Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A New Religion: Temple Visits

Now that I have a few temple visits under my belt, I feel like I can describe them a little more accurately.  The program has sent us to two temples so far: Perur Temple, a temple dating back to the Chola period, and the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital and another old temple.  Some carvings or paintings go back over hundreds of years.  

One of the gates at Meenakshi Temple.
Cities here were built around their temples; the temple was built first, and then the city followed.  As large temples, these two had large, distinctive gates topped by huge towers of brightly painted, life-size statues.  It was impossible to miss the gate.  Meenakshi, larger than Perur, had multiple gates, and several towers within the walls of the temple! 

Inside, too, is a riot of colorful paintings adorning the walls and ceilings.  Some depict scenes from the lives of saints or gods, some are floral designs.  Rock-cut pillars line the halls, figures carved into their bases.  Statues also flank the halls, carved as if leaping out of the stone.  The halls rise to arched ceilings, almost Chinese-looking lions at the top of the arches, baring their large teeth down at the occupants, huge-eyed.  Of course, the figures topping the columns are brightly colored.  

Temples are devoted to a particular god or family of a god.  Perur was a temple for Shiva, and Meenakshi was devoted to Meenakshi, an aspect of Shiva’s wife Parvati, but both temples included shrines and halls to other parts of Lord Shiva’s family (e.g. Ganesh).  Generally, temples start with larger halls, narrowing to the inner sanctum where the statue of the god rests.  In Meenakshi, only Hindus could go into these more holy parts of the temple, but in Perur they let us go forward even into the inner sanctum, through the guardian statues flanking the door and even into the small chamber where the swami performed the puja and blessed those who came.  

Something I do appreciate about Hindu worship is how all the senses are engaged: first, the temples are brightly colored.  During the ritual of asking for the god’s blessing, a flame is circled in front of the statue.  A bell is rung to invite the god’s attention, mixed with the swami’s chanting of a mantra, or holy text.  Incense is waved, thickening the air with its distinctive musk.  And when the supplicants are blessed, it is with the slight grit of ash upon their foreheads as they kneel against the hard, slightly cold stone floor.  

Because worship is linked to all the senses, every time someone passes a temple and hears the bell being rung, or smells the incense, or applies the sandalwood powder to their foreheads at home, the experience of worship will return to them.  For that, I really admire the Hindu form of worship as a very sensory, tangible experience that proves for easy recollection and association.  In short, the temples were large and ornate, full of history and rich architecture.  Seeing people worshiping there added to my understanding of Hinduism and how people lived it.  I was really glad we got to visit these temples as part of our learning experience here.  

1 comment:

  1. I have always been fascinated in Hindu worship and how interactive it is. This experience to go visit on if their temples and experience all the senses is incredible. I am so glad you got to have that experience. I hope your studying continues to be as amazing as ever!