Arrive in Tamil Nadu and enter the spiritual – but strangely corporeal – world of Hinduism. Along with the hordes of plaster of Paris gods inhabiting every nook and cranny of India’s southern most state, feel the unavoidable chaos of crowding humanity pressing itself against you. My overwhelming memory of our trip to Madurai is one of intense religiosity and joy. The fact that we had inadvertently turned up during the festival of Pongal may have had something to do with it…
As we crossed the border from the predominantly Christian state of Kerala into neighbouring Hindu Tamil Nadu we were greeted by the sound of bells, wafting incense, marigold necklaces, painted faces, decorated cows, chanting voices and rice flour patterned pavements. Temples and shrines line the roads, whether tucked between ramshackle buildings in villages and towns, or dusty corners in the countryside. They stand on the top of hills calling the faithful to puja, giant gopurams dominate the skyline in Madurai and even in an ageing and mildewed shopping-mall-come-factory stand forlorn and neglected surrounded by shops.
After the longest journey in the history of journeys from Cochin to Madurai we awoke from a deep and refreshing sleep. The hotel – chosen with great care and attention from what Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor had on offer – turned out to be comfortable, clean and convenient. In the loudest and most bustling city J and I had so far encountered in India it was a relief to have a cool and calm bolt-hole.
The main reason for visiting Madurai – the second largest city in Tamil Nadu and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in India – is to see the Meenakshi Amman Temple (above), a sixteenth century homage to Dravidian architecture in all its rambunctious colour and form. The other reason turned out to be because it has a most inquisitive and friendly set of inhabitants, many of whom Jamie took delight in photographing.
We visited the temple twice. On our first day we spent six hours walking through the city with the intention of saving Madurai’s most famous sight for the next morning, but we couldn’t resist a quick peek at dusk. Covering 45 acres (180000 m2) the whole complex measures 254 by 237 meters. The 14 gopurams (towers) – the tallest of which is about 170 ft high – dominate the skyline. Made of granite, wood and stucco, every inch of each structure is covered in brightly painted multicoloured representations of gods and heavenly bodies. There are 1511 figures on the four large towers. It is the heart and soul of the city.
Jamie headed off on a photographic quest so I sat on the steps of the Golden Lotus Tank, admiring the hibiscus and bougainvillea growing there, while the sun slowly descended behind one of the giant gopurams. Despite people milling around it was a peaceful moment, in a tranquil place. If I had even a smidgen of religious belief in me I may have taken the time to talk to my god, as it was I watched raptors (probably kites) circling high overhead, hundreds of pigeons coming home to roost in the intricate carvings for the night and flocks of acrobatic martins whooshing out of their well-hidden nests to snatch at insects on the wing. I counted twenty-three nests clinging to the intricate ceiling, each containing hungry and loudly demanding young. Further within the complex Jamie and I discovered bats hanging in rows, untroubled by the cacophony going on around them, silently awaiting their turn to come out for the evening’s pickings. Some of us have bats in the belfry so why shouldn’t India have bats in its temples?
Commerce in India is everywhere. In Hinduism the goddess Lakshmi is revered as the goddess of wealth, good fortune, beauty and auspiciousness. She is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains at the festival of Diwali throughout India and the world. Believers will explain that wealth is not only found in money, land, property, animals and grain, but can be achieved through tradition, value of life, family and progress as well as virtues like patience, persistence and purity. In the Meenakshi Amman Temple commerce is integral to the complex. After removing your shoes you enter a 17th century market place and run the gauntlet of vendors who press upon you all manner of gold and sparkly temple souvenirs. It put me in mind of the souvenir shop I once came upon at the top of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, selling winking Christs and musical box Vaticans. Venturing further inside we found an elephant who ‘blessed’ you with his trunk, took a coin from your hand and passed it back to his owner. Wealth through tradition and persistence indeed.
Meenakshi temple is notoriously busy, so the received wisdom is to get there before dawn to avoid the crowds. This is probably true at other times of the year, but during the Tamil month of ‘Margali’, the most auspicious time of the year in the calendar and particularly in ‘Pongal’ it is busy all day. We left the hotel at 5:30am, brimming with confidence, but found the complex even fuller than the previous night. Wall to wall groups of (mostly) men, each ‘team’ identified by their colours of dress, loudly celebrated one god or another. Yellow, green and orange figured prominently, but the prize for the most alarmingly fierce went to the guys in black dhotis and bare chests – all very macho. They revere Lord Murugan, second son of Shiva, god of war and favourite god of Tamil Nadu. He carries a spear, which, as in keeping with the constant paradoxes of India, represents knowledge rather than violence. Worshippers believe the spear is divided into three parts, the top representing the shortness of knowledge, the middle the vastness and the bottom depth. “Knowledge is a weapon” grinned our guide.
It was a pleasure to walk round the vast complex barefoot and feel the soft stone underfoot, only occasionally did one have to avoid unknown wet patches. As non Hindus we were not allowed into the inner sanctums of the two golden domed holy shrines of Meenakshi and Shiva, but we were interested to watch as their followers prepared themselves for worship within these holy inner temples.
The first thing is to pray to everyone’s favourite Hindu god, Ganesh, the elephant headed god and fist son of Shiva. We watched as people lit a candle, then with palms together chanted to the statue. In another hall of the vast complex we witnessed a more bizarre version of homage to Ganesh. This time you start with palms together above your head, then move on to clasp your ears whilst bobbing up and down in front of Ganesh’s statue. This is believed to cause kinetic energy.
After respect has been paid to Ganesh the devotee prostrates him or herself before Shiva’s lignam (flagstaff). Eight parts of a man’s body must touch the floor (men tend to lie face down) while women have to touch with five parts of their body by kneeling and touching with knees, hands and head. This act of prostration promotes “noble thoughts and peace of mind.”
Finally, the believer is required to open up the five senses. Our guide, whose attention to detail was meticulous and who would not be distracted from his well-rehearsed patter, explained why there was a big table in front of the shrine entrance, covered in bits and pieces,
“Worshippers offer something before they go inside the inner temple – this is an offering, then the priest gives them something back. By eating something Hindus believe our five senses are activated: eye, ear, nose, mouth and tongue .
1. See – by looking at the gods and goddesses
2. hear – by the bell [constantly being rung by worshippers and priests] 3. nose – incense
4. mouth – banana or something to eat
5. tongue – prayer uses our tongue
Our sixth sense – to feel – is activated.”
Hmmm, those are not quite the same five senses I learnt at school… Anyway, after eating a banana (or something similar) grain, coconuts, coins or flowers are offered at the ‘sacrificial’ altar before going into the temple. Having done all this it is believed that in the temple the worshipper will be given something back. “Everything is balance,” said the guide. An example of balance is the prayer for a child from a childless family. If the prayer is answered the father must return to the temple and be weighed on giant scales. He is then required to make an offering of the same weight in gold or silver or grain (depending on the wealth of the family).
All the while we were there incense poured out of every nook and cranny, bells were struck, people chanted in prayer, loud drumming and singing took place within and without the complex, and animals – elephants, cows and camels – were paraded at dusk while fireworks were lit. We saw half naked men face down on the stone or shouting out in groups often with their faces smeared in painted colours. Women lit tiny candles in front of a small statue of a bull “to bring lightness into the world, to gain knowledge.”
There are plenty of theatricals, rites and traditions in Hinduism which we may find curious or absurd, but are they any stranger than genuflection, falling to our knees and transubstantiation? Christian holy men wear long dresses, silly hats and carry staffs. We kneel in regimented pews with crosses round our necks and revere bits of old bone and shrouds. Catholics believe the Pope has a direct line of communication with God and that the Holy Spirit prevents him from teaching anything in error. Right.
It may all be hocus pocus and a lot of mystic nonsense, but I liked what our guide said,
“Religion’s purpose is to bring about morality, discipline and create harmony among people.” You can’t argue with that.