Temples, temples, temples

We started in Tamil Nadu state because it is the closest to the start of Indian history. The Dravidian culture traces its roots through several thousand years of unbroken history, since this remote area was never overrun by the Aryans, Moghuls, and other waves that swept across the rest of India. So it is like a time capsule with thousands of well-preserved temples, some of the holiest in India.

The capital, Chennai, is huge but hardly historic, since it was founded and built by the British. There are of course many temples and they were built to the same design as temples a thousand years older. We visited several during the two days we stayed there, and they gave us a taste for what would follow.

Although there are many variations on the design that later spread throughout Asia, most Dravidian temples are laid out as a series of concentric rectangles that lead into the central image of a god, usually some manifestation of Shiva or Vishnu. Often the central object is a lingam, a simple post that represents Shiva's power and many other things. This male symbol is usually centered in a basin that represents the female and channels water and holy oils out to a spout. Here in southern India, the whole inner temple may act as the basin with a spout coming out of its side.

Each of the four entrances is usually capped with a high tower called a gopura. In the south, these towers can rise as high as 60 meters (200 feet) and they are often covered with colorful statues.

Our first stop after Chennai was Mamallapuram, a small city two hours to the south. For more than 1300 years, this has been the stone-carving captal of India. In addition to its famous Shore Temple, Mamallapuram houses a set of five “rathas” (chariots) that are small temple buildings carved out of a single rock. They were models and not used as temples; indeed some speculate that they might have been advertisements for the local stonecutters' craft.

We next traveled inland to Kanchipuram, one of the ancient capitals of India. This is now a small city that boasts many large and ancient temples. One of these called Kailasanatha was built by the Pallava civilization in the 8th century and has remained largely untouched except by some clumsy recent efforts at restoration.

Our next temple city was Tiruvannamalai, the place where Shiva is said to have demonstrated his supremacy as a lingam of fire. We arrived just after a huge festival where thousands of pilgrims lined up to receive blessings from the priests at the center of a dimly lit hall. We were sorry to have missed the spectacle, which culminated in a fire at the top of the mountain overlooking the temple, but we were glad not to have to battle the crowds.

We took a brief break from the temples in Pondicherry, the capital of the small French colony in southern India. Pondicherry is an incongruous enclave with Catholic cathedrals at its center and Parisian street names like Rue Suffren. Yet even here the local ashram owns most of the town.

The next town south was Chidambaram, considered the place where Shiva won a dancing competition and became Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Six times a day for more than a thousand years, the local priests have been performing a ceremony to help Shiva continue the cycle of creation.

We witnessed two of these almost Dionysian ceremonies. In preparation, the priests lit a large number of oil lamps inside the temple. Then, the ceremony began with priests ringing large and small bells in the courtyard and intense rhythmic drumming. Inside the temple, the chief priest lifted one burning lamp after another in a blessing motion. At one point, the drummers led the crowd of worshippers on a procession clockwise around the temple. Finally, two priests ascended into the innermost sanctum and did some more invocations culminating in a circle with the largest burning lamp. This completed the cycle, and the worshippers dispersed satisfied that the world can continue until the next ceremony.

Our next stops were a group of three temples built by the 1000-year-old Chola civilization. In this early period, the central tower dominated the building. Tanjore (Thanjavur), the most famous of these, had the tallest tower in India at the time of its construction. We were struck by the elegance of both its architecture and its many statues.

Tamil Nadu's largest interior cities also have its largest temples. At Trichy, a huge temple dedicated to Vishnu has high gopuras at its main entrances leading to not less than eight enclosures around the central shrine. The outer layers almost blend into the city, with priests and holy object hawkers living and working within its walls. Most of this temple was relatively modern, with the largest South gopura finished only twenty years ago.

After a short break, which we'll describe in other postings, we went to Madurai, a 2500-year-old city that was capital of several civilizations. Its central temple contains areas for both Shiva and a manifestation of his consort Parvati. During the day, each is worshipped in its respective inner sanctum, but at night there is a ceremony to allow them to sleep together. At 9pm, the priests ring a bell at Shiva's temple to signal the start of a procession that brings his traveling image out in a silver sedan chair. The priests are careful to fan the box to keep the god cool, and they provide flowers and food such as a banana. Finally, when Parvati is ready, they take the image into a special room inside her temple and sing lullabies.

The final stop on our temple circuit was Rameswaram, a pilgrimage town on an island that almost forms a land bridge to Sri Lanka. It is here that Rama was thought to have built a lingam of sand to make up to Shiva after rescuing his wife from the monster Ravena, who was a brahmin and therefore not entirely cool to kill. This is a big stop on the Hindu pilgrim trail, with thousands dousing themselves with the water from 22 tanks around the temple, each thought to have a different shealing property. The temple itself is famous for its long corridors built in the 16th century. Several of them are over 200 meters long and supported by 1216 carved pillars.

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