Although people did tend to exclaim - ‘what you, on a temple tour?’ I did enjoy it immensely. It was family togetherness after a long while, leavened by a cousin who can ad-lib instantaneously and spin stories where none exist. As my younger daughter put it wisely, if we didn’t quarrel with him, we would be quarrelling among ourselves. So tempers were sunny throughout.
It was actually a blessed trip sprinkled with grace. We’d planned it for the Puja holidays, the only days when all of us were free. “It s going to be very crowded and you are going to wait hours,” everyone prophesied. But things turned out well with people being busy in their homes with their own pujas. No where in the 7 temples we visited did we have to wait in queues and we were able to see the idols in all their glory fully and completely.
The first bit by day train was soothing. One alternately snoozes, reads desultorily, talks to fellow passengers even more desultorily and gazes dreamily through the window on a train journey. And keeps an eye out for what the caterers are bringing around.
First halt, Kumbakonam. Kumbakonam, to my mind isn’t really a city of temples. My first impression was of the station platform - clean, modern and empty but for large numbers of uniformed little children being fed their lunch by doting parents. A scene which seemed prehistoric. Even more so when I watched one father carefully transforming a little ruffian into a little Lord with a comb and powder puff.
The next discovery was finding that Kumbakonam is the home of good old Kalimark. Bovonto tasted of cola intertwined with grapes; it brought back memories of teenage sorties in the company of friends.
Karaikal, where we stayed, hardly looked French. It seems the usual Indian small town - dirty bus stand, temples, empty plots which breed plastic and thorny bushes. The difference is in the beach which is getting spruced up with long cobbled walkways and lighted promenade.
Early to the temple at Thirunallar (Nala+Aru-Nallaru) which dates back many centuries. My daughter was duly dipped and purified in the tank which King Nala was said to have built when he was in the bad books of Shaniswara, the son of the Sun God himself. The clothes she was wearing had to be left there in a symbolic gesture. A friend said wistfully, if only it were so easy to leave behind one’s sins.
Shani was further propitiated by lighting 27 little lamps and feeding the crows with rice mixed with gingelly seeds. Lots of people were doing it too, all obviously combating the influence of Saturn in their horoscopes.
Temple going has become the cheaper alternative to family holidays, a cousin remarked, himself the trustee of a temple. So many new practices are springing up to propitiate the Gods. And the media does all it can to spread this cult.
And people follow it all.
Isn’t it all done out of fear and greed? Fear that bad will befall you and greed for wellbeing. If we truly believe in the influence the planets have in our lives, then it makes little sense to hope that these small rituals will ward off energy forces sent by the planets thousand of years ago.
We continued our pilgrimage, stopping to cool-off in one of the numerous streams on the way. A dozen black bodied young boys were diving off into the water gleefully. They acted as guides to avoid the slippery stones and we paddled in the silvery streams. Sedate young maidens washed clothes and posed bashfully for snaps. With digital cameras one has the satisfaction of showing them the snaps instantly, instead of making empty promises to send them later.
The normal itinerary of any tourist visiting Kumbakonam starts predawn and includes at least a score of must-see temples. Not doing it the been- there-seen-it way does relax the mind.
After a sumptuous lunch we went to find Darasuram. Darasuram didn’t figure in the lists of must-visit -temples in Kumbakonam given to us. It’s not a living temple but one preserved as a Heritage building by UNESCO.
Green lawns, wire fencing, spotlights, a clean deserted look, and the precision of the outer walls are the hallmarks of a Heritage building. Work is always in progress in some part with numbered blocks and pillars scattered around.
Although the temple was supposed to be closed for lunch, we were allowed inside and a well-informed guide took us around, pointing out the minute sculpture on each pillar of the 100-pillared hall. One can get satiated with statues, especially in the heat. More people wandered in but the guide wasn’t letting us go. We did get to see all the major carvings in spite of ourselves.
There is something about temples dedicated to Mariamman that draws hordes of villagers. It must be history. Hinduism is said to have inculcated the gods and goddesses of the original people who lived in the Deccan plateau, thereby sweeping these people into its folds. But the old faith must remain in their hearts.
Samayapuram, near Trichy draws them in hundreds and thousands with its gigantic, brilliantly dressed fierce Mariamma. Being a rich temple, the additional statues glitter in brass, but are safely kept out of reach in glass cases. Otherwise in some time honoured ritual, worshippers tend to douse them with rock salt.
The leisurely journey through the countryside is so soothing. Everywhere there are shades of green – refreshing instead of the numbing variations of a shade card. Dark groups of trees line the horizon. Fresh green ripples in the fields. Near the road are thorny scrub bushes in a dusty green. In-between plants in shades of grayish-green lightened up by pink flowers.
Neat squares of land are asymmetrically laid out. Some are covered in water reflecting the grey skies and the lone tree on the edge. In some a white bird stands still. Some are covered closely with fresh green seedlings. In others, the spacing out process has begun. Only a few people are out, bent over as they thin out the seedlings, working in ankle deep water. Little black goats frisk around on ridges. A few scrawny cows wander disconsolately. A little shelter guards some buried soul who couldn’t be parted from his land. This is paddy country
A temple tour seems a good way to spend family holiday when everyone is in the mood. And you don’t have very young children along. Temple going is something that grows with age for a few people, or comes suddenly on others. But when everything goes right, the good feel and the memories stay for a long long while.
Posted on zine5.com on December5,2006