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.

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