South India, one temple at a time

A long awaited (we’re talking close to 10 years) trip to India had our editor swooning in delight, then sick with food poisoning ready to return home. Read on to explore India, its glories, its inviting temples and also its shortcomings.

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

My friends told me, or rather warned me I should say, of India. In all brutal honesty, they told me the plane will land on a rickety, uneven runway, the doors will open and my nose will be greeted by a strange scent that will waft in through those open doors – “a scent which you will never be able to decide if you like or not, regardless of how many days you’re staying in India – and then, that’s when my friend, you know you’ve arrived”.

Needless to say, I left Singapore puzzled by this statement, but strapping on for an exciting time in India anyway. After landing, I instantly felt a sense of welcome – all sign boards were in Tamil. I can read, write and speak Tamil rather fluently. But to see sign boards decked out in Tamil, with images and effigies of ancient Tamil mythological characters placed around the walkways as ornaments was a sight I was not ready for. It was mind-boggling, foreign yet strangely familiar. As a person who was born and bred in a highly secular country, such brazen display of race is usually reserved for cultural events, if at all.

A line of autos (think Indian tuk-tuk) waiting for business.

My aim for this trip was clear from the time I started organising it with my mother – we were going to be there for 12 days, and we were going to be visiting some of the temples revered by Hindus all over the world. Temples that were built in the 10th century, which is considered really old when you are born in the 20th or 21st Century (later, I found myself standing in a temple that was consecrated in the 4th century, and I had to place my hands on my head to prevent my brain from blowing up from the fascination of it all) and cities that had seen colonial rule, much like my home in Singapore. India seemed to have bounced back from colonialism handsomely.

The sounds of the streets greet you before the sights – loud horns of almost every car on the street threatened to deafen me for the duration of my trip – in Chennai’s congested roads. This, I realised after becoming immune to the noise, is simply the drivers’ way of communicating with each other. They lean on the horn for everything; from a simple request to give way, to signal that their turning.

Clay horses donated by temple-goers when their vows are fulfilled
Goddess Lakshmi’s temple in Chennai, topmost tier.
Kanchipuram Kaamakshi Ambal Temple

Densely populated with an almost fatalistic, jaded crowd of Indians, Chennai beholds in its heart an interesting phenomenon, no less coloured by the primary religion in these parts; everything is a way of life. Hinduism, is not so much about the practice of deity worship, I learn, but more of a way of life ranging from the rituals, the greetings, the everyday-ness of it all. This is what I witnessed on the streets, where a small single-deity (mostly of Lord Ganesha, the elephant God) shrine lined up against poorly-lit coffee stalls, fresh fruit shops (mangoes are a huge hit in India) and ice-cream parlours. These rather dingy looking sheds of stores are what make up the social scene of both rural and urban India – people gather here at different times of the day to discuss the latest news, especially in Indian politics.

I was there during an interesting time in Tamil Nadu’s history – the demise of their much controversial and idolised chief minister, and the scramble for power that ensued. In fact, I missed all the rioting and demonstration action by an inch, as I flitted from one state to another in search of all the temples on my exhaustive list. My mum, on the other hand, stayed in touch with the political scene – every day she’d watch the Indian news at the hotel without fail, and she’d get on-the-go updates from our too-talkative-for-my-liking driver. He not only kept up a steady stream of information about the ground sentiments towards the up and coming political candidates, but became our go-to guide on life in Tamil Nadu.

We learned that Kaveri, a river that once provided irrigation to the agricultural industry in Tamil Nadu, was now a barren land with no hopes of salvation in sight. This was due to a political misunderstanding between the leaders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. We saw how that dispute trickled down to everyday life. The local people did not quite care so much about the disagreement, according to our driver. They just wanted some water to get on with life and business, so that they could earn a (small) keep at the end of the day, repair the roofs over their heads and support their families. Once again, a community coloured by its adherence to a particular way of life, rituals and habits. Then we learnt that Tamil Nadu provides rice to Karnataka, a staple across India. My immediate question was “well, why haven’t you cut that out? They cut your water!”, to which the driver humbly responded, “then there’ll be no difference between us and them”. A very noble thought, one that a city dweller like me could appreciate but not practice, I’m sure.

As we journeyed through the countryside in India, the lands became resplendent with green from brown at every other turn, with the car bouncing up and down vigorously on the road. We were told that most of the budget allocated for infrastructure in India is normally pocketed by the people in charge of these improvements, hence the lay people never get to see it. Corruption, deceit and political games are rife in India. Acceptance of this is a part of the everyday lives of the village dwellers, similar to how they’ve accepted God, religion and the rituals that come along with it.

Most temples in India hold an ancient story of greatness deep in its centre – a story that reverberates throughout the entire temple complex, some so large it’ll take you 3 days to see all of it, such as the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirapalli. Others are high, with a unique vantage point over the city, symbolising that God will be overseeing your life from high-up.

The things that truly resonated within me about the temples was the sheer effort that went into building them, especially at a time where technology was close to non-existent. I learnt from our temple guide at Thanjavur, which houses the Brihadeeswarar temple (also known as Thanjavur Periya Koyil), that these temples are a painstaking blend of masterful engineering and merciless slavery. The Brihadeeswarar temple has a gopuram (central tower) whose shadow does not fall outside the temple grounds – that’s how enormous the temple is. Every generation of royalty added on to the temple, to establish their greatness and to contribute to the massive structure. They’d each left behind their legacy with the construction of a new gateway, a new shrine, or by crafting the figurine of a new deity – their combined efforts is what stands tall and impressive today as a massive temple. I stood in awe, mouth gaping open, turning 360 degrees on the same spot while observing the glory of it all. The devotion to God as the supreme leader in the 10th Century when this temple was built is still evident today, in the intricate structures. Over time, weathering had worked its corrosive magic on the pillars, and they are now being painstakingly restored everyday.

A South Indian Thaali Meal
Temple Gopurams
Intricately carved temple columns

The Brihadeeswarar temple is but one amazement that awaited me in this trip; the Lord Shiva Temple in Kanchipuram was another. This temple wasn’t even in our itinerary – our kind driver thought we should see it. It was the oldest temple that they had any records of. The small temple had pillars that had been washed away and remodelled by harsh weather conditions. The once pristine and clear statues and figurines had corroded and smoothened with time – not one feature could be told apart from another. The inner shrine held an ancient tunnel that ran around the main sanctum. The patrons of this temple believe that if you can make it through the tunnel and come out on the other side, you’re free from re-birth. Reincarnation is a strong concept in Hinduism, that colours their Karmic way of life (i.e. believe in the concept of karma). I, being claustrophobic, walked away wondering if I’d be less afraid of small spaces in my next birth…

Looking for Indian food recipes? Check out my easy recipe for Chicken Briyani!

The amount of effort, time, precision and sheer engineering techniques that went into the building of these temples stunned me. I did think about how they might have built it, or who might have been the ones carrying the heavy stones and grinding the sand. Until our driver, who by now had become a tour guide, enlightened me – the prisoners of war. The ruling Kings of India were only kind to their own people, not those whom they captured during war. The captives would be coerced into taking on the heavy burden of building the temples from scratch. The bloodshed, the sorrow and the pain endured by these war victims are what these great devotional houses are built upon.

And so my trip continued, from one great and impressive temple to another. I did the usual routine with my mother – purchase flowers from everyone selling them outside the temple grounds, proceed inside, and walk out again to get into the car so that we can go on to the next temple. It may be mundane for many, at some point all the temples did start looking the same to me too, hence explaining each in detail would be a challenge. But I can still say today that I have been to India, the land of my ancestors. I have breathed the air that was once theirs, and I have touched the soil on which my roots were born. As my day to leave India neared, I remember thinking clearer than ever – yes, I now know what my friends tried to warn me against. I did smell the exact scent they had described. But I chose to not look at it as the pungent, unpleasant odour of a state that could use a major cleaning up. To me, it was the whiff of a nation that has seen history like none of us and still holds many secrets to be uncovered. And yes, I will be back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *