So the totally excitement means I can never see too many temples, and believe me I’ve tried…
The first Vishnu temple Ranganatha was in excitement mode on the day before the end of festival. There was a massive chariot outside over 10m tall and the next day the gold deity dressed in a ruby studded cloak was to be taken outside at 6am and pulled a full lap of the temple town by hundreds of men.
Apart from standing in muck, I had a great time. I was allowed inside the 5th wall where the statue was being prepared to be taken outside. There was much chanting and incense and drumming and blowing of a double reeded instrument called a Nadaswaram. Then the curtain hiding the god from the people was dropped and people raised their hands above their heads pointed in prayer and sought the blessing of the god. The carvings around the huge complex were astounding and I’m sure will prove boring and repetitive in my 1000 odd photos. But I had fun and quizzed the guide on Hindu mythology.
Vishnu is the sustainer of the universe (Brahma creator, Shiva destroyer). The other Vishnu temple I visited was Sarangapani where I fed a Holy Cow – I watched where I put my feet! It’s one of the few temples in South India with erotic karma sutra art, but really it was just an excuse for some bare boobs, there was nothing instructional or erotic about it unless you happen to be 15.
Of course there’s always a lot to see between temples too.
That was my two Vishnu experiences, they’re really more into Shiva down here in South India. And boy have we been to some Shiva Temples! The biggest clearly was The Big Temple. I went with the speed guide in the morning who advised that at 430pm there would be classical dancing and at 5 a special ceremony focused on Nandi the Brahmin Bull that brings messages back and forth to Shiva.
So at 415 Karthik and I arrived. I should say I’m not totally sure if Karthik’s very devout, checking I’m ok with the guide, or providing security, but he comes into every temple after he parks the car and always has a surprised expression when he passes me. So we’ve developed this tradition where he feigns surprise at seeing me, I point at him wildly and exclaim “I know your face” and he walks on grinning. Maybe you have to be there but it’s nice to know someone’s watching out for you.
So, Big Temple. The classical dance was on time, Nandi was not so I sat on the sun-warmed red mud bricks people watching. I know I’ve used the analogy before, but I have none better: women wearing saris remind me of brightly colored birds flitting and swooping, chattering over a pool at dusk. Walking, talking, running after children, heads wobbling, bowing going into a sub-temple or just sitting, they’re beautiful and elegant. The wind fluttering the trails of their saris like wings of a million butterflies, all different, silks shining in the warm evening light. Jewels glittering and for the festival the jewels all come out- a million types of ear rings, bracelets, toe rings, anklet chains with a million silver bells so she would make music wherever she goes. Hair pins, broaches, necklaces and rings. Indians are addicted to gold. Hennaed hands betray new brides, tattoos and rings on her fingers. She will make music wherever she goes.
And oh the flowers in her hair… mostly jasmine, the others beyond my naming but red and apricot and yellow and pink. All adding to the sweet smells of incense and smoking ghee lamps burning before the god.
As the sun dropped behind us it pulsed life into the 1000 year old stone carvings until they too seem to dance. Bulls like eating grass so many bought arm loads of grass from the flower sellers to place before and on top of the smaller Nandi statues around the copper flagpole in-front.
Barefoot uniformed police girls walk around keeping an eye on us all. A sadhu sitting up the front went into ecstatic chanting, dancing waist up and singing along with the classical dancing.
Oh it’s about to begin, and this is a familiar, cross-faith activity, boys are coming around to collect the offering. The music has started again, drums and Nadaswaram and horns and chanting. Four lungi clad men climb a scaffolding beside the 25 tonne seated bull carved from a single piece of black granite.
The monsoon has failed here for two years and the aim of tonight’s full moon ceremony is to remind Nandi to take the message to Shiva to make it rain.
The men pour buckets over Nandi to great applause. First they bucket 2 x 44 gallon drums (silver) of powdered flower petals in water over Nandi’s head and back. Then a similar amount of water is bucketted over for the rinse cycle, before the next blessed concoction is bucketted over. A chain of flowers is placed on Nandi after each concoction during a prayer and candle waving moment before the water rinsing.
I’m told the order is: flower powder (flower chain on head, candle waving, water rinse,) turmeric (water etc,) milk (water,) mashed banana (water,) milk (water,) yogurt (water,) coconut water (water,) and to thunderous applause and hands again clasped above heads in prayer-sandalwood paste (water). Everyone is wandering away as Nandi is being swathed in silk scarves and flowers. Some are greeting family and friends, others taking blessed rice from the temple, others are lining up to touch Nandi or enter Shiva’s sacred domain. Many like Karthick and I are just wandering around outside. There is a carnival like atmosphere with many smiles and head wobbles, even at the hobbling crazy white woman with the camera. A 1000 year old temple and a 000’s year old tradition under the setting sun and rising full moon, full of hope, humanity and simple joy.
The whole process took over an hour and my hips killed! You can’t show anyone, least of all a god, the soles of your feet, so I had to sit cross legged. I was told so by the boy taking the cash offering! Ouch.
Before we move on, just let yours imagination take you and let yourself be immersed by sensory overload of the event. These people venerate Nandi as their advocate to the god. But he’s also a bull and at the end of the hot dusty day I’ve seen many cowherds in Asia lovingly take their cows to the river to bathe. Since I’ve been on this trip I’ve had two massages that culminated in someone tipping buckets of hot milk and water over me. It’s stunningly relaxing and revitalising. I can say that these people would see pouring liquids, special precious liquids, over their bull god as an act of devotion that would be enjoyed by him and put him in a positive frame of mind, and you never know he might even help with the message about the rain.
I’m determined to get this finished tonight before we leave Pondicherry tomorrow morning. I’m sorry it’s so long but this is what I came for (I think! This and Madurai oh and shopping I guess.)
The other temple I should single out is Chidambaram – the temple of Shiva as Nataraj – the god who dances the harmony of the universes. I went with hopes and expectations. As you know I love the Nataraj story. I had to change brains after we arrived, accept that this temple did not match my thoughts and enjoy it for what it was. The whole experience wasn’t helped by Yoda telling me outside: “Madam this is private temple run by monks. They target foreigners, do ceremony and demand money. Inside don’t speak to anyone other than me, don’t take photo and don’t show money.” Worse, he repeated the warning inside.
Loved these square carvings, they’re the positions in the old devadasi tradition of temple dancing. But studying the positions the ancient tradition can be relearned and reinvented by new generations of women devotees.
What I found most interesting was when Yoda took me to the funeral ghat and holy tank. No funerals thankfully but as it was a holy day there was much ritual bathing. Also, it was the day to communicate messages to the dearly departed. So lots of local people came to the tank with offerings of fruit and vegetables and incense and with the help of priests (not monks) made communication with their ancestors. It was nice, smelly and slimy, but less constrained than the temple proper. That’s what I like, ordinary people genuinely seeking engagement with the sacred other that adds meaning to their lives and allows them to be more fully human. This was people seeking solace and offering peace, not elitist $ from tourists…
I’m not going to give a blow by blow of the other temples as you’ve had enough. It’s been great, I’ve learned a lot, and I think there are (at least) two more temples to go before the end. All good, keep driving…