A Temple Primer

I realized that many of my recent postings have not really touched on what we’re seeing here in India, what we have been spending our time doing. The answer is, principally, at least sightseeing-wise, temples. Tamil Nadu has an extremely rich and ancient collection of Hindu temples, including the seventh century Pallava temples in Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram (where I am now), the great eleventh and twelfth century Chola temples in and near Thanjavur and the amazing Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai, which dates largely from the seventeenth century Nayaks although its foundation is far more ancient. I will post separately on the rock-cut shrines of Mahabalipuram, the Sri Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur and the intense Sri Meenakshi temple once we have sorted through some of the photographs. But in this post I want to give a brief overview of the general structure of a South Indian (or Dravidian) (Hindu) temple.

The temple I have selected for this exercise is Jalakantesvara temple, which is a small and beautiful sixteenth century Vijaynayagar temple located inside Vellore Fort. The Vijayanagars ruled one of the greatest empires of South India from their base at Hampi in Karnataka state, which we visited in 2003 and recommend for any India itinerary.

First, to enter a temple, you have to take off your shoes, which you keep at a stand generally for a small fee (or sometimes for free). Given that the temple complexes are huge, with birds, bats, cows and an occasional elephant residing within, walking barefoot can be tricky, but I guess one of the trials of religious devotion. The picture below is actually from a different temple (although all of the other ones are from Vellore).

Surrounding temples, and often lining the principal entryway, are shops, selling offerings including coconuts, bananas and flowers but also other, really random items. At the great temple at Srirangam, which is truly monstrously large and has seven concentric walls, the first few courtyards contained everything from tailors to souvenir shops to restaurants. At Vellore, most of the shops were selling small stone carvings of Hindu gods, as well as necklaces and toys.

The rectangular area of the temple is defined by fairly high walls, so that from the outside you see only the tops of the tallest structures. The walls are often painted with red and white vertical stripes, although not at the Vellore temple. The entryways, which can be at all four cardinal points but sometimes fewer, are topped with highly decorated pyramidal towers, or gopurams. The base is usually solid, carved rock and the higher levels made of plaster. At Vellore, these were painted white but at other temples the decorations are a gaudy technicolor, crowded with carvings of gods and the great Hindu epics.

Note the carvings on the doorway, as well as the huge studded doors, in this picture looking out from the first courtyard inside the first set of doors.

Inside this first courtyard are columned halls along the walls, as is typical. In the Vellore temple, you see immediately on the left a very beautiful columned hall, or mandapam, one of the most intricately carved we’ve seen. [This being a late Vijayanagar temple, I wondered whether in styles of art ornamentation generally increases as the years pass, as a principal elaboration/corruption of the style becomes ornamentation, until it is supplemented by another style.] The back of the mandapam is adjoined to the wall, so that the mandapam can be seen as an enlargement of the columned hallways lining the lengths of the walls. At the largest temples, there are thousand-pillared mandapams.

Immediately on the right is a tank, or reservoir, another typical feature of temples. Of course, the water inside many temple tanks is said to be holy and have therapeutic properties.

Inside the first courtyard is another set of walls, with another gateway. Directly through this door in the second courtyard is a shrine to Ganesh, the elephant son of Shiva and Parvati. The Vellore temple is a Shiva temple, as most of the temples we have seen in South India have been. Shiva is the creator and destroyer and one of the Hindu “trinity,” which also includes Brahma and Vishnu, although temples to Shiva and Vishnu are more common. One core feature of Shiva temples is the sculptural depiction of his “vehicle,” Nandi the bull, which usually sits loyally facing the central shrine. Directly above the Ganesh shrine you can see the gold topped vimana, which is the tower directly above the central shrine, or garbhagriha. This temple therefore has a tripartite structure, with the first set of doors leading you to the courtyard with the tank, the second to a smaller courtyard with the ganesh shrine and then finally the central shrine, or garbhagriha, containing the principal god of the temple.

In some ways, and I do not mean to offend, Hindu practice reminds me of what Christian practice must have been like before the Reformation. On this sign, promises of blessings to come with a donation of two rupees (around five cents). Temples feature many price lists, most of which are not translated into English but are clearly for different pujas (or worships/ceremonies). [Of course, Christian churches charge for ceremonies too, from weddings to funerals.] Temples are given a further commercial flavor by small businesses (some related to worship, others not) that operate within the compound, although there isn’t much at the Vellore temple.

Inside the second courtyard is also the temple flagstaff, or dvajasthambam. In wealthier/more famous temples, this can be plated with gold.

We happened to be at the Vellore temple when an elderly couple was celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary. Musicians were hired, playing South Indian temple music. Another common sound you hear at Shiva temples in South India is a recording of a chant of “Om Shiva” or a particular devotional song we have heard repeatedly. At some point I will try to put up my recordings.

Finally, the central temple. The garbhagriha is fully enclosed and ceilinged, and therefore dim in light, especially when stepping in from the hot South Indian sun. They tend to smell a bit like a dank basement of somebody who owns cats (perhaps the smell of bat droppings). They are also less decorated than the external parts of the temple, as you are supposed to focus less on the structure of the temple and more on the icon of the god residing within. In the outer area of the central temple in Vellore was a shrine to Nataraja, Shiva as Lord of the Cosmic Dance, a form with which you are likely familiar. You can see that the figure of the god is dressed and decorated with flowers. At the shrines, or at least the principal ones, Brahmin priests stand ready to intermediate between you and the god. The act of witnessing the god at the shrine is called darshan, and this sight is considered essential to the act of worship. Upon worship the brahmin will offer some ash, which you can place on your forehead, as a tilaka, often as a dot but also as a stripe. In big temples, you see worshippers walking around with multiple and various forehead markings.

Inside the heart of the central temple, the garbhagriha features a Shiva lingam. Some temples will allow non-Hindus to enter the sanctuary while others do not. Photography is generally not allowed.


We’ve visited several former French colonies now (Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos, Madagascar, Quebec) and if they have one thing in common, it’s a large number of French tourists. I suppose this may be true with Spanish tourists as well (though they blend in pretty well in Latin America), but the French really seem to like to visit the places that they used to own. In Quebec and to a lesser extent in Madagascar this can be chalked up to language (speaking French can get you by in those places and so they make linguistically easier destinations for those French who do not speak English well), but of course in many places (Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos and Pondicherry included) English has surpassed French in use.

Former French colonies generally also have beautiful civic and residential colonial architecture (or at least architecture that decays beautifully–as in Kampot and Kep in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos), and a good gastronomic culture (Madagascar very much so, Pondy not so much).

Anyway, in this post pictures of some French institutions in Pondicherry. I’m not sure how many French citizens currently live in Pondicherry, but as you can see there is a full complement. These were taken on a little ride through town we took on a cycle rickshaw.

A few historical notes: The French arrived in and established themselves in Pondicherry in the late seventeenth century, not long after the British East India Company arrived in now Madras. In the 1740s, the French briefly conquered the British holdings up the coast, and I suppose had they been successful in retaining them India could have ended up being a French empire. Alas, the British were able to retake now Madras and eventually control almost all of South India, although Pondicherry remained French. Pondicherry peacefully joined India in the 1950s soon after independence–please see my earlier blog for a brief history of the formation of India.

French consulate general

Parts of India

I believe that my fondness for travel comes in part from my fondness for maps. I love all sorts of maps, from atlases to subway maps, a love that I believe came from my childhood, when my father would spend time with me looking through the world atlas. I think we may have it somewhere still, published by the Hammond company. Looking through the atlas as a young boy the world seemed to me very static–there were countries in print, with specified colors and capitals. Not that I was a big memorizer, but the political boundaries and information could be memorized if desired, and known, just like the climate charts that appeared on the back pages.

But as we get older we of course recognize that national boundaries are not static, but subject to change. Even after World War II, by which time many nations had become defined including through membership in the United Nations, conflict continues and so does change. This became even more real to me on September 11–things that seem so solid and permanent to us can collapse in an instant, and end up mere ephemera in the span of time.

The most significant set of changes, in terms of national boundaries, during my lifetime, is of course those related to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and related changes in Eastern Europe. But there have been many others, from East Timor to the handover of Hong Kong. And other changes if not in my lifetime occurred not much long before. In this post, I wanted to review in brief the history of independent India, to consider how various parts came to join the whole, to form the nation we know today.

The history of South Asia is long and complex, in part because so many different states and rulers controlled various parts of the subcontinent over the centuries. Although in certain periods substantial portions of the subcontinent were united under a single rule, at no time before the British did any one sovereign control nearly all of what is now India. The British were able to patch together its Indian Empire, as it was called, starting from the establishment of a trading base in now Madras in 1639, through the abolition of the British East India Company in 1858 and up to Indian independence in 1947.

Just prior to Indian independence, the British Indian Empire included almost all of what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (but not what are now Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, although the first was a separate British colony). Much of these lands were controlled directly by Britain while the remainder, called the princely states, were locally controlled by monarchs subject to British suzerainty. There were hundreds of princely states all over the subcontinent, ranging from substantial territories, such as the state of Hyderabad (which included much of what is now Andhra Pradesh state), to minor localities. There also remained Portuguese and French colonial holdings, including principally Goa and Pondicherry, respectively.

The greatest conflict leading to independence was of course the partition, or the division of the British Indian Empire into the two states of India and Pakistan (the latter which in the 1960s divided into now Pakistan and Bangladesh). The process leading to the partition led to the deaths of thousands and the displacement of millions (Hindus moving to India and Muslims to Pakistan). At the same time, however, there also remained the question of how the princely states’ and the Portuguese and French colonies’ territories would be resolved, as India felt strongly that at least the parts that were geographically enclosed by India should join the Indian Union (while parts bordering Pakistan would be given a choice between joining India or Pakistan).

It took time and negotiation, but “Instruments of Accession” were signed by nearly all of the rulers of the princely states to join either India or Pakistan. The Instruments of Accession reserved certain rights to the princely states and their rulers, which were gradually phased out, including by the redrawing of state boundaries in the 1950s. There were, however, a few special cases.

Kashmir is of course the most lingering conflict. At the time of Indian independence, Kashmir although largely Muslim was ruled by a Hindu prince, who wished Kashmir to remain independent. Both Pakistan and India refused this, but full accession to either never came, resulting in war and the division of Kashmir into Pakistani and Indian administered regions. As you will see on maps today, the borders here are still not defined.

Hyderabad, with a Hindu majority and a Muslim ruler, also wished to remain independent. Hyderabad was the largest of the princely states and had enjoyed a unique status under the British Indian Empire. A large portion of the south central portion of the subcontinent, the princely state of Hyderabad was too significant for India to forego. In 1948, the Indian army entered and took forceful control of the state, and the prince (or nizam) of Hyderabad conceded defeat. Junagadh, a smaller majority-Hindu princely state located in now Gujarat, was also ruled by a Muslim prince. India rejected his decision to join Pakistan, because Junagadh was majority Hindu and surrounded by India with no frontier with Pakistan. India used force to cause accession, which was confirmed by a referendum in 1948.

French India included Pondicherry as well as several smaller cities on both the Eastern and Western coasts of India. The French agreed to a democratic resolution, and each locality eventually voted to join India, leading to the special Union Territory of Pondicherry in 1954. The Union Territory of Pondicherry has its own legislature and could potentially become a state in the future, although it remains non-contiguous.

Portuguese India included what is now Goa state, as well as several smaller possessions also on the Western coast of India. Portugal resisted handing these over to India, leading finally to military action by India in 1961. Goa is now a state of the Republic of India while the other Portuguese colonies are part of Gujarat state.

Sikkim became in effect a protectorate of India in 1950 but resisted union until 1975, when a referendum was held to join India.

India is an interesting case of a country recently patched together, because to a certain extent the boundary was determined by a colonial power, but the process of unification was in many ways forged by the newly independent nation, which had a functioning government of sorts even prior to independence that was able to take an active role. For a country that was not historically unified, India forms a logical whole, especially after the redrawing of state boundaries to match linguistic groups. It would be interesting to do a comparison of the formation of India and Indonesia, which are both huge amalgamations of culturally and linguistically heterogenous territories that were brought together in part due to colonial history, and to compare secessionist movements in the two. I imagine a key difference would be the contiguousness of India and the huge distances separating the islands forming the archipelagoes of Indonesia. I also imagine that the political institutions set in place or formed under British/Dutch rule differ in meaningful ways.

If It’s in Lonely Planet…

A guidebook whose greatest weakness is that it is overused (though of course there are other significant weaknesses as well), one is sometimes amazed by how authoritative Lonely Planet become. Traveling around the world one often sees hotels, restaurants and stores marketing themselves as having been “recommended by Lonely Planet.” A Lonely Planet listing can corrupt a previously fine business (with rising rates and lower standards) or create a legend out of a roadside stall (e.g., a tiny omelette shop in Jodhpur). Travelers (including ourselves) check its listings to verify the “right” price for an item if in doubt, and rest assured in the face of a corrupt autorickshaw driver that we have paid enough (never mind inflation, rise in price of fuel, etc.). In this post, I want to share two unrelated stories of how “if it’s in Lonely Planet, it must be so.”

The first story is from Jodhpur, India, 2003. We were on our first trip to India, and advised by a fellow American traveler to stay at the Haveli Guest House when in Jodhpur. The room was quaint and the price fair and so we followed his advice. We were in something of a rush that morning, but the hotel attendant seemed keen to show us the rooftop restaurant and give us a map of the town, and so after refusing several times we let him follow through. On the map, he showed us the location of “the government store, Maharaja Arts [not if that was the name],” and let us know that Jodhpur was a great place to shop for souvenirs. Later that day, while sightseeing, we saw that we were near the store, and so decided to stop by.

A bit of background on Indian government stores. In India, most states have a chain of government-owned stores selling local crafts. In Kerala it is called Kairali, in Tamil Nadu Pompuhar. Because it is owned by the government, you have some assurance of quality and authenticity, and the prices are fixed and so there is no need to bargain. You may not get the best price possible for a particular item, but you know that you’re not going to get seriously ripped off, either. All in all, they’re not bad places to shop.

Already well into our Rajasthan travels, I knew that the government stores in Rajasthan went by the name of Rajasthali. But I figured that it was possible for there to be another brand of government store in Jodhpur–and also the Lonely Planet confirmed that Maharaja Arts in Jodhpur was a government store selling at fixed prices.

Walking into the store, which was pretty big and had a decent selection of merchandise, I knew instantly that it was not a government store. Government stores, because they are run by the government, have a certain feel to them. They’re a bit musty, often seem poorly maintained and managed and are overly departmentalized. This store had the feel of a private enterprise and, more tellingly, their sign and receipt book (which I demanded to see) stated clearly that it was a “government authorized” store, which I believe means little more than that they have a business license, although it is supposed to signify reliability.

We asked the lady behind the counter specifically whether this was a government owned store, and she insisted that it in fact was. An outright lie. Derek and I were in a bit of a bad mood that day, and picked a fight with the shopkeepers in the upstairs showroom, asking why they were lying to us and everybody else. [Of course, the answer is clear–by doing so they could charge inflated prices and have customers trustingly not bargain.] After they confessed that they were indeed lying, one explanation: “It is not the fault of your hotel or of the boy on the street that brings people here. It is the fault of the Lonely Planet for listing us as a government store!” (The logic is baffling.) They grew belligerent and told us to leave. The store was crowded with tourists, who at that time seemed like innocent victims to us, “on our side,” and so we made a scene, making clear to all present that the shop was a fraud. The store owner got even angrier, resulting in a slight physical altercation and our departure. [Nothing like a little adrenalin to get a bad mood out of your system.]

Later that day, we ran into other tourists who had visited the store, believing it to be a government store. A couple of them were with the popular Intrepid tour company, showing that even western tour operators (or their local partners) can be trusted in India not to give you false information for commission profit. That night, we chatted with a friend we had made earlier in our trip, a quiet Frenchman who was on our Jaisalmer camel safari. He explained to us that he’d gone shopping and purchased some things that he really liked. Unfortunately, he had followed the hotel’s advice and gone to the “government store.” We explained to him the con, and after some discussion he decided that he was fine with the purchase, even though he probably had overpaid substantially. After dinner, we parted, he to take an early train the next day.

Early the next morning, we awoke to hear the sound of an argument in the hotel lobby–our room was upstairs but the place was small enough that voices carry. The voice was clearly that of our French friend. We went down to see what was the matter. He was explaining to our hotelkeepers that he was upset about their tricking him about the store. We joined the argument and demanded that the hotel give him a refund on the items that he purchased. Since the store wasn’t open, we told the hotel to pay us, and work out the matter with the store directly later. They explained to us their commission scheme and finally agreed to give us a refund (after a great deal of argument).

The second story is from a few days ago, at our Trichy hotel. Not having had access to the internet in a while, I thought that it would be a good idea to check some of my bank/credit card accounts to make sure that everything was in order. Taking advantage of the fact that our room had a phone, I dialed AT&T to make some collect calls. (As you should know, almost all banks and credit cards accept collect calls from a customer, from anywhere.) I made a few different collect calls to check various accounts, and went to sleep.

Upon checking out, I was shocked to discover a hotel phone bill about three times the cost of the room (though still only $50 or so). This was clearly an error–they had billed the operator-assisted collect calls as if I had made direct international calls (although actually the rate was well in excess of normal international direct dial rates, probably because of hotel surcharges). We tried to explain exactly what we did, and why we shouldn’t have to pay the full amount. What finally got them to see that we must be right? The Lonely Planet. We took out our Lonely Planet South India book and showed them the section on using the AT&T operator to make collect and calling card calls, which specifically mentions that the charge in India should be that of a local call. When the lady at the front desk started to complain about using the book as reference material, her manager quickly quieted her and assured her that the Lonely Planet was in fact not just any book. The hotel still checked this repeatedly with the phone company, etc., over the next hour (uncharacteristically we waited patiently while they confirmed because we didn’t want the desk clerk to somehow have to eat the cost from her check). They read verbatim from the Lonely Planet to the people with whom they were confirming the charges.

Maybe we should have bootleg Lonely Planets published somewhere, and whatever we write will be believed to be true. Free night’s stay for bald travelers? Half-price Pringles for anyone wearing glasses?


Dangers and Annoyances. So reads the heading of the Lonely Planet section that describes troubles you may face in your destination. Of course, in most of Asia, the risk of physical violence is small, but there are still risks, and perhaps no more so than in India. As any tourist to India can tell you, the risk of petty theft and cons is extremely high, leading one to be in a relatively high state of alert. The railways have signs warning you not to take food from strangers due to the risk of drugging (to put you to sleep while you are robbed), you constantly hear stories of other tourists having their bags stolen, and touts and would-be-touts harass you, hoping to make this or that commission off of your hotel or souvenir transaction. Lonely Planet even reported of a scheme in Agra that made you seriously ill in hopes of getting a commission from the local clinic.

South India (so far) has felt super safe, and has been nearly harassment free. Nowhere is perfectly safe, though, and this topic came to me because we experienced the other day a potential con artist. Actually, I think he probably wasn’t (Derek thinks he was), and I feel somewhat guilty for suspecting him, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes, even if that means to lack faith in your neighbor (at least when you’re carrying everything you hope you will need for the next year in one bag).

On our way from Chettinad, where we were looking at old mansions, to Trichy, a transit hub of Tamil Nadu state, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man came up to say hello to us at a medium-sized town bus station. Now, this is pretty common in South India–people are extraordinarily friendly and eager to make contact, however small, with foreign tourists. I imagine we’re still a novelty for many of them, since there are so many of them and relatively few of us, and it helps pass the time. We’re generally only too happy to return the greetings, even if answering the same two questions (name and country) fifty times a day gets tiring. This man spoke considerably better English than average, though, and asked a few other questions, also typical ones, and sort of lingered about while Derek took photos of vendors at the bus station. We found this a bit peculiar (if you have something to say to us, or want to talk more to us, go ahead, but don’t just hang around us), but let it go. We decided to go for lunch before we caught our next bus, and headed to a restaurant across the street. A few minutes later, the man entered the restaurant (one of many), and again made meaningless chatter with us (not even friendly, conversational, just meaningless) and generally hung about while we were looking for an empty table. He followed Derek to the handwash station (all Indian restaurants have handwash stations since Indians do not use utensils) and provided useless helpful information such as where the soap is and how to turn on the already running water. My alarm bells rang when we went to sit down and were looking for a place for our big backpacks. He suggested that we put them near a staircase across the busy room.

[Flashback] In our first few days in India in 2003, we took a train from Delhi toward Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, our first Indian train ride. At the New Delhi Railway Station, a relatively decently dressed middle-aged man with pretty good English came by to ask us if we were okay and to be generally helpful. A little too helpful, we thought, for a stranger, but didn’t think anything of it. A bit later, after we were settled, we saw him helping another couple of tourists out. Again, we didn’t think too much of it. We talked to those tourists later to find out that the man, pretending to be helpful, had suggested they move carriages. He involved himself in the process of their moving their bags, and with an accomplice took off with their small backpack (with the more valuable items). The couple had been in India every year for the past ten years or so, in part for business, and it was their first real loss, and a hit to them both materially and to their pride. Because it happened so early in our India trip, and because we were almost the victims, it taught us a valuable lesson: Be wary of the out of place, overly helpful stranger. [I know, standing alone the lesson sounds a little sad.] [End of flashback]

Now, we try never to part with our bags, and to keep them in plain sight. Here, a strange man was suggesting that we put our bags halfway across the room, where crowds would block our line of sight periodically. This man spoke pretty good English but didn’t have anything really to say to us and followed us around, even waiting until a seat at our table opened up. We met him at a bus station (obviously a haven for crooks). Although this city was an unlikely location for such a thief (and so I am inclined to think he was not one), it fit too closely the Delhi pattern, and we kept our bags close by. We finished lunch while we kept an extremely tight awareness of our belongings. Again, sad, I know, this distrust–but sometimes better safe than sorry.

Other scams we’ve faced:

– In New York, up by Columbia where we used to live, there were two people particularly famous for their scams. One would hang out near the ATM, saying that he needed cabfare to go to an AIDS clinic. Innocent liberal college students, particularly drawn by the HIV/AIDS angle, would give him money. Another man acted mentally disturbed and generally deranged, contorting his body, making strange noises and saying that he was hungry (even on dollar Whopper Tuesdays). Of course, other times, he would walk down the street, as healthy and normal as anyone else in New York. One day, when he was putting on his performance, a young student pointed at him and screamed, “He’s a perpetrator–it’s a scam! He’s perfectly fine–I saw him the other day! Perpetrator!” following him down the street, a scene we’ll never forget.

– In Thailand last year, outside a small museum, we ran into a French woman who was acting slightly hysterical. She had a very long story about how her husband had been injured during a robbery and was being held by corrupt policemen in Pattaya and she needed money to give as a bribe to free him, and to get back to Pattaya. We were quite sure that it was a scam, but gave her the benefit of the doubt, asking for any documentation she could provide to confirm her identity–of course she had none. Scams by foreigners are not uncommon in Thailand, which draws a lot of long-term western visitors. Of course, not as common as the “attraction xx is closed, let me take you to attraction yy [and tailors/jewelers/etc.]–only 10 baht” tuk-tuk drivers.

– One of my favorites: In Shenzhen near the Luohu border with Hong Kong, women with little babies sit out on the roads eating rice out of garbage cans. The first time we saw this, we were heartbroken and gave the lady RMB 20 (around $2.50). The second time on the same day we saw this (with another woman, though nearby), we realized that the rice was sitting on a very clean newspaper, at the top of the garbage can, clearly placed by the woman herself. It gave us a good laugh, as we felt that the genuine emotion of heartache that the first display drew within us was well worth RMB 20. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to us earlier that if a person truly needed to take food from the garbage, she’d likely do that, take it from the garbage, rather than sitting on the sidewalk eating directly from the tipped can. A Chinese friend told us that in China they rent babies so that people can go around begging with them!

– Delhi 2003, we were the victim of a classic scam… but this is a long story, and so perhaps I will blog separately later.