The thing about temples

Madurai, India. We are learning quickly about what seeing famous temples entails.

Late afternoon yesterday, after arriving by plane from Chennai, we hired a guide to take us through the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This is Madurai’s largest, considered to be the peak of South Indian temple architecture. It is the Taj Mahal of this region’s aesthetic heritage. But it has a lot of rules.

First of all, as with all temples, shoes are forbidden. Our guide had us park ours in a shop whose owners were very hopeful we would return and buy lots of things. Now, my feet do not seem particularly well equipped for an hour and a half of walking on stones, so I personally was doing a bit of hobbling. Don is much tougher.

This temple allows zero photography inside, and so we were dazzled by interiors that we couldn’t record, so here are some shots from the web that give an idea of the riches inside this fourteen-acre complex that has twelve tall gopurams, encrusted with hundreds of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes. We are eight years into a twelve-year repainting schedule, so the sun has dimmed some of the colors. The web pics are obviously taken closer to the re-painting.

It was magnificent, though our guide’s efforts to introduce us to every god and goddess may not have taken hold as he had intended. The only ones I am personally sure about at this point are dancing Shiva and Ganesh. The lesson is to look for a guide who can’t speak English, so there will be less information to try to absorb. Just keep pointing us in the next direction.

All in all, a beautiful – and huge – temple, filled with the faithful in every corner. We went back today in the light, to take some outside pictures. Our original thought was to walk around the temple, but we realized that the street level might not be the best for seeing the gopurams. Magically, someone appeared to tell us where to go to get a better view. (In India, it is not necessary to look hard for a guide. Stand still for a minute and one will materialize next to you, speaking English.) This helpful person led us back to the very same shop where we had left our shoes last night. Such a deal they have going with the locals! They were delighted we had returned, and led us up to their fourth floor – through acres of tourist merchandise – where Don so bravely climbed a bamboo ladder to get to their highest vantage point and provide some idea of scope and scale.

We had started at the West entrance, and when we got to the East entrance, we struck gold. There finally we found an ancient market where at least 50 of those amazing tailors we have heard about were busy tailoring. Finally selecting one, I chose three fabrics from an incredible selection to have loose cotton tops made. For a small down payment, they went to work on the style and fabrics I selected, and delivered them to the hotel tonight. What incredible service! How great to have some new cotton tops for this hot climate.

Now, back to temple lessons. Today we also went to Thiruparankundram, a small town known for its sacred granite hill. It is one of the six abodes of Murugan, the son of Shiva. Now this temple was much more accessible and did not forbid photographs. We quickly had a non-English-speaking guide attached to us who led us hither and yon, and we stood in a long line (Speed Track) with switchbacks that would have done Disneyland proud. But after wending our way through corridors packed with people, we ended up looking at more gods, without any clear finale to our journey. That part of the trip must have been sacred, as no photos allowed. Lots of children on tours full of good spirits, and once again I got in several family selfies. Quite a bit of commerce goes on inside this temple. Hope there were no money changers.

So the next important take-away from this temple was all about the elephant that wasn’t there. We were told there was an elephant here just waiting to bless us, so we willingly stood in that long special line for ages. But, now we have learned for once and all that there are no elephants inside temples. No, they are always outside the temple. However, absolutely no one at this temple had ever heard of an animal called an elephant, when we inquired further. Nope, no such thing.

We have now left another temple without an elephant blessing, which is getting to be a bit disturbing.

Don’s Food Cornert

We had been warned about buffets in India — by the same people who warned us about ice — and, except for the mostly judicious pickings at the breakfast buffets, we have avoided them for any other meal. How long has that food been in those serving dishes and when was it actually made? Good questions. But not that it has been more than a week since I had that ice and seeing a buffet offering in the hotel which seemed to be busy with a continuous replenishment of fresh food coming out of the kitchen, we decided to go for it.

As with any buffet, it’s tempting to overdo it with too much food and too many different things on the plate all conflicting with one another — both in the mouth and down in the stomach. We had been sitting the lobby dealing with the delivery of Jo’s new custom-made tops and watched groups of Western tourists jumping in as soon as the dinner-time buffet had been set out. By the time we got there those people had been eating for an hour with umpteen trips back to the buffet table. I guess they didn’t get the memo on prudence.

While I can’t vouch for what may happen five or six hours from now, I’d say everything was fresh and hearty. More like we would expect back home and not the type of refined experience we had the other day in Chennai. All part of the subtle differences. I also had the chicken curry, which seemed fairly conventional, and a few nibbles of things. We show the full menu here to see if anyone can determine if the offerings were classically southern Indian.

Jo stuck with the biryani and a few other things.  She picked up a piece of deep-fried fish but put them aside when she bit into the first one and found that the bones had not been removed. What a picky eater!

Our judicious approach to the buffet continued right through dessert. I had a few golab jamun — those spongy dough balls soaked in syrup. Jo had a simple bowl of ice cream, vanilla flavored with a perfume-like hint.

When we left, the folks who beat us by an hour were still going strong.


2 thoughts on “The thing about temples

  1. You got the most important Gods down. The father son duo, Shiva and Ganesh. That covers pretty much all the blessings one needs to get through a good life.

    You see, you are surviving the buffets and ice because of these blessings! I need to do more temples on my next visit.

  2. My head is already full of Catholic saints and Greek/Roman gods, but I think there’s room for at least two more deities.

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