-one panels in English, Tamil and Hindi provide a meticulously detailed account of the swami’s odyssey around the Subcontinent at the end of the nineteenth century.

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