According to Hindu mythology, at the end of every yugam, there is a huge flood called the Pralayam, that leads to the destruction of all living beings in the earth. The story of Kumbakonam is about the origin of life in the present yugam that we live in.
Brahma put together the seeds of all living organisms and also the Vedas and Puranas, in a pot which came to be called the Amrita Kalasam (pot of nectar). Kumbham is the Sanskrit and Kudam the Tamil, for a pot of this type.
This pot was decorated with various items like flowers, vilvam, auspicious cloth, chandanam (sandal paste), and sacred thread, a coconut was kept on top of it. The whole thing was tied together, similar to the kalasams we see today at domestic functions and in temples. The pot was kept on the top of mount Meru.
When the pralayam began, it destroyed all creatures on earth. The Kumbham prepared by Brahma was also displaced, and floated on the flood waters for years and years. Finally, it settled at a spot (which is regarded as modern day Kumbakonam).
Next, the celestials wondered how to reach it. Siva, in the guise of a hunter, discharged an arrow from His bow, breaking open the pot. The seeds of life and the Vedas and puranas in the pot were scattered around, and thus life on earth restarted.
Given all of these connections, Kumbakonam came to be called so, because Kumbakonam literally means “corner” or “piece” of the pot, in Sanskrit. The Tamil name for Kumbakonam is Kudanthai, or Kudamukku, which also means the same thing as it does in Sanskrit.
The Mahamaham Kulam (tank) – home of the Mahamaham festival – is considered to be where the pot broke open and its contents flowed out.
When the pot broke open, the many decorations that adorned the pot fell at different places, each along with a different piece of the pot. The pieces of the pot immediately became Siva Lingams, and each of these places, sanctified by the falling of the decoration and the pot-shards, became a punya-kshetram.
In today’s tellings, these places are:
- Kumbesam is the place where the base of the pot stayed, and came to be the Aadi Kumbeswarar temple. Interestingly, the moolavar Lingam at this temple is shaped a little like a pot.
- The string (Sikkam or Uri) around the kalasam landed nearby, a little to the east, along with another shard of the pot. Later, Chandran worshipped here, because of which this place is revered as the Someswarar temple.
- The vilvam fell a little to the south, and is the Nageswarar temple.
- The coconut on top of the kalasam fell east of the Mahamaham tank, and is the site of the Abhi Mukheswarar temple.
- The sacred thread in the kalasam fell at what is the Gautameswarar temple.
- The part containing the mouth of the kalasam fell at the place we call Kudavasal (vasal or voil stands for mouth or entrance, in Tamil), site of the Koneswarar temple.
- The mid-portion of the kalasam fell a little southeast of Kumbakonam, at Kalayanallur (or Kalasanallur, the old name of Sakkottai), where the Amirtakadeswarar (or Amrita Kalasa Nathar) temple is located.
- The flowers adorning the kalasam fell south-west of Kumbakonam, at a place that came to be called Malathivanam. This is the location of present-day Adi Kambatta Viswanathar temple.
- Banathurai is where Siva stood with his bow and arrow (banam) and broke the pot open, which is the location of the Banapureeswarar temple.
- The chandanam adorning the kalasam fell a little north of Banathurai, at where the Srikalahasteeswarar temple is situated.
- The various other decorations fell close to the Nageswarar temple, and is today the Ekambareswarar temple.
- Finally, some residual drops of the nectar that flew out, fell west of Kumbakonam, which is where the Kottaiyur Koteeswarar temple is located.
Of these, the Abhi Mukheeswarar, Gautameswarar, and Ekambareswarar temples are located in the immediate vicinity of the Mahamaham tank, as is the Kasi Viswanathar temple, also associated with the Mahamaham kulam.
The amritam filled the Mahamaham tank, and also flowed over into the Portamarai tank which serves both the Adi Kumbeswarar temple and Sarngapani temple.
The kalasam breaking open resulted in a lot of drops of the amritam falling at various places within a radius of several kroshams. At each of those places, a Siva Lingam sprung up.
Almost each of these was a separate village or town, and it was / is customary that every place with a Siva temple should also have a Vishnu temple (and vice versa). Therefore, Vishnu temples also came up at those places. This is why Kumbakonam has as many temples as it does.
Mahamamam tank and festival
The above story of Kumbakonam is what gives the Mahamaham tank its importance. This takes on special significance during the Masi Maham festival, which is celebrated annually; and celebrated on a grand scale at the Mahamaham festival which occurs every 12 years. Read about the Mahamaham festival here.