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The Tamil Nadu Temple Trail

July 23, 2019

 

 

I came Tamil Nadu on an overnight sleeper bus to Chennai. It was the last of my South Indian states but it felt different. The language was so foreign. The people seemed different. The heat was intense. I stood in the Chennai Bus Station and ate one of the most delicious dosas I’ve ever had.

 

 A gopuram at the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai


The temples in Tamil Nadu have a distinct aesthetic. Often they’re marked by a tall gopuram, or stepped tower, covered in elaborately carved and painted figures from Hindu mythology. The inner sanctum, mostly off limits to foreigners, lies in the middle of a series of concentric courtyards, and is surrounded by a multitude of other shrines. The temples are usually made of stone, blacking out the daylight. Inside they’re dark, but hidden in the dark shadows are gleaming details in carved gold, delicate oil lamps, and elaborate frescoes.

 


My first Tamil town was Mahabalipuram. Not too much of anything was going on in Mahabalipuram. A large stone hill in the middle of town holds a series of ancient cave temples and shrines. They were interesting and beautifully carved, but lacked the vibrancy and buzz that I was looking for. A giant boulder is perched on the side of a hill, and locals congregate in its shade. I found a hip bunting-lined cafe by the beach with nice lime sodas. I tried to get a document for work scanned in a photocopy shop, but the boy working there clearly didn’t know how to use a scanner. Saturday night I attended a free cultural performance in a park which only ten people showed up for. I got a front row seat.

 

A cave temple in Mahabalipuram  


After a stop in Pondicherry (geographically although not politically in Tamil Nadu - see here), I headed to Trichy, a medium-sized town known for having the largest temple in India, as well as for its Rock Fort Temple, perched on a cliff in the town centre.

 

 
The Shree Ranganathaswamy Temple might technically be the largest in India, but it wasn’t overly impressive. It was a nice introduction to South Indian temple architecture, and it was interesting to see. One shrine inside was covered with locks, which a priest told me people leave as wishes, to be unlocked when the wishes are granted. Many of the shrines were off limits to non-Hindus, but the signs warning foreigners not to enter were only written unhelpfully in Tamil.

 

 Sunset on top of Trichy's Rock Fort Temple


I headed to the Rock Fort Temple for sunset. The entrance looks like any other temple entrance, but as you leave your shoes at the complimentary shoe storage counter, you climb 400 stone steps cut into the rockface. When you reach the top, there’s a steep climb over the last big boulder to reach the shrine. It was enjoyable, although perhaps not as aesthetic as it actually sounds.

 

 
After the sunset (mostly blocked by the big boulder shrine) I headed back down the 400 steps, but stopped in at one final shrine near the bottom of the hill. A teenage boy was running in circles around the shrine, disappearing behind it and reappearing a few seconds later. I sat on a step and watched him. He stopped his circles and came over to introduce himself.

 

 
He said his name was Karna. He did one more round and stopped to ask me a question. “Which country madam?” One more round. “What is your good name?” One more round. “What is your purpose in India?” He continued on, asking me questions and doing his rounds. He told me that it brings positive benefit to do 21 rounds around the shrine. “What positive benefits?” “Positive benefit only madam, no negative benefit”. Upon his urging, I got up and did 21 rounds with him. When we finished he told me that he loves Caribbean countries, and wants to go to St. Lucia (he has definitely never been to any Caribbean countries).

 

At the Madurai Banana Market 


After Trichy was Madurai, home of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the “pinnacle of South Indian Temple Architecture” (and also to the esteemed Madurai Banana Market, offering 31 varieties of bananas). The temple was very impressive. I’m glad I saved it for last. Inside were labyrinth passages and courtyards, all elaborately covered in murals and carvings. Pilgrims lay themselves flat on the floor in front of a golden statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull. I saw a wedding ceremony where the topless priest poured countless buckets of milk and water over a couple seated on a silver plinth. I gave the temple elephant 10 rupees and she blessed me by resting her trunk on the back of my head (more roughly than I was expecting).

 

 
But apart from the main temple, there were tiny little temples dotting every street corner. Elaborate shrines covered in carved gods and goddesses and painted vibrant oranges and greens and blues lined the alleys of the Old City. The Meenakshi Amman Temple is visited by thousands and thousands of pilgrims from across the country, but these small shrines were the domain of the inhabitants of Madurai, one of the oldest cities in South India.

 

 Beach Road in Kanyakumari


And then I finally reached Kanyakumari. Situated right at the bottom of Tamil Nadu, Kaniyakumari is the very southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. The bus dropped me as far as it could go down Beach Road, and then I continued on foot.

 

 
Slowly I went down the pavement, passing stalls selling seashells and glass bangles. And then the land just sort of ends. There are a few rocks, a set of stairs for pilgrims to climb down and immerse themselves. I drank a chai and watched the last bit of evening light as it faded into the melting point of three seas.

 

Pilgrims bathing in the ocean at Kanyakumari 


There is a big temple in Kanyakumari, the Kumari Amman Temple, dedicated to the virgin goddess Kumari who saved the world from demons. I took a walk through, but more interesting than the topless men smearing red powder on their foreheads inside (men have to remove their shirts in southern temples), were the pilgrims coming out to the sea. They climbed down the steps to tiny stretches of sand and immersed themselves in the mixed waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. Priests performed rituals, dunking pilgrims like baptisms. I watched one uncle, whose family was clearly finished with their immersions, but he just couldn't seem to leave, like he was so happy in this place. People come from all over India to visit this place where it all begins. The people looked so happy, like they were receiving the blessings of the land, of Mother India. Even though India is so vast and each region so diverse, you could see the unity that these pilgrims felt for their land.

 

 
As I stood on that little outcrop I imagined all of India stretching out behind me: to the West - Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, all the way up to the Punjab and beyond; to the East, up the East Coast Road that I had just travelled down, stretching up up all the way past Calcutta to the Eastern Himalaya. It felt right that this was the last place I would be visiting in India, like all of my experiences all across the country these past two years found closure in this tiny stretch of rock that they stem from.

 

 Sunset at Varkala Beach


From Kanyakumari I spent a few days in Varkala, a small beach town just up the coast in Kerala. Backpackers in flipflops and elephant pants roamed the single lane perched on a cliff above the sea. Shop merchants asked me how I like India, how long I’ve been here for. “Two years”. “Two years madam, my gosh, nobody is travelling in India for two years.” I sat by the beach and drank the most delicious fresh pineapple juice, and then boarded a packed standing-room-only shaky public bus to my flight back to Mumbai.

 

Fishermen in Kanyakumari

 

 A Bananawala at the Madurai Banana Market

 

 The Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai

 

 

 Sunset at Trichy's Rock Fort Temple

 

 

 Fishermen in Mahabalipuram

 

 Beach cows in Mahabalipuram

 

 Flowers along the cliff in Varkala

 

 Pilgrims at Kanyakumari

 

 

 

 Children play on the street in Madurai

 

 

 

 

 Offerings at Trichy's Rock Fort Temple

 

A gopuram at the Shree Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy

 

 

 Carvings in a cave temple in Mahabalipuram

 

 Krishna's Butterball in Mahabalipuram

 

 Kappil Beach in Varkala

 

The Gandhi Memorial in Kanyakumari, where some of Gandhi's ashes were kept before being put in the sea

 

 The Madurai Banana Market

 

 

 The Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai

 

 

 Pilgrims at the Meenakshi Amman Temple

 

 

On top of the Rock Fort Temple in Trichy 

 

 

The Shree Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy

 

 

Fishing boats in Mahabalipuram

 

Arjuna's Penance carved in Mahabalipuram

 

 Varkala

 

 

 

 The Nayak Palace in Madurai 

 

The view down over Trichy

 

 

 

A cave temple in Mahabalipuram

 

 

 

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