Monday 15 January 2007


Our car is luckily a roomy Ambassador, the classic Indian car. They are heavy monsters and I dread to think how much petrol they consume. The driver doesn’t speak a word of English (a pity – we miss Basha’s little nuggets of information) and drives like a maniac. He goes right up to the vehicle in front and attempts to overtake even when there is a bus careering towards us. When he wants to turn right, he turns right – and the oncoming traffic swerves to one or the other side of him. That is how most people drive here, but he takes it to extremes.

After an hour of negotiating Pondicherry traffic, we drove along a highway (definition of a road with fewer potholes…) to our first destination, Chidambaran. Our first impressions were not promising: the usual mad, noisy traffic and smells, but as one of the Belgians said to her friend, if you reacted to these first impressions and headed out of town, you would never see India.

It was a particularly hot, enervating day, so we started by collapsing in the most promising restaurant in town. No English spoken, but we gathered that since it was Pongal, the menu at my hotel (Saradharm) was rice – or rice. At least Claire and I had some lunch; the two Belgians had not been able to find anywhere open in the town.

One problem with temple touring is that they tend to be closed between 12 and 4, so Claire and I filled the time with a stroll round the town. Once you get off the main traffic arteries, the town immediately assumes a different ambience. It was much calmer, the houses were extremely poor, usually little more than shacks with thatched roofs (even a tall stone temple had a thatched roof, curious since we reckoned that underneath the roof was stone too). The people were, as usual in Tamil Nadu, extremely friendly, and one man rescued us when a cow with a crumpled horn decided to charge us (didn’t know that cows were xenophobic). There were temples everywhere and lots of houses have their own personal temple, invariably decorated in lurid colours. We passed a huge tank, with carved bulls on the walls. I wish I knew about the history of these tanks, whether they were simply water supplies or whether they have some religious significance.

Now it was time to head for the Sabhanayaka Temple complex. This is a 55-acre site, with four giant gopuras (gateways) in its surrounding wall. At first sight these are a little disappointing: they appear to be entirely covered in what Rough Guide described somewhere as “Disneyland accretions”. These in your face, voluptuous luridly coloured figures (eighteenth century or later?) do take some getting used to. But then we saw that the lower storeys, up to about 5 metres, were still covered in the original, more restrained, Cholan statues of about the tenth century. The statues were worn, but still beautiful.

Inside there is a gigantic outer circle, with a large tank, and several temples, a middle courtyard and at the centre the third, most holy place. Walking round the outer circle was quite tiring, we had already had to leave our shoes outside and the ground was quite pebbly (remind me next time to train barefeet on rough ground before going to India).

We went into one of the temples, devoted to Parvati, Shiva’s wife. The shrine was guarded by rather fierce looking young priests, with white loin cloths, stripped to the waist, and their hair in top knots. They demanded that we sign the visitors’ book which indicates the size of donations of other visitors. Luckily Guide Routard had warned me to deduct a zero from the amounts fabricated in the book. The priests accepted our 20 rupees with bad grace. We are becoming accustomed to the dark interiors of Cholan temples and their generally run-down feeling, but I do like the carved columns, which are basically square in contrast to the European round ones. I particularly liked the roof of this temple, which had some excellent sixteenth century friezes, side by side with some horrible, lurid 20th century ones.

We then passed through the middle circle into the inner sanctuary, for a memorable experience of intense religious fervour. The three most important Hindu gods are Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Sabhanayaka Temple is the most important in India for the Shaivites (Shiva worshippers), identifiable by the horizontal stripes painted on their foreheads. These gods have a confusing number of identities and Shiva is also Nataraja, Lord of the Dance – and as this is the main temple of Nataraja, many of the carvings here depict dancing figures.

Curiously the first temple we came to in this inner sanctuary was actually dedicated to Vishnu. As we arrived there was a bustle of priests rushing around and bells clanging, the sign that some sort of ritual was being performed. The crowd surged towards the shrine, the men in particular praying fervently. We could also hear the chanting of ancient Tamil verses.

People spend their time lighting the equivalent of the Catholic candles in front of the many shrines within a temple. They seem to either buy little pots already prepared with a central wick and what looks like melted wax, or to produce a length of wick from their bag and make their own.

As we passed to other bits of the inner sanctuary, we came across one of the Belgian women sitting quietly on a step, doing a sketch/water colour. She does this as her visual blog in each temple she visits and you would think that this was a way of quietly melting into the background. But no, there was a non-stop stream of passers by – adults as well as children – who stopped in front of her, peering transfixed at her canvas.

The main shrine (which we could not get near to because of the crowd) has images of Nataraja and his consort, and behind them a curtain hiding some sort of (invisible) symbol of the basic elements of life (fire, water etc) and also an actual crystal which the priests bathe in oil several times a day. We knew that 6pm was the time for one of these rituals, and indeed the temple was filling up rapidly. We chose a quiet discreet (we thought) corner to sit and observe.

We noticed that a lot of the men here seemed to have fat Buddha-like stomachs, in contrast to the predominantly very thin Indian population, and debated the reason. Was it over-eating? A heavy rice diet? Or a genetic disorder??

One woman, accompanied by an older priest, stopped to chat to us. She told us she was from Chennai and doing a doctorate on this temple. When I asked about the priests, she said they were of course Brahmins and trained for seven years, during which time they learn by heart extremely lengthy ancient Tamil verses (which we could hear as one of the background noises as we passed through this and other temples). They could only perform puja on behalf of devotees once they were married.

At 6pm priests suddenly rushed around and there was a sudden explosion of sound: the giant bells (just behind us!) began to swing causing a relentless, deafening ear-splitting noise, a huge rattle in front of the shrine was being rotated, there were bells everywhere, priests chanting and lighting torches and doing some sort of rituals around the various figures in the shrine, people praying, some intoning verses, others prostrating themselves. The men seem to press forward in front of the shrine, with the woman praying more discreetly behind. Electric lights attached to the ancient Cholan columns were flashing.

We were overwhelmed by the charged atmosphere, much of it incomprehensible to us two doubters. The Hindus sure do beat the Catholics at this game of ritual!

As we left many of the devotees were settling on the ground within the temple complex for family picnics. Claire and I adjourned to my hotel for a delicious supper (although I chose ginger chicken, which turned out to be too hot for me, so we did a swap!). We decided this was a clean restaurant and took the risk of indulging ourselves in kulfi malai, the Indian ice cream I so loved in Edinburgh. It was delicious.

Once again I had chosen well: my hotel cost 475 for the night (a little over five quid). We have come to the conclusion there is a significant jump in quality if you pay that extra 100 or so rupees. Neither the Belgians’ nor Claire’s were anyway near as comfortable as mine and their mosquito count was higher.

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