I recently took a tour of Southern India, and one of the highlights was seeing the magnificent temples. India is known for them, and while the southern Indian temples look alike on the outside with a large base that gets steeper as the temple reaches skyward, the experience inside the temples could not have been more unique. I traveled alone for some of the trip, and the rest was the Overseas Adventure Travels trip, Soul of India. And this trip truly feeds your soul.
Before I joined the group, I spent some extra time in Chennai. I had a private tuk-tuk driver take me to the Thyagaraja Temple, also called Vadivudai Amman Temple. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and is located in the town of Tiruvottiyur just north of Chennai. The temple is closely associated with 7th century Tamil saint poets from the region, classified as Paadal Petra Sthalams and not part of any regularly scheduled tourist activity. So I was delighted to be welcomed by locals selling goods only to themselves, but still offering me blessings in their temple, even though the priest had to instruct me not to use my left hand. The price for 4 hours of a private driver to two local temples was $11 for 4 hours through a local hole in the wall travel agency. This temple is part of a small but complete complex, and was worth the visit and stroll through the grounds. Admittedly, walking around this very local village temple with the big history after having taken my shoes off and walking past cows everywhere was a challenge, but I managed.
Once I joined the OAT group and we started seeing the major temples, the first we saw was in Mahabalipuram, about 60 miles south of Chennai. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with multiple temples which go back to the 7th and 8th Century (Common Era). The monuments found in Mahabalipuram are mostly rock-cut and monolithic with Buddhist elements of design located near the Bay of Bengal. This area also saw damage during the 2005 tsunami, but the temples and monuments were mostly untouched except for one small area with a granite lion and elephant relief that was washed away.. One unique aspect of the area and its temples is that it was used as a school for other sculptors, and is therefore considered to be prototype design for other Hindu temples in Asia. In fact, the Shore Temple and other elements of the monuments known as Five Rathas (Five Chariots) looked a lot like what I had seen in Indonesia, primarily in Bali. The most impressive of these is was Anjuna’s Penance, often called the “Descent of the Ganges.” We were told this prototype area apparently became an artistic template and set the stage for Angor Wat in Cambodia as well as many other temples in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Is the word “Bali” in the name of this town a coincidence given the artistic similarities to Hindu temples in Bali? Bali in fact means, “demon king defeated by god Vishnu.” And the deity Vishnu is indeed the god they prayed to at these temples. Other temples were for other deities, such as the one we visited next.
Kanchpuram is the most famous temple city in Tamil Nadu, and is known as the “city with a thousand temples.” It is also one of the seven holiest cities in India. One of the temples we saw, Ekambaranathar Temple, was a glorious blend of everything Indian, from Indian step wells on the outside, to a beautiful display of Hindu Pongal celebration on the inside. The architecture of course, looked similar to the rest, with a huge base that rose to the sky. This temple is dedicated to Shiva, and covers 25 acres with multiple shrines, halls, and places for the devout to worship.
With so many other temples in the area we also visited a large outdoor complex, Kanchi Kailasanathar temple, the oldest structure in Tamil Nadu. The outdoor animal sculptures are most striking at this temple. However, when writing this article I noticed that the first two towns our group visited to see the temples in Tamil Nadu had the word “Puram” in their name. Puram as it turns out, is a genre of classical poetry with two separate sub-genres. One deals with love affairs, the second with wars, kings, and personal virtues. So while the history is long and complex, what is common is that Puram speaks to the excellency of life of different types of people. What a wonderful concept! I do not know if this was really part of the meaning of these towns with such amazing temples, but upon reflection, why shouldn’t it be? We all strive for excellency of life, and in ancient Tamil Nadu they made this search through poetry. Hopefully a little of that philosophy rubs off as we travel thought their history, culture and religion.
Excellency continued on this trip, as we reached the city of Tanjore. There we visited the BrihadishwaraTemple, also known as the Big Temple, which stands 60 meters high, is over 1,000 years old, and is from the Chola dynasty. The temple tower that reaches to the sky is one of the largest in India, is one of the major tourist attraction in Southern India, and a stone bull sits in the middle of the main temple. During my visit, it was decorated for the fall Pongal festival, with fruits and vegetables for the harvest festival, and priests giving blessings. The temple complex was huge, beautiful and perfect in the glow of the afternoon light, with literally thousands of people streaming in. But the real experience for me came when the live music started. Typical Indian music with drums and stringed instruments (not a sitar, but a veema, which sounds similar to the Western ear). I closed my eyes and felt the magic of the temple complex as I have in other Hindu sites, but the music literally transported me. I could have stayed for hours. Who knew that India, a place I said I would never return, would impact me this much?
The last major temple we visited, Sri Meenaksi Temple inMadurai, is one of the most famous of them all, and is dedicated to Pavrati and her consort Shiva. Only Hindus are allowed in the inner sanctum to receive blessings, but we saw plenty at night in the night market directly outside, and the following day as well. It is known as the Grand Temple, and it looked like a museum once we got inside. Although we could not enter to receive a blessing, the large columns in the temple numbered 110 pillars. Another section of this huge temple complex had over 1,000 pillars. The art work and over 33,000 sculpted pieces inside are as unique to Indian culture as the experiences we had with the people outside. We were treated to real Hindu traditions there, such as observing the family celebration for pregnancy, and a child getting her head shaved for the first time (the latter a bit painful to watch since she was crying so much). This temple was built in the 6th century BC. People can purchase tickets on Viator.com ahead of time to witness the procession that takes place each night. Unfortunately, our group missed it because we were told it was much like other processions we had already witnessed for the Pongal harvest festival. Still, I would have enjoyed seeing the color and vibrancy of that procession in this magnificent temple, one of the most famous in all of Southern India, which draws a revenue of 60 million rupees per year from tourism.
Excellence in life, art, and spirituality (if one I so inclined) are all part of the temple experience of Southern India’s Tamil Nadu. I did in fact visit two temples in the state of Kamataka when I was in Bangalore traveling solo at the end. The enormous Hare Krishna Temple in Bangalore (Bengaluru) was an experience, as I chanted the Hare Krishna verses along with devotees who were reciting it 108 times. The Sandalwood Temple in Mysore was another unique experience, with sandalwood incense everywhere, along with monkeys, cows, and traditional music playing at the entrance of the temple. As a fitting reminder that many Indian devotees feel truly blessed with their lives, I again experienced the very thing we long for in travel, when I passed the Krishna Consciousness Center on the way to Ponducherry. My driver had to slow down because the devotees were singing, playing instruments and dancing on the side of the road in joyous celebration.
We long for the culturally unique when we travel, a glimpse into the lives and spirits of others. Soul of India provided this experience beyond measure. Our images of the Indian people living on the Indian sub-continent are not those of excellence. Yet ask them, and many in the south are happy and spiritually complete. You need only to hear the music, see the dancing, and receive the blessings for yourself to gain a better understanding. It is as complex a living situation as it is spiritually rich.