Tag Archives: temple

Creeping up the Back Stairs

Praveen picked us up nice and early for a day on the road in the towns around Jaipur. We headed out onto the highway and stopped for breakfast at a rest stop. While Sellappan and I ate and drank tea, Praveen secretly shopped for a Shakira CD and we watched some boars trotting backwards and forwards looking for scraps.

We set off again (to the tune of Hips Don’t Lie) to Ajmer, which neither Sellappan nor Praveen could recommend as a nice place to be. I did wonder why we were going in that case, and Sellappan explained that there was a world-famous mosque there that was supposed to be very interesting.

We hopped down from the taxi and Praveen pointed us to the rickshaw driver he knows, who then drove us through the packed, bouncy streets for about half a mile. I spent this time trying to tie my headscarf which proved to be pretty impossible with all the bouncing. We jumped down from the rickshaw and met a local guide who immediately zipped off through the crowds via some quiet back streets and staircases. It was a maze where everyone else seemed to know where they were going except us!

We popped out of an archway, down some stairs (Sellappan swiftly purchased a cap to wear in the mosque, somehow) across a market street and up some white marble stairs, dropping off our shoes as we climbed, keeping pace with the guide. We bustled through to the mosque itself and squeezed inside, where a cloth was placed over our heads and words were spoken. When the light came back in we bustled back outside and were handed rose petals to eat.

We then went to a counter where Sellappan made a donation and was given a receipt, then we sat for a while facing the mosque along with everyone else. Finally, we climbed a large step pyramid which held an enormous metal dish into which offerings could be thrown. We got down from there and the guide went back into fast forward mode and we reversed our journey back to the car.

Sellappan took pictures as we left, and indulged in a bit of rickshaw-based street photography too. We got back into the cab and left Ajmer, no more than half an hour after arriving.

We drove through the arid hills (more goats) and to out next stop was KP, home to the only Brahma temple in existence. Praveen took us nearly to the door. We left our shoes in the car and navigated through to the white marble steps up to the temple, which was outdoors and fairly hot underfoot thanks to the sun. There were plenty of people bustling about and we had a short visit, including traversing a mysterious set of steps underground and back out – “What was the point of that?” We went back to Praveen who was waiting for us and zipped off into the desert.

On a seemingly random junction there were a few camels and carts gathered and we got out ready for our camel ride. We chose to go by cart, climbed up the back of it and sat over the axle on top of a thick carpet. The cart was square with a pointed top, with sweeps of tasseled red fabric to shade the worst of the sun and frame then desert view. Our driver seemed to only be about ten years old, but handled the camel fearlessly and expertly.

Part of the way in the camel stopped to drink, which was a bit of an operation and lasted exactly as long as the camel wanted it to. When we were almost round, we paused and Sellappan climbed up to ride on the camel’s back for a while, and thoroughly enjoyed it if his grin was anything to go by. It didn’t seem too comfortable though, and he joined me back at the camel’s backside after a while. When we arrived back, Praveen was ready to go!

We headed back to Jaipur, stopping for lunch on the way at yet another nice restaurant (though it seemed a bit expensive) where we had thali, and Sellappan picked up a fee more gifts. We got back to Jaipur at about 3pm for our 3.30pm bus, which we hadn’t booked in advance in case we were late. We were very excited to be heading off to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and settled into the journey, enjoying the mountain tunnels.

We stopped at a rest stop of course, and the journey went smoothly until… We were due to arrive in Agra at 8.30pm and had a driver booked to wait for us. When we got to the little roads, the bus slowed and ground to a halt. Why? We pent the first few minutes wondering what was going on, and finally realised that the road ahead was somehow blocked. Traffic was flying through from the other side, mainly bikes and small cars, but occasionally a large vehicle would come by making us think “well, now he’s through we’ll get moving,” not so.

People overtook us down the middle of the road and passenger started to get restless wondering why we were just sitting in a queue – Sellappan discovered that the driver was just sitting reading his newspaper. After two hours we finally moved, and eventually cleared the terribly managed junction which was causing the problem. Meanwhile, we had phoned our driver several times and he agreed to pick us up whenever we got there.

We were held up by at last 10 wedding parades, featuring grooms on brightly lit floats, preceded by silver brass bands and bright lanterns. The generation running all this came behind the groom on a cart or truck, and wires dangled everywhere.

We met our incredibly friendly driver S (“Please take my card and tell all your friends!”) and his battle worn people carrier, and and began driving through the streets of Agra proper. He sympathised with us about the junction, which was apparently always snarled up at that time of day. If you learn nothing else from this post, please remember to take the TRAIN between Jaipur and Agra. Seriously. S took us to a place to grab some food, and took us to our hotel, the Taj Haritage (sic) where we scrubbed off the desert dust (an amazing amount that we didn’t realise was there, the water ran brown and left silt behind) and shovelled tandoori chicken with minimal undercooked nan to supplement.

A party going on next to the hotel didn’t affect my sleep in the slightest. I wondered if the Taj Mahal would be worth it…

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Mahabalipuram , Pondicherry, ELEPHANT!, Auroville

We got up and piled in the car for the drive to (eventually) Pondicherry. There were a few stops to be made on the way, though…

We headed first to Mahabalipuram, and stopped at a hotel for breakfast. For a change, I had poori, which are sort of like balloons made from chappatti. I’m not really sure how else to describe them! They come with some chutneys and sambar, and you pop them first to let the steam out before mopping up the gravy. In the street there were gap year people aplenty, all skinny, sunburnt and dreadlocked. The unusual hairstyle led to questions from Jay, who wasn’t really impressed when I let him know how it is achieved!

We continued to the Shore Temple, a world heritage site on the coast. We got tickets (10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners, again Jay was not impressed). This small ancient temple has certainly suffered from its placement on the sea, with the wind and salty air constantly eroding the carvings, but people are working to preserve it. The temple itself is small, and you can only just squeeze in and walk around the tower. There were ancient Tamil inscriptions in the surrounding rocks, as well as many statues. The sun here was unforgiving, and most of the foreigners were starting to slowly boil. Naturally this was an opportunity for lots of pictures of ourselves standing in front of the famous thing!

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On the way out there were ice creams and mango sticks (basically a mango flavoured mivvy, yum) and then we took a very short drive to the Five Rathas, another ancient site, with spectacular statues. The central attraction is the huge stone elephant, and of course there were many pictures to be taken here too. I also caught a bit of shade in the pillared buildings while watching the families queueing up for their stone elephant picture.

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We escaped from the crowds back to the car and headed for Pondicherry, where a (more modern) temple visit was in the plan, but we went for dinner first in a hotel, which was quite western to my eyes. The menu contained a mix of south Indian food and European dishes. Krishita had some chips with her food while the rest of us went for rice and nan with our curry – no one could resist pinching a few chips though.

We got into Pondi proper and the first thing to strike me was the Frenchness of the place. It was very strange to see the blue street signs with rue de la something and the Tamil script above.

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There were lots of European tourists/ex pats about, and the usual bothering to buy souvenirs switched subtly from “madam” to “madame”. There were also a lot of cafes and restaurants with French sounding names, although I wasn’t convinced by the one offering Indian, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. Seemed like a bit of a stretch to do all of those things well! We left our shoes in the car and walked to the temple on the hot road.

We waited in the busy street for the temple to open, while market traders sold flowers, souvenirs and food behind us. When the temple opened we bowled in with the crowd and filed through the railings to visit Ganesh. Somehow we got stuck in the slow lane again, but eventually got through and made the rest of our visit.

We came out of the temple and headed to Sri Aurobindo ashram, but what should Sellappan spot but an elephant lumbering through the market. I don’t think much prepares you for the sight of a huge elephant striding through a busy street, with only passing interest from the crowd! The elephant was painted and was on her way to the temple to give blessings, so we decided to visit her after the ashram.

I didn’t know at the time but this ashram is linked with Auroville which we visited later. Upon entering the ashram, silence is mandatory so I didn’t have the chance to ask any questions! The ashram had gardens full of flowers, and then a central table filled with picked flowered arranged in intricate designs. We sat there for a while, and then exited through the gift shop as is traditional. The large shop sold works by the founder in many, many languages, as well as texts on meditation and spirituality.

Of course, all I wanted to do was meet the elephant, so off we all went to where she was standing outside the temple. Sellappan gave me a two rupee coin and told me to give it to the elephant and she would bless me by bopping me on the head with her trunk. I considered this for a moment (how do you give an elephant a tiny coin?) but he went first to give an example. The coin goes in the crook of her trunk, and then vanishes. Then, she lifts up her trunk, and touches you on the head with it – it feels like getting hit on the head gently with a heavy cushion.

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The elephant trainer was a slim man with a tiny stick, and he kept the elephant supplied with water and food, as well as collecting the silver coins sprayed out of her trunk. He also fed Lakshimi (the elephant’s name) football-sized balls of rice straight to her mouth. She wore two silver anklets that jungled as she shifted around.

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Just then we had a call from Balu who was passing through Pondicherry to pick us up and show the way to his house. We left Lakshimi behind and followed him to his place outside the town. After meeting the family and freshening up we went to Auroville, his and his mother’s hometown. Auroville isn’t just any old place though. I think the closest word I have in my vocabulary is a commune, but it describes itself as an International Community.

Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman “Mother” and started its life as a red soil desert. What is there now is a town of about 2500 people, which is fairly self-sufficient and run on green power, with lots of organic farming. Aurovillians are all paid the same amount regardless of their job in the community, and everyone is expected to work 9-5, Monday to Friday at whatever job they do. Auroville looks after you in return, including housing and healthcare, you also have access to its education programme and evening activities which teach a huge range of skills.

Balu grew up in Auroville with his mam in a house periodically visited by snakes in the woods. Auroville accepts citizens from all over the world, and membership is not easy to achieve, Thorough background checks, questions bout ideology and trial runs in the community are just three of the hurdles to jump. There is a great sense of peace and tranquillity  inside the town, and the whole place is beautifully maintained and manicured. It was only through Bali’s invitation that we were able to come in at all.

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It was sunset as we walked around the grounds towards the Matrimandir, the enormous meditation hall. This hall is covered with huge mosaicked concave discs, made from tiles of glass and gold leaf. The Matrimandir is almost in the centre of the community, but the actual centre is an enormous tree which grew from one trunk, and then put down roots from its branches to form the 33 trunks it now has. It is a single-organism mini forest!

Next, Balu took us to the house he grew up in in the middle of the woods. There was no lighting, so we went by the light of phone screens and Baku’s sense of direction until we reached his place. On the way there he told us about how his mam used to find snake skins in cupboards. Sitting in his second home we chatted, and a little orange lizard ran under the door to investigate, it quickly changed its mind and zipped back outside again!

We returned to Balu’s house outside Auroville for a family dinner cooked by his mam and his wife. They filled our plates until we could take no more! Balu’s house is a new build, and has only recently been finished. There are three storeys above ground and a basement which has space for lots of guests, lucky for us! The air conditioning in the room was a real blessing too and after such a busy day sleep was very welcome.

Eat, Pray, Shop (Not in that order)

Another quiet start to the day was followed by a trip out with Saranya and Sudha. Sellappan’sparentsr e went to a temple, where the gods were under a large tree outside. The main god was inside the temple, which wasn’t yet open. We sat for a while under the tree as lots of people made offerings to the gods, lit lamps and walked around the tree.

We went to a restaurant and had a quick snack – I had Bombay kulfi which was kulfi with some stuff in it. It was saffron yellow. The final stop on the quick tour was a fabric shop, which was a special mission for a certain patchworker. I was after patterned cotton, and there was a big selection to choose from! There were also plain cottons in every colour imaginable, and the long, narrow shop stretched back impossibly far from the street. Then assistants were very helpful as I looked at lots and lots of different materials and stacked up the ones I wanted, and asked for a metre or two of each one.

When we got home, there was some time to relax, before Sudha went home and Sranya’s pupils arrived. After they had gone, Saranya prepared dinner (chapattis) and soon Sellappan’s parents were home from their function. As Sellappan was arriving at 3am, I went for an early night.

Salem temples, family style

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!

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Temple Setting

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.

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Temple grounds

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.

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A simple kolam in front of the temple entrance

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.

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Flowers for pujas

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.

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Taxis and Snacks

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.

Yercaud Hill station and Meeting Friends

We got up and were served breakfast by Sellappan’s mam. As it was a Sunday it was the time for non-vegetarian food, and Sellappan’s mam had already been out to the market to get fresh meat and fish. Breakfast was mutton in gravy and idly, of course it was delicious.

As Mohan is going away on a business trip this week, he came to Salem so that Kowshalya could stay with his parents. Kowshalya gave me a yellow flower to put in my hair. We went to his family home and were of course given something to eat (pomegranate) and I spoke with Mohan’s mam. She has a treadle sewing machine and likes to make things, just like someone else I know! Mohan’s father is a chartered accountant, like Mohan, and the family business is conducted upstairs in the office, so clients can enter from the office side, but dad can come back to his house with no commute necessary!

Mohan drove Kowshalya, Sellappan and I to Yercaud, a hill station outside if Salem. There is a road all the way to the top of the 5000ft hill, and the route shows the view down to the ground through a few trees. All the way along the road there were monkeys sitting on the concrete, and a lot of them seemed to be eating tomatoes. When we got further up the hill we discovered a family car stopping at each monkey to give them tomatoes. We paused too further up and Sellappan gave a monkey an orange, and it quickly ran away with it into the trees.

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We stopped and climbed a small metal watchtower for a better view, and about twenty huge yellow dragonflies zipped around us in the sun. The ground was starting to look very far away! The strange thing about the topography is that mostly the land is totally flat, and then steep hills spring out from nowhere.

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As we climbed, the road started to bend around in hairpins, and signs told us how many we had passed through, counting hairpin bend 1/20, 2/20… All the while the ground below us started to get lost in the haze.

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We suddenly came to the top and after only passing a few cars and buses on the way up, it was surprising to see how many people were already there. There was a small town at the top of the hill, with a lake with pedalos and lots of people selling food and souvenirs. There are old plantation buildings, few schools and plenty of houses, restaurants and hotels too.

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We drove to the very highest point where there was a small temple cut into the rock like a small cave. We had to bend double to get inside, and were joined be another family. Once we came back out everyone had food in their mind, so we went back down to the town for snacks, including mango slices sprinkled with chilli powder and salt, pineapple slices, and egg bajis. There was also ‘American Style’ corn on the cob, which was scorched over a hand cranked burner. I took mine without chilli, just for a change! We ate this feast sitting in the car overlooking the lake, just like a British winter picnic!

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At another spot we stopped and Sellappan had our names written on a grain of rice as a souvenir. There was also a proper old fashioned candy floss cart, which I never would have expected to find there! Naturally some of that also had to be bought. We began our descent, and paused at some picturesque spots for snaps. We saw coffee, oranges and pepper growing, as well as the ubiquitous monkeys. It was very strange to see them all just chilling out by the roadside!

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When we got back down we stopped at Mohan’s again and there were people making flower garlands in the driveway, and Kowshalya fixed one of these to my ponytail too. Lots of buds and flowers were being strung together to make them. I had seen a lot of women wearing these flowers, but didn’t know about the strong, sweet smell that comes from the flowers every time they move. They were also very cool on the back of my neck.

The next stop was home for lunch – though it was already 5pm and we had been munching the whole time! We came home to one of Sellappan’s favourites – fish fry. The fish was a kind of river carp, and had been sliced perpendicular to the spine, covered in spices and deep-fried to a deep orange-red. It was very tasty, but I had a bit of trouble with the bones. The same fish had also been prepared in a green-brown gravy with a smooth flavour. Of course,  we had it with idly while the TV played Tamil movies.

As I had had a problem with my flip flops and contracted “shoebite” (a brilliant word for when new shoes rub or blister your feet) we stopped again at Sellappan’s friend’s shoe shop for some new ones. The shop was packed as it was Sunday evening, and so there wasn’t much time for chatting. I did discover that one of Sellappan’s friends is visiting my area sometime next year though!

My Tamil is certainly not good, but I have learned a very important word – enough! Everywhere we go there is always some kind of food, and this is always true when visiting others! On our way to visit one of Sellappan’s tutees we actually crossed paths with them (“small town” of 850,000 people) and upon arriving at their house we had honeycomb sweets, as well as nuts and fruits and tea. Sellappan tested his students both in French and English while we were visiting!

Naturally when we got home it was time for food, so after another meal with Tamil movies, Sellappan packed up his bag to go back to Bangalore. I’m staying here in Salem with his family until he comes back on Friday for more trips!

The Temple Tour

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wishing for a child

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.
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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!

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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.

Pyramid Valley, The Art of Living

We started the day with a long lie in as we were both really tired from yesterday! We left the flat at about one to get some lunch nearby, and went to InItalia which is a new pizza and pasta place. Sellappan went for pasta and I had a pizza with pinapple, mint and basil. The base was nice and crispy and the topping combination worked really well. There was a nice atmosphere and the staff were all very energetic and smiley, and encouraged us to write reviews of our experience on a post-it and stick it on their window display. We were also encouraged to leave reviews online – they’re working really hard to make the place well-known.

After lunch we popped back to the flat to prepare four our day trip to Pyramid Valley and the Art of Living. Mohan and Kowshalya had decided to join us for the trip, and we took a taxi. We started at Pyramid Valley which was the furthest away of the two. We passed through smaller towns and villages on the way, and finally arrived around three o’clock. The pyramid itself is a new build, and is the largest purpose-built meditation pyramid in the world with a capacity of about 5000. The pyramid is set in grounds which are still under construction, but there are gardens and a lake and some statues of meditating figures around.

The pyramid itself is named Maitreya-Buddha Pyramid, and is a new age meditation and science centre. The founder of this movement is Brahmarshi Patriji, who became enlightened in 1979 while he was still working his regular job in a fertiliser company. He left this job in 1992 to devote his time to enlightening as many people as possible.

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Into the pyramid

There was an awning set up where people could leave their shoes, so we left ours and climbed the hot stairs to enter the pyramid. We were given a leaflet about meditation and were directed to the briefing room where a gentleman told us  about the meditation process and answered any questions the group had. To go to the meditation area you had to go up a short flight of stairs and through a curtain. This room took up the whole of the pyramid, with air conditioners and fans to blow air and keep the place cool. The process for meditation was to close your eyes, cross your hands and legs and relax. There were no music, chanting or breathing patterns encouraged (in fact, this was strongly discouraged!) Nevertheless, when we got inside we discovered that Brahmarshi himself was there, playing  10-30 second bursts on his haunting flute. The sound echoed around the huge, silent hall.

After a while we climbed the spiral staircase to the platform above the main area. This was the area with the most intense energy in the pyramid, according to the brief. I’m sorry to report that I didn’t receive any cosmic energy as my mind was too full of extraneous thoughts. When we came down we exited via a different route, where there was a display about the building of the pyramid and a library and shop. You could buy small pyramids made from crystal, as well is pyramids to hang up, and ones to wear on your head to focus the cosmic energy. There were also lots of leaflets, books and DVDs about pyramid energy and meditation, alongside other spiritual topics, in as many different languages as you can imagine. Many of the books featured Brahmarshi, solemnly looking out from the cover.

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On-site catering

We took a short walk through the grounds, over a bamboo bridge and around to a cafeteria which had a view back towards the pyramid. After a quick drink we went back to the taxi and drove back towards Bangalore and the Art of Living.

The Art of Living was much more packed, and as we were arriving the sun was starting to set. There were lots and lots of people coming away from the temple itself, which was set near a lake. There was a small amphitheatre facing the entrance of the temple, which was set up for people to give speeches or performances with the temple as a background. Along the side of the road approaching the temple there were huge queues at food stands. People were getting little pots of food served from huge stainless steel containers. Whatever it was it was certainly popular.

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We climbed up the hill to the amphitheatre, back down through it and headed towards the temple. It is a fairly modern build and appears to have been based on a lotus flower or something similar. It is circular with rows and rows of white ‘petals’ creating the roof all the way up to a dome on top. We took off our shoes and climbed the shallow steps to the top,  where there was a big polished bronze bull reclining with its ear sticking out. Apparently if you whisper your wish into the bull’s ear it will come true. Lots of people were pausing to touch the bull and whisper to it.

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Then temple seemed to be filling up, so we went inside to the main hall which was all open and had rows of shallow steps to sit on, encircling a small stage. The dome was supported by huge columns which were decorated with symbols from different world religions. We took some big square cushions to sit on, but were quickly told to put them back, so we did. The presentation was a ten minute slideshow about organic farming and irrigation methods, and showed a bunch of volunteers transforming a patch of ground into a food-producing field,  and it was narrated by the man whom had introduced the show. He spoke in English throughout and received many rounds of applause as the transformation took place. At the end he read out his mobile number to the assembled crowd and asked people to get in touch if they wanted to learn more. You could also sign up and give 500 rupees (£5) to enrol in his course.

We sat for a little while longer before deciding that there probably wasn’t going to be any more performances that day. We came back out and walked around the pyramid before coming back down the step, taking all of our photos again as the temple was all lit up, with strips of lights decorating every edge.

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Spectacular lighting

We headed back to the taxi past the Divine Shop and went into a supermarket I got a pair of flip flops and we all had some fruit gel bars which were mango flavour. They were the texture of the orangy bit in Jaffa cakes.

Once the taxi had dropped us back we went over to Mohan and Kowshalya’s place, where we had food with Naveen and Ashwini. Kowshalya had prepared rice flour dumplings called idly and dosa, which are very similar to crêpes but definitely savoury. This was accompanied by gravies and pickles and was very tasty. Sellappan had also picked up a tin of rasa gulla at the supermarket, which I thought were going to be lychees but they were actually soft dumplings drenched in a heavy rose scented syrup. They were incredibly sweet and perfumed, and let out another wave of syrup when you bit into them.

After a hard day’s touring we got some sleep.