After a chilled out morning writing and watching Tamil movies, Shresta called for me with her uncle and driver. We drove to a temple in the hills called Skandasramam. All round Salem there are small hills and plenty of banana and coconut trees. Then drive took us through a small village and up one of these hills. When we got to the top there were a couple of people selling puffed rice snacks and flowers, as well as some rickshaws, cars and bikes. This is the first temple I have visited which is not packed with people – there were people around but everyone was just calmly going around the various places. The previous temple visits were to very well known and grand temples, so I found the contrast very interesting and it was lovely to get some peace and quiet!
Shresta’s uncle was particularly knowledgeable about the details of this temple, and took us around explaining each of the gods as we came to them. These tall, carved black stone statues are each housed inside a pillar. The statues do not only represent god, but they are god¹, and receive cosmic energy through the metal spires on top of their columns. There are many gods housed outside in the temple grounds, and people walk from one to the other for worship. The first god you visit in the temple must always be Ganpati, also known as Ganesha.
The leader of the temple kindly allowed me to come into the ‘inner sanctum’ of the temple, and invited us over to the gods. He spoke to me at length in Tamil about the different gods at the temple, and about Shantananda Swami who founded the temple in the second half of the 20th century. Shresta translated for me and added her own knowledge to the mix. There was a life-size painted statue of Shatananda Swami inside the temple. The ceiling of the temple was painted with hundreds of different geometric designs, similar to the rangoli and kolam designs which are drawn in front of houses every morning by their owners. Each different design combines different elements leading to complex and specific messages. These designs can also be found chalked or painted in the floor inside temples.
Shresta’s uncle showed the nine gods who represented the planets. He explained that the gods each represented certain qualities or aspects of life. Many of the planets signified the same thing as in Western mythologies, Mars being war, Venus for love and so on. There were also two gods who faced each other across the temple, a male god and a female one. In this case the male god represents the brain and the female represents the heart, and both watch over each other quite literally.
The temple also has a school attached, where young children stay and learn the ways of the temple, as well as other skills to keep the temple going such as agriculture. There was a young boy sitting by one of the gods with the leader, and Shresta’s uncle explained he was one of the students at the school. The school routines are very strict, and there is a lot to get done in one day. As the boy grows up he will take on more and more of the temple duties, and may one day be leading the temple himself.
We went through another part of the temple which contained many statues of devotees, painted realistically to look like them. There were also Veda here, as well as a small shop with statues, powders, jewellery and souvenir keychains. Shresta got me a keychain with Om, which was decorated with lots more little Oms. On the way out I took a few pictures and Shresta bought a bag of puffed rice to munch in the car.
The next visit was to Salem Sindhi Darbar temple, a Sindhi temple. Shresta explained that this is her temple where she attends functions and community events. This small temple is jammed into the city streets, and from the outside mostly looks like any other building. Inside is a different story.
Shoes off, of course, there is a brass bell hanging from the ceiling by a chain, and you should ring it three times loudly when you come in. An immediate difference was that the gods here are in white marble. The native area of the Sindhi people is in modern Pakistan, and this is the material commonly used there and in North India. Another significant difference was that here Guru Nanak’s image is everywhere, and his teachings are followed. A copy of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, is kept open and covered by a cloth, and is also worshipped.
Most gods were in alcoves around the walls, but further inside the temple there was a god with a bucket of suspended above, to be filled with water or milk for the god. There was also an image of (I think) Jhulelal, which was to be splashed with water and then you splash yourself. We rang the bell again on the way out, and Shresta’s uncle had to go back to the office.
I went with Shresta to visit a few relatives, all of whom were lovely and stuffed us with food and tea. Shresta’s aunt blends her own masala for tea, and is also starting up a small clothing business for family, friends and neighbours. She gave me a free sample kurta, as well as two statues of Ganpati to take home with me. Shresta’s cousin came back with us with her daughter too.
When we got back to Shresta’s place Rahul was back from college, and it was nearly time for dad to come back from work. Shresta and her cousin prepared a feast of chapatti, veg gravy and pakora stuffed with veg. There were pistachio cookies from Hyderabad and grape juice to finish.
¹ Actually I was mistaken. Some of them sort of are god, some of them aren’t.