Trapped in Temple Town
I wasn’t in high spirits when it came time to visit the Meenashki Amman Temple, in the Temple Town of Madurai. I’d had a bit of stressful travel day the day prior and arrived in Madurai to learn that there were political protests throughout the entire state, some turning slightly violent. As a precaution I’d stayed in the hotel all day until about 5pm when I ventured out to visit the temple, only to have it start pouring rain as soon as I walked out the door. I was also having troubles booking transportation to get out of Madurai, and I hadn’t really wanted to spend too much time at this stop. Trains were booked, state run buses were unsafe due to the political situation and the private buses all seemed to leave inconveniently in the middle of the night. On the positive side, I’d made my Madurai my “splurge stop” for the week and was at a much, MUCH nicer hotel than the mosquito infested sauna from the night prior.
Despite my sour mood I went to the temple, and was quickly lured back into a happy mood. It took me awhile to actually get into the temple. There are a lot of prohibited items and it took me 2 visits to the bag check and a few pat downs in the security line to get the “all clear”. The outer ring of the temple was mostly commercial, with all sorts of stands selling shrine-related paraphernalia and snacks for the families enjoying a full day in the temple. Walking a bit deeper into the complex I came to the sacred pond with views of several of the ornate tours looming above. I sat for awhile and watched the throngs of people going about their festive visits to this temple, one of the few temples dedicated to a female deity. Up ahead I saw a “Hindus Only” sign, so I kind of figured that what I’d seen was what there was to see – it was impressive!
Coming around the corner I saw a semi-official looking man collecting an entrance fee and he quickly spotted me and asked me to pay the foreigner fee. It was then that I realized that I had only just begun my visit! There were corridors shooting off in either direction, and shrines tucked away in dark corners with people sitting quietly meditating. I was careful to stay out of the areas that were for Hindus and wasn’t entirely sure where to go, but there was a nicely decorated chalk path that seemed as good as any map.
At the risk of sounding like a big buffoon and/or stating the obvious, Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion for an outsider. There are so many things going on in a temple like this. There were bowls of red, white and golden powder here and there that people would stop by and use to bless themselves, put on their foreheads, or use to decorate one of the stone shrines. Some people had their entire faces dyed a rusty golden color. People were eager to purchase the coconuts, bananas, lotus and jasmine flowers, and many other items to give in offering to their deities. Little votive candles were being lit and placed here, there and everywhere. Some of the shrines seemed particularly popular and pilgrims would walk around the shrine in a clockwise direction a certain number of times. These are just some of the things I observed from afar, I can only imagine how many other things have a specific purpose and significance.
I loved that it was such a festive and family affair. I loved that pulsing through the entire temple on hidden loudspeakers was a low, meditative chant. In other areas there were small bands for hire and people would request a particular tune. From another chamber there was loud music and I found some traditional dancing being performed. Just when I thought I’d seen it all (again), I came around a corner and ran into a group of people surrounding an elephant. A real one. For a small rupee note the elephant would take your money and give a pat on the head with his trunk – blessing the donor.
As night fell, neon lights began to light up the atmosphere. Deep inside the temple I could still see long lines of pilgrims waiting for a particular blessing from someone or something important. Wiki says the temple gets an average of 15,000 visitors daily, and it certainly felt like it! A kind woman named Sonia stopped me for a short chat, welcomed me to the temple and thanked me for taking an interest in her religion. Her gift to me was the familiar red dot.
The following day, since I was still stranded in temple town, I went back and didn’t go in again but walked around the outside of the temple complex. The spires, or towers or whatever they are called are just so interesting when you really look at all the figures, colors and details. The symmetry is interesting – for the most part the two halves are mirror images. But sometimes a figure will be sitting on a peacock on the right side and a bull on the other.
While I was really pleased that I made the effort to get to this city, I was equally excited to board a bus out of there in the wee hours of the morning. I had myself all worked up about having to be out in the dark trying to board a bus at 2am, and while it didn’t go all that smoothly (I never found the bus I had a ticket for and ended up just buying a new one for a bus I could find!), I was able to make my way to the final state on my visit to India – Kerala, “God’s Own Country”.