On Temples And Me: A Meandaring Story

Those who know me well know that I am not a ritualistic or a temple person. It does not mean I am an atheist. I just don’t always feel moved by idol worship or rituals the way I have seen some do. I almost wish I did, but that’s beside the point.

Saying I’m spiritual sounds presumptuous. I believe in a higher power, I believe in karma and I believe we are all here for a reason. So then, it was a bit of a surprise to me when of late, I sometimes realize that I indeed, miss the temples in India. In Southern India, to be precise, as those are my only context for reference.

My relationship with all things spiritual has followed, at best, a zigzag path. When I was really young, as in under 13, I didn’t really think much about faith or god. As an obedient child, I went to the temple with my parents and participated in all the rituals that my mom performed, without really thinking, just as any child would. I dutifully accompanied my grandma to the temple “katha kalakshebam” sessions (discourses on Indian epics like the Ramayan and the Mahabharat).

My memories of this time are mostly about the food—we sisters all loved making modak (sweet dumplings) for Ganesh chathurthi, cheedai with lots and lots of butter for Gokulashtami, getting new clothes and fire crackers for Diwali, new clothes and pongal for pongal, putting away the books for one day (yay!) for Saraswati puja, starting music lessons on Vijayadasami. The common denominator was, is, food with Indian rituals. You can’t separate the two.

And then, in my early teen years, I sort of, kind of, stopped believing in a god. Thinking back, my circumstances, combined with the teen rebel in me, probably led me to this conclusion. But I didn’t like not believing, not having faith, and got over my imaginary fight with God soon—that’s what it was, a tantrum by a teen who was struggling with the stuff thrown at her and didn’t quite have an adult in her life to help her deal with it.

But, when I got over it, I started to wonder why I had to prove something by going to the temple, and to whom. In our family, (by this time we four sisters were living with our grandparents in Chennai while my father worked in Kenya, then Nigeria, and my mom used to shuttle between Madras and Nigeria) saying no to going to the temple was blasphemy. I did it anyway. Sometimes I would go. I didn’t mind the temple and the visit itself, but my heart wasn’t in it.

But then, I would also go to the Rama/Hanuman temple and go around the Hanuman murthy there a 108 times every time I had a tough exam or wished for something—like please let the Math teacher be sick tomorrow—nothing too serious, just enough to miss school. Yep, I was one confused and opportunistic child.

I should mention here that the street we lived in Purasawalkam, Chennai was named after a 2000 year old Chola period Siva temple that was walking distance from our house. The temple is the famous Gangadeeswarar Kovil. At the corner of G. Kovil Street, as it was known, and Purasawalkam High Road, there was a teeny tiny Ganesha temple—right there on the intersection, with heavy traffic, doing great business! Across from Ganesha was/is the Rama temple mentioned above. During festival seasons, the street literally never slept. We would hear loud devotional music early in the morning, as we studied for exams. A run to the market meant stopping for a minute at the Pillayar/Ganesha temple. We didn’t have a phone at home, and if I wanted to call a friend, I would go to the little shop next to the temple and pay 50 paise for a call.

As a thinking adult, I didn’t think I needed a temple to be a believer, to have faith. For the longest time, even as we raised kids here, this was my belief.

And then, when my in-laws visited us in the early 2000s, I asked them to bring me Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as I had never had a chance to read it before. When I saw the five volumes, I was a bit skeptical about finding the time to read with a full time job and two young kids. But, as anyone who has ever read this epic of Kalki on the most famous of all Tamil kings, Raja Raja Chola would swear, I could not put them down until I had finished all of them. I was seriously seriously in awe, and in love, with this king and the masterpiece Brahadeswarar temple in Thanjavur/Tanjore that he built. On a subsequent trip to India, we made a trip to Tanjore with my in-laws. Though I had been to the temple in my high school days, the import and the significance of what Raja Raja had achieved, and that has withstood the test of time (1000 years as of 2010) only registered in my adult brain. As tourists, we were only able to see what’s allowed to the public. I would really really love to see the places in this temple that are only shown to people with special privileges.

I was so moved by this epic, I searched online and found a group of fellow fans of this wonderful epic and the king, and contributed to bringing it online as part of Project Madurai’s literary project. Volumes 1, 4 and most of 5 were proofread and edited by yours truly. That was how much this book, and the story behind the temple, and the greatest Chola emperor who ever walked the earth inspired me. I was happy to contribute in a tiny way to spread the word.

If you would like to read this, and other excellent literary works in Tamil, please visit the Project Madurai site here.

All about this architectural wonder here.

The only place outside of India, in my limited travels where I found such a temple in construction was when we went to Kauai in Hawaii. We happened to go to the monastery there. It was the perfect day. Raining lightly—it rains on and off every day in Kauai, they call it liquid sunshine. The monastery was on a few hundred acres (maybe?) and was set amidst beautiful woods. And, to our delight, a Hindu temple, in typical south Indian architectural style, was in the process of being built. They called it the Iraivan temple. Iraivan meaning God. The sculptors came from somewhere from the districts of Tamilnadu, and were working with granite. This was back in 2009. I am sure the temple is completed now, but strangely, it was more exciting to see it being built.

But back to the topic of this post, of late, as an empty nester, I find myself sometimes craving the temples as they are in the southern part of India. Not for the crowds or the Prasad or the darshan or the elaborate rituals. I get all of it here, and more in terms of social connections in the lovely Hindu temple in the city we live in.

What I crave is the feel of the hard granite under your feet, the stone cool to your feet in the mornings, and pleasantly warm in the evenings, the open and wide praharam around the inner sanctum with only the sky as the roof, the unique sound and the resonance of the temple bell, the sacred water perfumed with holy basil and other herbs so cool and delicious dropped in your palms with a tiny brass spoon (both my kids love this water), the dark garbagriham/inner most sanctum with the black idol of the deity gleaming, lit only by the flickering light of an oil lamp.

But mostly I miss the hush that automatically settles over you and makes you go inward and forget everything around you, the hush that makes you lose yourself in something above and beyond yourself. I am sure someone who reads this will say I need to meditate and find it inside of me, not outside. Maybe I will, if I can meditate for more than 5 minutes—the learning curve on that seems pretty steep, especially for someone with a monkey mind like moi. But until then, I am happy to find my inner peace in the stone temples of India.

Kauai Hindu Monastery and the Iraivan Temple during construction 



My most favorite of all temples, the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore


From top to bottom, left to right: View from the main temple tower, frescoes added during the later years, me trying to capture the entire main gopuram, the temple tower/vimaanam, the temple’s tree aka sthala vriksham, the sacred bull/nandi made from a single stone

A frescoe of the emperor himself, with his guru 




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