It’s sometimes hard not to laugh at the sheer, brazen hilarity that passes for devotion in India. Scene: Meenakshi Amman Temple — a place of worship dedicated to the fish-eyed deity Meenakshi (an avatar of the Hindu goddess Parvati), in the pilgrimage city of Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Time: around 9.20pm. Things are revving up for Meenakshi’s nightly reunion with her consort, Shiva, in her inner sanctum — a ritual of orgasmic intensity and extravagant spectacle.
Shiva can’t make it from his place — his shrine — to hers under his own steam. Instead he’s carried there on a palanquin by Brahmin priests, their foreheads daubed with three horizontal white lines comprised of ash and cow dung. As they proceed, they make a glorious racket — flapping peacock-feather fans to generate clouds of incense smoke, ringing bells and blasting away on trumpets.
I’m in the slipstream — a crowd of tourists and devotees who trot after the palanquin through the temple’s echoing halls. It’s when we reach the entrance to Meenakshi’s inner sanctum that the spectacle turns surreal. From somewhere a Brahmin produces a silver stool and places on it Shiva’s tiny brass sandals. As the music and chanting intensify, and shadows race around the ancient stone walls, we all — pilgrims and foreigners alike — fix our eyes on the sandals, fully expecting Shiva to materialise and slip them on before padding off to Meenakshi’s boudoir.
He doesn’t, of course — but in that momentary suspension of disbelief, the unique intensity of worship in Tamil Nadu is revealed. This Southern Indian state is famed for its Dravidian temple architecture, characterised by vast gopurams (towers) — often decorated in colourful, cartoon-like friezes of deities and fantastical creatures — and its relentless rivers of pilgrims (Madurai alone attracts 10,000 a day, while 60 priests work shifts at the Meenakshi temple to cope with the endless round of ceremonies).
To go with this flow — as I did over the course of 10 days, visiting a dozen or so temples from Chennai in the north of the state to Madurai in the south — is to immerse yourself in a world probably not unlike that of Britain’s cathedrals in medieval times: the beggars, hucksters and supplicants, the sleights of hand, as well as the acts of faith.
Between the cool colonnades of Ekambareswarar Temple, in Kanchipuram, beneath signs warning of pickpockets, women sit threading garlands of flowers while a gang of lads latch on to me, the comical foreigner, and imitate my gestures, hitching their trousers, scratching their calves and dissolving into laughter. Taking refuge in a side shrine, a priest tells me that soon a mass ceremony of 100 marriages will take place here in honour of Shiva and Parvati. He then pointedly stares at the offerings plate till I cough up a small note. “That is not a donation!” he says scornfully — and is ticked off by a passing Indian tourist who advises me: “Do not listen to the fellow! He is getting monthly salary from government!”
As I head south, past roadside billboards showing well-fed politicians, the experiences multiply like Shiva’s hands. At Brihadiswarar Temple, in Thanjavur, devotees of Ganesh, the elephant god, stand before his likeness — all chubbiness, trunk and ears — cross their arms and rap their own skulls, admonishing themselves for their transgressions. Near the city of Tiruchirappalli, the vast temple complex of Srirangam bleeds into the surrounding streets to the point where the religious and secular become indivisible. Tucking into piping-hot capsicum bhajis, next to a ‘vessels’ shop clanking with pails and ornamental ashtrays, I’m no longer sure if I’m within or without Srirangam’s sacred precincts. Adding to the confusion, the temple is being renovated, its walls and towers covered in bamboo scaffolding and green netting, the main sound not chanting or religious music but the whine of power tools on stone.
That’s the thing about the temples of Tamil Nadu — they’re not lifeless heritage sites or manicured tourist attractions, but vital organisms in India’s body spiritual that require constant renewal. The goal is enlightenment — and there are always ways to reach it.
In Madurai, Shiva may summon his magical sandals each night to gain access to Meenakshi’s inner sanctum. But mere mortals have an easier route — they can fast-track themselves there by paying the temple guardians 100 rupees.
How to do it: Audley Travel offers a nine-night tour of Tamil Nadu’s temple cities — as well as Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry and the Chettinad region — from £2,035 per person on a B&B basis, including car, driver and guides, international flights and one internal flight.
Read more in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)