Sellappan had planned a day of visiting temples, and it was no coincidence that it went off as well as it did! The timings were pretty much perfect to see the best of the temples but avoid the sun and crowds. The journey was about 400 miles in all, and took us from 5am to 11pm that night. We started early from Salem – the driver picked us up at 5am to get us to Madurai for temple opening time and avoid the crowds. We saw the sun rise and along the way we stopped for breakfast (idly and vada, naturally) and had a fairly sleepy ride in the Tata.
The city of Madurai was suddenly upon us, even though it was only just approaching nine all the shops were open and there were people milling around. As the driver parked up I got my first view of an Indian temple, and what a temple to start with. Meenakshi Amman Temple is huge, and very impressive! One enormous tower dominated the sky and loomed over the street filled with people. We left our shoes in the car and headed towards it. Upon going through the security of the temple, I was told to leave my camera at the cloakroom, but was allowed to bring in my mobile phone (with a camera), as was Sellappan. I suppose the idea is to stop tourists from clogging up the place with huge DSLRs and point and shoots, as photography itself is allowed in most places inside the temple. Everyone was just snapping pictures on their phones instead!¹
Back to the temple though! The entry under the tower led to a cloister-like (you’re going to have to excuse my Christian-centred vocabulary throught this post…) covered area, surrounding a pool with a golden column rising from the centre. There was no one bathing as you often see, and I later found out that this temple was not for bathing in! Naturally Sellappan was visiting some of the gods, and we headed for the “inner sanctum” where I soon found out I wasn’t allowed (no foreigners). I waited for Sellappan, sitting on the bank of steps surrounding the pool, and watched the comings and goings. At one stage a group of musicians wandered through the painted hallways, playing (I think) a nadaswaram and a drums. The temple wasn’t very busy at this point, and I enjoyed the calm atmosphere. There was a man with a stand selling snacks, and the smell of this combined with the incense was very odd indeed!
When Sellappan came out we walked around the pool, and then went deeper into the enclosed area of the temple itself. Here there were many gods to see, as well as plenty of worshippers gathered around each one. Here too the floor and ceiling was painted with rangoli/kolam type designs in many bright colours. Added to the colourful clothing of the atendees the effect was quite spectacular. As Sellappan visited a different god in another no-foreigners section I waited in the “meditation hall” which was actually just part of another “cloister” with people coming and going.
Next stop? The gift shop, of course! We went through a sort of marketplace, selling any kind of religious item you can imagine, including statues of Buddha. I was gifted a souvenir keyring of Ganesha by Sellappan, but we passed up the flowers and food items. When we got outside the real scale of the temple began to dawn on me – the temple is actually set in 12 acres of grounds and is absolutely enormous! There are four huge towers and many, many smaller ones, all covered in gods carved from stone and painted brightly. Layer upon layer of figures stretch up towards the sky, finishing with a metal pinnacle which brings in cosmic energy.
Walking around the outside areas, we came to a tree, where people wish for children. Models of small cots with babies inside are tied into the branches by people wishing to grow their family. Offerings are left here too. The other striking feature of the outside was a momentry whiff of manure – elephants? No, cows of course!
We went back inside the temple and entered the temple museum, the room of a thousand pillars. I didn’t count, but it certainly seemed accurate! throughout the museum there were pictures and statues of gods, and people were also placing offerings here too. The most curious offering being that of a business card – a wish for prosperity in business. Here the columns were not painted, but that didn’t make them any less spectacular, and many of them were carved with images of the gods, some of them very ancient indeed.
Out of the museum section we waked back through the cloister (sorry) and took a few pictures. As Sellappan and I posed for a photo with the temple tower, a group of older ladies approached and asked to be in the picture too… no problem for me! Then another couple of people came, and took photos of themselves standing with me. It was a bit of a surreal experience, but they were very nice!
It was really heating up oustside by now, and our business in the temple was finished. We came out and went back to the car through the street, which was much more crowded now! I retreieved my bag and we went back to the car. Off to the next destination in Madurai, the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal – an ancient palace.
Once a great seat of power, this palace has unfortunately fallen into some disrepair, and only about a quarter of it still remains standing. The interior was the most impressive, again built with many columns enclosing an open courtyard. The architectural details were quite stunning, and the palace is still used today for sound and light shows, as well as concerts and other events.
There is also an archeological museum within the palace, and you can see ancient Tamil incriptions as well as a chart showing how the written langauge evolved through the centuries. Apparently until about the 5th Century it’s still readable by the man in the street, only for earlier scripts do you need more specialist knowledge.
We piled into the car once more and settled in for our next drive, to a temple that is over 1000 years old – Brahadeeshwara Temple, Thanjavur. Lunch happened along the way and we made short work of it.
Luckily the sun’s heat was on the wane by the time we arrived at the temple; just in time for opening time at 4pm. Even so the ground was hot from the sun as we got out of the car and entered the first gate. Much of the temple’s grandeur is hidden behind the outside walls – it’s only when you have passed through the gates that you can see the full extent of it.
A huge wall surrounds the temple itself, and is full of inscriptions of 17th century Tamil, as well as some older stones. Our first stop was at Ganesha’s shrine, and then we progressed to an enormous representation of Nandi, the sacred bull. Nandi is the bull to whom you can tell your wishes to be granted. This statue was enormous and made from black stone, standing on a plinth of red-brown stone with a slightly precarious set of stairs to climb. Once in front of the bull you can make your offerings or whisper to him, and there is space to circle him also.
We climbed down again and this time headed inside the temple, under the single large tower. This tower is made up of less than ten individual stones, and all carved by hand – no machines in the 11th century! It was built with the help of elephants and sheer manpower – who knows how the 80 ton stone got way up on top. The tower was then carved from the top down, and isn’t painted at all. Entering the temple (foreigners allowed this time!) I tried not to think about all the rock that was supported only by the tiny-looking pillars. Inside the temple was a bit of a crush, owing to a couple of school trips which had entered at the same time as us. Eventually we got to the front and saw the god, popping out into the sunlight and breeze afterwards.
After a few snaps we got ready for our next destination – Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, near Trichy. Darkness had fallen during our journey, and no foreigners allowed even past the gate made this a quick visit. The temple itself was absolutely alive with people coming and going, and night time shopping was in full swing around the gates and towers. In the dark the towers looked even more imposing, and a T-shape of lights shone out from each one. Someone was selling jackfruit, so we got some for an afternoon snack, chewing the orange fleshy pieces as we dodged motorbikes and shop fronts. We took a couple of pictures and then dived out of the chaos back into the car.
I think it’s fair to say that the day had left us both pretty exhausted, and at some stage during the journey back we stopped for food in a hotel. We reached Salem again at about 11pm, and I for one collapsed into bed. What a day!
¹ Certain sections of the temple had no photos allowed, so you will not find photos of those sections here. No selfies with God, please.