Among the temples that we have visited in South India, the Sri Meenakshi temple of Madurai is by far the most intense and atmospheric. In fact, it is probably one of the most interesting public spaces we have been in, and certainly the single place of worship that we have found most exotic and fascinating. It is not that the architecture of the temple is so outstanding–as impressive as it is, it certainly doesn’t inspire the immediate awe of, say, the Hagia Sophia or the mosques of Istanbul or the greatest cathedrals of Europe. It’s not even the most beautiful Hindu temple we have visited on this trip (that choice may be the Chola era temple at Darasuram). But the space is so chaotic with activity, so full of people engaging in a form of worship that to a Western observer is so foreign, that it simply overwhelms the visitor.
There are many things about the temple which trigger this response, and I thought I would touch on a few.
First is the space itself. The Madurai temple is in the center of the town (I suppose the town was actually laid out to surround it) and huge, the outer walls enclosing a space that is about 250 meters on each side. Because the temple is so ancient (sources say over 2000 years and there have additions at various periods, although much of the structure dates from the 17th century), it is a true jumble of many different buildings, unlike temples that were conceived and built by a single design. This disorganization of layout results in more chaotic flows of human movement, and to the visitor the potential of getting lost, adding to the experience of the visit. The Madurai temple also has fewer spaces that are open to the sun than many other temples, making much of it very dark and cavernous. The many pillars are sculpted, some containing carvings of gods and the ceilings painted with geometric designs. The florescent lights (or the neon, for that matter) used today are unattractive, but one can imagine what the temple was like when oil lamps were used.
Second is the sense of historical continuity. Some of the other temples we have visited, like at Mamallapuram or Thanjavur, were also old but now are really archeological/tourist sites, even if still active places of worship. At Thanjavur, for example, even the Hindu visitors somehow seemed much more like tourists than pilgrims, even while engaging in devotional practice. I think that this is because these sites have a certain museum-like feel, with partially ruined structures being restored and maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. Though ancient the Madurai temple was built in accretion over the centuries, with successive rulers making their contribution to the heritage of the temple, unlike the Thanjavur temple which feels and often is a snapshot of one particular (long dead) king. Madurai could not be a more living and breathing place.
Third is the flow of worshippers. The temple is at times totally packed with people, especially around the entryways (the “queue” at the chappals stand can be quite an ordeal) and surrounding the tank. As at many Hindu temples, the activities of the people present are varied–some are actively performing the circuit of worship, some seemingly lounging about, some more sightseeing than praying and others engaged in some form of business (within Madurai temple one of the halls is reserved for flower/offerings vendors). We saw a very large number of newlyweds taking pictures around the tank (indeed, the first night we had trouble getting a hotel room because so many wedding parties were in town).
Finally, the form of worship. To a Christian visitor, even a Catholic one well familiar with worship before idols, Hindu worship is exotic and foreign. People pray before reliefs and sculptures of elephants (Ganesh), phalluses (Shiva lingam) and other representations of exotic gods, and cover their foreheads with dots and lines of ash and other powder (some of which are actually on the carvings themselves, see below). Brahmin priests, shirtless but strung with decoration, stand and chant before shrines, lighting oil lamps and bathing the statues. The occasional sadhu, or itinerant ascetic, goes by, looking generally like someone who may be committed back home. Not to be offensive, but all this seems so medieval or pagan (in the pre-Christian sense)–to me it really felt like a trip back in time, what religious worship must have been like in the west and near east long, long ago.
Below are some pictures from Madurai.
Facing the western gopuram down the street.
Hallway near southern entrance.
Worshippers in a main part of the temple.
Some people we encountered.
Temple flagstaff, with sunlight streaming in.
Statue with paste for placing on forehead.
View into central shrine, with sunlight streaming in.