Passing a temple

On the drive from Rameswaram to Madurai we passed a very large number of temples. Every village has a few temples, as does every neighbourhood in a small town. I would have liked to stop and look at the painted clay images decorating each one of them, but that would require a fully dedicated trip. Instead we chose to stop at one. This was a middle sized temple, probably dedicated to an aspect of Vishnu. I can’t read Tamil, so my guess is entirely based on the iconography that I saw.

The main entrance opened to the east, as usual. The gate was closed, but this hardly mattered because the temple lacked a northern boundary wall. I walked in through the opening and took a closer look at the dwarapalas. The friendly looking warriors were supposed to be strong enough for horses to rest their weights on them. Sages and women sheltered under the horses. If you dared to pass between them, then two benign dwarapalas invite you to ascend the steps to the door of the main temple.

Above each of these second rank of dwarapalas was an unidentifiable bird. Was it a pigeon, or a peacock, or a different pheasant? The white body spoke of a pigeon, but the beak and long tail was of a pheasant. The colourful feathery circle around it probably denoted a peacock. The artist had given himself the freedom to use any colour he liked. Why be a slave to nature?

Above the lintel of the door were the traditional symbols of peace, prosperity and good health rendered in clay: a coconut with a swastika painted on it, standing on a pot (kalasha). I didn’t pay attention to this elsewhere, but I would guess that a similar decoration would stand above the doors of most modern south Indian temples. At the base of the arch over these are two of my favourite motif: the mythical makara.

Right on top of the entrance were the figures you see above. This was what clued me in to the purpose of the temple. The god whose feet rests on a lotus is probably Vishnu. I don’t recognize the symbol in his hand, so I can’t be sure. My north Indian eyes probably missed several cues here. But the two aspects of his consort Lakshmi, each holding a lotus, are unmistakable. The elephants next to her denote that she appears as gajalakshmi, symbolizing prosperity. I was happy to see another makara head here.

The flat roof of the temple requires water spouts. Older temples had peaked roofs, so spouts were not needed to help rain water to run off. As a result, no Indian equivalent of gargoyles were invented. Today’s temple architecture could easily co-opt fish, or even makara for this purpose. I guess something will eventually emerge, but for now there are simple unadorned pipes. I liked the Ganesha statue positioned above it.

There was a small peaked shikhara above the roof. As in all Tamil temples, it was extremely well decorated. The central icon of Ram faces east, and the corners are taken up by fierce warriors. The one facing me had a benign look on his face. I found the elephants quite charming.

Further on the south wall I saw a clay icon of Krishna. Note the difference in skin colour between him and Ram. The person next to him must be his consort Radha. I liked the smiles on their faces. Contrast this with the expression on the face or Ram. There is a clear separation between the two aspects of Vishnu.

Above the warrior on the south wall, armed with his mace and heavy sword, looms another icon of a makara. This one has tusks, like the makara which appear on the pillars of the Ramanathaswamy temple. One day I will travel around Asia taking photos of how the makaras transform across the continent. But this is not that story.


A neighbourhood temple

In 2006 we drove into Puducherry on Independence Day. In the evening we walked around the town and came across a small neighbourhood temple. I stopped to look at the people inside. There was no crowd. Passersby would drop in, pray, and leave. It was just a neighbourhood convenience. I liked the whole atmosphere. People didn’t seem to mind me standing at the entrance and taking photos.

I’m used to the plain and simple temples of north India. In the south temples are always well-decorated. Stone may be too expensive for these small modern temples, but the gopuram, the tower over the gate, will be full of layers and layers of figures. The featured photo shows some of the plaster statuary from this temple. I love these bright colours.

An old temple

It was clear that I was looking at something that I did not have a complete grasp of. The structure in the middle of the village was important: it was the middle after all, and it was isolated from the huts around it. There was even a nice little modern Hindu temple which kept its distance. And, more than anything else, right next to this structure was a really tall tree, stripped of everything but the leaves right at the top. This was the tallest structure in the village.

There were a couple of older men nearby, but they spoke a thick dialect of Hindi which I couldn’t quite follow. My only source of information was Dev, who is from the region, but who tended to oversimplify things for me. He said it was a temple, and the tall pole was a tree which was brought and planted into the ground here once every year. He pointed out the previous year’s tree which was lying at the edge of the green. Dev was a little vague about the nature of the deity. “Local god,” he explained. He was even more vague about the significance of the tree. Not being of the village, it is possible that he knew of the rituals, but not the reason they were performed.

The temple was built on a sturdy platform at about the height of my head. Stairs showed that the entrance was from the direction of the red-roofed shed. Above the entrance was the emblem of the snake which you see in the featured photo. That indicated that this could indeed be dedicated to a local god, with a very local significance. The pillars which held up the roof were nicely carved, and had been painted not too far back. Dev had wandered off. I was quite alone here, and lost, with no idea what this was about. As you can imagine, there is nothing on the web about it either.

Delhi to Chandigarh: highway kitsch

For most of the distance between Delhi and Chandigarh, you would follow National Highway 44. It turns out that this is the highway of kitsch. Finding a three-headed dragon in a parking lot, I asked The Young Niece whether it was from Harry Potter. The answer was definitely “No. Harry Potter only has a three headed dog.” This was a friendly dragon, and probably not called Fluffy. She posed under the dragon with an ice cream cone in her hand (which did not melt under its hot breath).

Much before that, before we had left the gravitational attraction of Delhi, we passed this wonderfully kitschy temple. The dwarapala of classic temple architecture have been replaced by giant statues of Ram and Hanuman. I took the photo as our car flew down the highway. Later, looking at the picture I was not sure whether the structure just behind the dwarapala is a dhaba or a temple. The triple spired structure behind the cube is definitely a temple, but, going by the signboards, the cube is probably a dhaba.

Our flight had landed in Delhi just after ten, and now it was getting to be time for lunch. The distance between the airport in Delhi and the center of Chandigarh can be covered in about four and a half hours, not counting a halt for food. The road is lined with dhabas, but most are empty of clients. It seems that opening a roadside eatery is a popular business, but not one which is highly remunerative. All the crowds seem to stop at places which are full of kitsch like the three-headed dragon.

That dhaba also had toilets which were guarded by these statues in armour: another touch which was right out of an alternate world Harry Potter. “Of course,” I told The Family, “in this part of the world it has to be Hari Puttar.” Reassured, I walked into the clean loo. The Lotus tried to put forward a different theory of the origins of these statues, but I think the Hari Puttar story is too colourful to be wrong.

Even the divider between the states of Haryana and Punjab is kitschy. Just after Amabala (or before, if you are coming from Chandigarh) is this amazing state border. The highway passed below a complicated arch with the name of the state written on it in large friendly letters. On the divider was a tall pole holding up something which looked like a conch shell disguised as a submarine. Some day in the future all this might look like classic art. I wonder what the kitsch of that time might be.

Temple and Church in Kerala

The little village of Thattekad had a small church on the road close to the beginning of the Salim Ali trail. I’d seen churches like these elsewhere in Kerala. The architectural grammar is close to that of a temple. The ground plan is not a cross like the churches of Europe. Rather, there is a little tower directly over the chapel. There are sloping roofs to direct rain away from the building. Most such churches have a steep cap of a roof standing atop the tower. The flat terrace of this one was a little unusual to my eye. Maybe I’ll see more such if I travel again in Kerala. It looked like an inviting place where a worshipper could duck in, say a quick prayer, and be on her way in a short while.

The Siva temple down the road, next to the Periyar river was a much more grand affair. The tall flag pole (called dwajastambam) stands above all other structures. In large roofed open structure in front of it is the mukha mandapam where, I imagine, devotees will sit during a festival. The main temple, namaskara mandapam, can be seen beyond it. The pyramidal roof of the namaskara mandapam looks like the temple interior is pretty large. The rest of the structure looks a little sketchy. The mukha mandapam is like an open shed, and the elaborate gopuram of most temples is replaced by a simple cast iron gate. Perhaps this is still work in progress.