My good friend Ramesh visited a temple on my say so, and I found myself commenting on his blog on some aspects of one of the temples. I was inspired to write this.
The wind was picking up, and clouds darkened the sky, as I stepped into the Nanguneri Temple. The entrance into the temple is via a long corridor. The ceiling is covered by mats knitted and installed there by a philanthropic business family who claim ancestry from the area. As you exit the corridor, the temple’s entrance beckons. I turn right following the tour leader V Sriram. He points out to me what parts of the temple Gopuram are relatively modern and which date back to the Nayaka era some 450 years prior. We make our way to the temple tank to the side. It takes my breath away. We walk to a pavilion of sorts designed to provide access to the tank. Sriram says that it is probably a later addition and asks us to notice its distinctly Islamic aspects. The water body is dry, but even so, its huge. About three-quarters of a kilometre away is a small mandapam which was supposed to be the centre of the tank. The rain starts to spatter about us, and then the skies open up.
Sriram wonders whether we should make a run for the temple but the intensity of the downpour kills that thought dead. Instead we decide to hunker down in the pavilion and Amritha is persuaded to sing. She starts the shruti on her tablet, with that very modern of accessories. No accompaniments, no amplification. Music Unplugged. In the middle of a quickening downpour, as we look out towards the vast and empty temple tank, every one is aware of how much of a benediction this rain it to this parched land, just as Amrita’s voice penetrates the sound of the raindrops.
What could be better than this, I wonder?
A visit to a South Indian temple is always a blissful experience for me. Whether it’s a small, roadside Pillaiyar Koil, or a big affair like Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, there are so many small things that you notice that are in common. The semiotics are comfortingly the same – the kolam drawn on soil wetted with a mixture of cowdung and mud; the stems of banana trees tied at the gates; the passageway to the sanctum sanctorum in a bigger temple lined with pillars; the dhwajastambham (the flagmast); the nandi bull which is big or small depending on the size of the temple and the wealth of its benefactors; the shrines to ancillary deities on the sides, with a priest in attendance ready to do an aarti and collect offerings on the plate; and then the main temple with its garba-griha. The smells of ghee, burning oil, bananas and flowers waft to your nostrils – along with the smell of bats in older and larger temples.
My personal fascination with the Hindu temple began in December 1984. I had been recruited by a large foreign bank as an officer trainee out of business school. Within a week I got turfed out on medical grounds, and after I secured alternate employment I spent a week in Tamil Nadu literally bumming around. One December day I walked into the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and was hooked. It was the first time I was going to a temple all by myself. I found that my solitude afforded me the sensation of looking at the architecture, the structures, the idols and the people anew.
My previous religious experiences had all been under the tutelage of my family. I come from a very religious household where my very strict and domineering father managed to convert the house into a puritanical monument to Hinduism, leavened only by his fondness for scotch whisky, mutton curry and Wills Filters. Religion was always a duty. Failure to observe duty was punishable. Carnatic music was good because it was devotional. Through two years in business school, away from home for the first time, I rebelled against all that. And just a year after, the visit to Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple re-introduced me to the world of temples. Luckily enough, some years later I met my wife and married her. One day, I was whistling something and she asked me “Hey that is Karahara Priya!”. I told her I had heard it at home, being played by Nadaswara Vidwan Karaikurichi Arunachalam on Diwali days before the ritual oil bath. She smiled with delight and began my education into Carnatic music which continues to this day, 30 years later. And we both enjoy temples, together.
I am never sure what to ask for or how to pray. I gaze at the idol fiercely hoping that somehow the idol can look through me and understand what it is I am looking for. After all, God is supposed to be omniscient, isn’t He? He knows I want the best for my two girls – Ramya and Daya. That I want my extended family to be well. That I struggle with my company and my business. That I feel like I have underwhelmed the world in the last few years and feel seriously inadequate as a result. I am unable to articulate these feelings. Instead I gaze fervently and hope that I am understood.
I do like the monasticity and quiet of Nanguneri, but equally, I understand why the faithful crowd places like Nellaippar in Tirunelveli, or Madurai Meenakshi Amman in Madurai. Our temples were not intended to be cathedrals. The fact that the temple heaves is a sign of how relevant it is. They were centres of temporal, financial, political, cultural and religious lives. The tall gopurams held records and special chambers held grain stock and seed. Marriages were finalised and conducted there, children prayed for, their first birthdays celebrated there, and every occasion in a person’s life observed there. It was where you went to meet people and if possible to fix a suitable alliance for your son or daughter. You sat in the courtyard and ate a small meal, washing in the temple tank after. You came there and prayed when things went well. It was where you wept at the feet of the Lord when fate treated you unkindly. Kings prayed there in their grandeur, as did the common man in his poverty. It was where life happened. Historians have written eloquently about the relationship between the temple and the king, its role as a banker and a land owner, and as a keeper of records.
The transformation of the temple space from curiosity to community centre is evident in the case of the Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The temple was in a rundown state by the early 1990s when the Archaeological Survey of India took it over. Over fifteen years, their skilful restoration brought the temple back to life. The reconstructed walls of the temple enclosed a green space large enough to isolate the temple and yet make it accessible. In a visit in March 2018, I sat there of an evening and watched the crowds stream in, some visiting the temple and some just sitting in the vast spaces, enjoying the breeze and celebrating life.
The closest I have come to a spiritual experience in a temple was in December 2008. We flew to India from Paris and we bundled our one year old little girl into a guest house in Tirupati. We had booked for a darshan at 230am the next day. So we dressed our little one in her pattu pavadai before she went to sleep. We woke up at 145am, bathed and changed. She was fast asleep – I did a diaper check, and I put her on my shoulder. She woke briefly and settled back with a long sigh. As we entered the temple’s inner sanctum, the priests and the few bhaktas there began to recite the Suprabhatam. The tones were solemn and sonorous, the air cold and peaceful and all was quiet except for the sounds of the Suprabhatam that filled the space. I could feel my little girl’s short hair tickle my ears as she or I moved and she slept blissfully, breathing deep and easy and occasionally making a sound with her little mouth. And so it was for the next two hours. I felt uniquely blessed as my daughter slept peacefully all through, until we came back to the guest house. Still unaware and at peace with herself. She was in the moment, close to her inner self, utterly unconscious of all that happened around her. I remember every second of that morning and consider that my divine benediction.
 Do read R Champakalakshmi “Religion, Tradition and Ideology in Pre-Colonial South India” and Burton Stein “South Indian Temples – An Analytical Reconsideration”.