From Periyar down the back of the Western Ghats it’s a sharp drop onto the plains of Tamil Nadu. And the heat becomes unbearable as soon as you get round the last hairpin bend. The scenery changes, gone are the lush green forests of Kerala, all around as far as the eye can see are dried out rice paddies and the odd field of ginger.
But the heat is the big difference. It means we have to hide in our rooms for a few hours in the afternoon everyday. Luckily this isn’t a problem as most temples are shut in the afternoon, reopening around 4pm. This is the best time of day to visit – when the sunlight is fading over the tops of the gopurams (towers) and the people inside are a lot calmer.
In Madurai everybody comes to see the Sri Meenakshi Temple dedicated to the triple breasted fish eye goddess. It’s in the heart of the city and seems to be the focal point of life. There are over a million people in this city and they all seem to be going to or coming from the temple.
After navigating through the security, and dropping off bags and shoes it’s a long walk round the temple outskirts to the main entrance, it’s a bit like entering a fortified city. It gives you a good chance to look at the huge towering gopurams with all their individual gods and goddesses carved into them. Actually it’s almost like you are forced to stand under them, to gaze in awe.
Once inside you get to see the carved columns of the main hall and the shrines dedicated to the temple Gods. But it’s the sheer size of the place and the fact that it’s a living, breathing place of worship where people have been coming for the last 2500 years that really makes an impression on me.
In Trichy the Sri Ranganathaswamy – why can’t they have easy names, is even bigger. This place really seems to be a self enclosed city. People are sleeping everywhere – whole families on pilgrimages, beggars, temple priests, hawkers all fighting it out for the best spots and to get to the front to give puja to their chosen gods.
It amazes me how much of an integral part of society these places are. In the English Cathedrals tourists out number worshipers 10 to 1 and although amazing places to visit, it’s often hard to find a feeling of spirituality. Here you can’t get away from it its right in your face.
Sadly we didn’t make it to Tanjore, the 42c days got the better of us and I think it’s about time we had some cheese.