Of forced temple trips from a '90s childhood, and witnessing faith that moves mountains
'Around 1993, my father was posted to Tiruchirappalli, from where most of Tamil Nadu was easily accessible as were its many historic temples,' writes Meera Ganapathi in this personal essay. 'He took it upon himself to make us ditch our Amar Chitra Kathas for an authentic experience of history.'
The wet scent of a temple elephant, roughly hewn toys snug inside a straw box, a bat flapping against a frescoed ceiling, the cool green of a communal pond… These are some of the associations I’ve made with the temples from my childhood. The good associations, that is.
The not-so-good ones came back when I found a series of sullen-faced photographs of my brothers and me from the early ‘90s. While their frowns are fixed, the brackets around my smiling mouth fade with each successive photograph. Even I, “the girl who ate all her vegetables”, had found reason to be annoyed. The cause of this annoyance looms ancient and glorious in the background of all these photos — a temple.
Summer vacations then were made of a patchwork of places, each with their own defining memory. With extended family members posted across the country, we spent April and May wandering through the compact marigold gardens of RK Puram in Delhi, watching peacocks in the backyard of our cousins’ home in Faizabad, buying things we didn’t need at Crawford Market in South Bombay and digging our hands into the thick sand of Besant Nagar beach in Madras. In these photos, my brothers’ faces are brimming with mischief and I am my usual vegetable-consuming self. But we are all our own version of delighted.
Around 1993, my father was posted to Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, a bustling commercial centre where life throbbed around a 3,800 million-year-old rock, on which stands the 7th century Ucchi Pillayar temple. The temple has 344 steps cut into the rock, at the end of which comes Ganesha and also a tiny, barred window through which you could see the city spread out for miles in empty plots and squat houses, bustling markets and rows of coconut trees.
From Trichy, most of Tamil Nadu was easily accessible as were its many historic temples. And my father took it upon himself to make us ditch our Amar Chitra Kathas for an authentic experience of history. With that, a portion of our beloved summer vacations changed for quite a while.
At 6 am, we’d shuffle sleepy-eyed into a blue Ambassador with comforting velvety seats and windows that rolled only halfway down. Yawning and grumbling, we’d set off to visit important temples in the nearby towns and cities of Tanjore, Madurai, Chidambaram, Kumbakonam and so on.
The drive was always beautiful. I’d peek out of those half-windows to watch the gopuram of the Srirangam temple slowly fade away, signalling the end of the city and the beginning of lush paddy fields. With picnic lunches of tamarind or lemon rice and soft idlis generously coated in mullagai podi, there was little to complain about. I don’t remember any songs, but do have a vivid image of my mother sniffing a lemon to overcome her motion sickness.
It sounds fairly idyllic, so why did we never appreciate it?
I recently posted this sullen-faced temple excursion photo on Instagram, recalling this childhood misery that I thought was unique to my family. But the reactions to the photo told me that we weren’t alone in this. A stream of personal accounts flooded my DM, with similar stories of enforced temple-visits during the ‘90s. While the children of today are packed off to resorts and foreign holidays, for many who grew up in the ‘90s, temples were the only spots to go sightsee. Amusement parks were accessible to kids who grew up in metros, for the rest of us, it was either temples or picnics, dams and waterfalls. However, with India’s growing exposure to consumer culture, and with Pepsi and cable TV foremost on our minds, history was unlikely to move us. When our favourite show featured a girl-shaped robot in a red dress, how could we be expected to look anywhere but ahead?
More practically, I personally disliked it because trudging through a hot and often poorly maintained temple in the peak of south Indian summers sounded like punishment.
I visited Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman temple as an adult for the first time only three years ago. A friend, who is also a cultural guide, accompanied us on a walk where we learnt the history of the streets that surround this glorious temple. With each street named after a month and identified by professions, a complex and intricate temple-centric culture has thrived here for centuries. As a child however, I only remember leaving my sandals in the car to hop gingerly across the hot street to enter a temple that seemed alarmingly dirty to me.
Discarded flower baskets, soggy plastic wrappers and the detritus of worship lay everywhere. When I looked at the pillars, I was surprised to see lumps of butter grow in rash-like profusion on one of the temple sculptures. Bright, synthetic paint had replaced the earthy colour scheme of the original murals on the walls. As scores of worshippers jostled one another in the line to catch a glimpse of the goddess, I barely remember seeing her at all.
Despite my disappointment, I begged to be blessed by the temple elephant and tried not to look at the heavy chain that trapped this gentle creature. As the elephant’s wet, heavy trunk thumped down on my bowed head, I felt the trip was worth at least some of the trouble.
Now with enough curiosity about the temple’s history, I know that the “rash-like lumps of butter” were to pacify the goddess Kali — a slightly murky tradition that goes back 700 years. In my enthusiasm to see the main deity, I also missed the beautiful myths that surround the three-breasted Amman. Not to mention the many other details that make the temple fascinating — right from its 1,000 pillars, its lotus-shaped plan to the fact that this is one of the few temples in the world where the goddess is worshipped before male deities.
Despite the rampant ‘R loves L’ sort of writing I saw scrawled by romantic vandals across ancient walls, stripping them off their imperiousness, each temple had a distinct personality. But the one that lingers most in my memory is Gangaikonda Cholapuram in Thanjavur. The temple is built on acres of grass and set apart by a magnificent but shy-looking Nandi who sits gentle and doe-eyed, facing the inner sanctum. The Nandi sculpture and the graceful figures half-emerging from cool, weathered stone endeared the temple to me. It didn’t feel unreachable and imposing like Brihadeeswara, or chaotic and confusing like Meenakshi Amman. It felt like a place where we could lie in the grass and rest our feet.
Years later, I felt that way again when I visited Fatehpur Sikri in Agra as a Fine Arts student on a college trip. Maybe it was our guide, who spoke in Hindi to us and slipped butter-smooth into French for the white tourists. He painted a vivid picture of Akbar playing hide and seek with Jodha in every nook of the palace courtyard. Or maybe it was the fact that I could admire the lace-like patterns carved from red sandstone with an art student’s eye. I saw various other Mughal monuments on that trip, some far more beautiful, but only Fatehpur Sikri is imprinted in my mind as not just a place I visited but a feeling I came away with.
When I look back on the years of these temple visits — the early ‘90s — I realise that as children we were only dimly aware of the communal storm that was raging across north India. In 1992, a mosque was demolished to make way for a temple in a communal agenda so hateful that its political repercussions continue to shape our nation’s history to this day.
These days I’m no longer inclined to openly proclaim how I have begun to love visiting temples. Because with each passing year I watch temples being conveniently politicised to establish control — the latest example being the case involving Netflix’s A Suitable Boy. And I don’t wish to associate any part of what I feel with the blind, religious fervour that’s espoused by the fundamentalists and their bot armies.
But how can I allow a fanatic’s hatred to taint how I feel when I watch an old woman in a blue sari decorate the temple floor in swirls of kolam that remind me of jangiris?
Or what I felt one day when the driver of the blue Ambassador, a Mr Aiyyannar, led us to a lesser-known Mariamman temple?
The Amman in this temple was believed to miraculously cure physical ailments but I was annoyed with this unnecessary detour. When I entered, I sat close to the sanctum, hot and bored out of my wits when I noticed a tiny boy, shrunken further in size by extreme physical deformities. His limbs were stick-thin and too short, his legs were bowed and his head was misshapen. I now know that his condition is called Phocomelia, but as a child I felt wrenched and broken for the boy who played quietly by his mother’s lap. When I looked up to see his mother’s face I was startled. She sat staring rapturously at the Amman before her and the intensity of her gaze was such that I couldn’t bring myself to look anymore. It felt like I was walking into a private prayer.
When I remember this mother from the Mariamman temple, and all the people who buy plastic limbs, eyes and houses at Mt Mary Church in Bandra, Mumbai, for their very specific prayers, I realise why I feel inexplicably drawn to these places. It isn’t religion or piety that pulls me there. It isn’t a pretentious academic interest or a hollow-eyed appreciation of architecture either. It’s because most of these old corridors brim with a faith so thick and stubborn, that it is impossible not to be moved by it.
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