Another day, another temple!


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Asia » India » Tamil Nadu » Madurai
April 19th 2017
Published: April 24th 2017
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Another day, another temple but boy is this one a doozie! The Meenakshi Hindu Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati, lays claim to being one of the most important temples in India and if judged on its architecture alone you can certainly see why. There are an impressive 12 towers, the tallest rising to 52 metres and covered in 1,511 statues. There are also five gateways that 15,000 visitors a day pass through (22,000 on a Friday!). We learn from our temple guide Rishi that the intricate, colourful statues that cover the towers are repainted once every 12 years and it takes 9 months to complete. This is an apt time span as we learn this is the most important and sacred places of Parvati, goddess of fertility, love and devotion.

We have to remove our shoes on entering the temple. Oh my Shiva, the flagstones are baking hot! We skit quickly from one patch of shade to another to avoid getting third degree burns to the soles of our feet. We see little cradles hung in a tree, one of the many things women do at this temple to either encourage a pregnancy or celebrate a successful birth. They also wear bangles up their arms for three different ceremonies, the first for their wedding night - the more bangles removed over night the better time she's had (more likely the new husband removes loads to make himself look mega virile!). The second bangles ceremony is used by pregnant women. Tight bangles on the wrist activate pressure points linked to the baby in the womb who also hears the jingle of the bangles. Lastly, in the ninth month gifts and food are given to the mother to ensure she is relaxed and happy prior to labour and bangles are made extra tight to link to the cervix via pressure points. Personally I'd settle for an epidural any day over bangles and pressure points!

Inside the temple it is very dark but the ceilings are high and colourfully painted with lotus flower designs. We see people giving offerings of flowers, powders, lighting ghee lamps, rubbing blessed ghee oil on pregnant bellies and all manner of rituals. Food offerings are blessed and then taken home to be eaten. Before entering one section of the temple that only Hindus are allowed into women have to kneel and pray while men have to lay face down on the floor.

Rishi tells us about the Chittirai Festival that we see the temple being prepared for. It celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and over 100 thousand people attend each day!

We see priests sitting on the floor with worshippers going through ritual ceremonies, making rings out of grass using powders, flowers, incense etc while chanting. These priests have to study for 5 years learning how to perform the ceremonies, sanskrit and mantras. They are allowed to have wives and families and can even take on a second job so who knows, our tuktuk driver may be a priest for his day job!

There is huge central pool area where normally people can bathe, it is closed currently for restoration. There is a gold insert pattern in the floor at one point near this pool and Risha makes us follow where it's pointing where we see a golden dome peeking above the parapet. The ceilings here were painted in the 16th century using vegetable dyes. Babies are brought to this part of the temple at thirty days old where their naming ceremony takes place, their name chosen based on astrological charts. They also get their first taste of cow's milk.

Passing through another part of the temple we see an auction of sarees taking place. So many are given as blessings that they are sold off to help pay for the upkeep of the temple and charitable donations. There is also a section set aside where food offerings are made into free meals, the equivalent of our soup kitchens or foodbanks for those in need of more than just spiritual sustenance.

By this point in the temple tour we are all so hot and have been here such along time that Rishi's words go over our head a bit. I've even stopped taking notes, unheard of for the minute maid! Luckily we move into the 1000 pillar dance hall built by the royal family in the 17th century for dance lessons. Rishi asks if anyone in the group is musical so I stick my hand up. He passes me a piece of wood and gets me to whack a corner pillar that makes different notes depending on where you hit it. I'm not a percussionist! Give me that oboe reedy instrument I just saw a guy go past with! We are given 10 minutes to explore the pillars so I take myself off to a deserted section and have a dance by myself in the soft beams of sunlight that are managing to creep in through cracks in the ceiling, painting the floor with dappled light. It's lovely to escape the crowds for a bit.

Flagging spirits revived we leave the temple, skitter scatter over the hot stones to collect our shoes and virtually run to the minibus to reclaim our air conditioned luxury.

Most of my group opts to return to the temple later in the evening to watch a night time ceremony, but this atheist has had her fill of religious gubbins so stays at the hotel to get some much needed introvert/atheist recharge time.


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