[top: The breathtaking pillars at the Sri Jambukeshwara Temple.]
By John Tiong
IT sounds like a pilgrimage - travelling by bus over 1,000km in 2.5 days to visit four temples, the sacred river Kaveri and a 2,000-year-old dam in Tamil Nadu, India.
Wearing the vibuthi mark - that declared us as Hindus (though we were not) - on our foreheads, we gained access to the sacred sanctums of the temples.
Elsewhere, policemen with machine guns greeted us as it was barely three weeks after the Mumbai terrorist attacks that shook the world late last year.
The atmosphere at the temples was tense. In Madurai, we were refused entry to the Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple because one of us was carrying a laptop. The policewoman finally relented when an officer convinced her that we were guests of Tamil Nadu Tourism. But the hour-long argument left us with very little time to see the temple thoroughly. Moreover, it was a Friday and the temple closed at 4pm.
The white and green dome of a
mosque brightens up the skyline in
otherwise dreary Tiruchirapalli.
Though I entered the sacred shrines at almost every temple we visited, I didn't do so at Meenakshi because the large crowd waiting to get in proved rather overwhelming.
Everyday, over 10,000 Hindus visit this temple which is dedicated to Lord Shiva (incarnated as Sundareshvara) and his consort Parvati (in the form of Meenakshi).
On the temple grounds, I saw a big statue of a calf in a sitting position with its face turned to the main shrine. This was nandi, a heavenly creature that was said to have carried Shiva around. Hindus often whisper their wishes in nandi's ear so that it would relay them to Shiva.
Devotees lit lamps and placed them in a receptacle at the shrine where there was a smaller nandi statue. In the back was a linga, a spiral image that Hindus believed represented Lord Shiva.
A museum in the temple grounds had statues of the various Hindu gods, especially the various manifestations of Shiva. The central figure was Lord Nataraja (as Shiva, the God Of Dance). There were paintings as well as exotic sculptures of heavenly nymphs.
One particularly stimulating section features ivory carvings of gods and goddesses in dance as well as other more suggestive postures.
Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, all the gopurams (gate towers) of Meenakshi Sundareshvara Temple had been thatched for restoration works.
There are 12 colourful gopurams which, like most gopurams in India, feature a multitude of Hindu gods and sacred animals. The tallest gopuram at the main entrance is 52m high.
On the west side of the temple is the Golden Lotus Tank with stepped banks and a tall brass lamp. It is surrounded by a colonnade with ingenious wall murals of the earthly adventures of Lord Shiva. The ceilings feature circular floral medallions.
We had the least problems getting into Jambukeshwara Temple, which we visited barely two hours after touching down in Tiruchirapalli or Trichy as it was more fondly referred to.
To reach the temple, our bus passed through roads and lanes with lots of potholes - November and December are wet months.
The roads were packed with yellow tut-tuts, motorcycles, old and new cars and packed buses as well as cows and goats strolling leisurely along.
I was stricken by the sight of women from the lower castes collecting rubbish and loading them on a cart. The whole scene looked like a page from V.S. Naipaul's India, A Wounded Civilisation, brought to life.
There were statues at road intersections of historical figures who had contributed to the development of India, like the one of a seated Gandhi wearing a dhoti and reading a book.
The town centre looked like a shanty town as most of the buildings were old. Most of the colour came from temples with towering gopurams, mosques with huge domes and the tall Belgian gothic roof of the Lourdes Church.
The poorer parts of town looked even more depressing. Some grocery stores were nothing more than tiny huts in which oversized owners sat, waiting for customers. One store owner had bottled drinks hanging on the walls of his tiny shop!
Some outlets served coffee, tea and roti prata but our guide Rajan advised us to avoid such eateries in unhygienic surroundings. Sound advice indeed as, on the bus rides in Trichy and Madurai, we saw men simply lifting their dhotis and peeing on the roadside, with scant regard for women passers-by. There was even an open-air toilet.
We didn't try any of the food and drinks but I had a hot coffee outside the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple and at a roadside stall in Madurai. These tasted good and cost only 50 sen. Best of all, I didn't have a stomach upset after.
Lights at the Nandi facing the main
shrine of the Meenakshi
Sri Jambukeshwara Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, impressed us with its different sized columns, a startling example of Dravidian architectural symmetry. We were particularly fascinated with a pavilion adorned with shapely heavenly nymphs or apsaras.
The ancient shrine was a dimly-lit and damp stone enclave. The priests chanted as we filed by to look at the sacred linga (a phallic symbol representing Shiva), a natural formation discovered here in ancient times.
Like all ancient Hindu temples, mystery envelops the origins of Sri Jambukeshwara. It was said to have started as a small shrine when the linga was found.
The shrine was expanded upon by the successive rulers of Tamil Nadu especially the Cholas, Pallavas and Pandyas who sought the blessings of the Hindu Trinity Gods of Vishnu (Preserver), Brahma (Creator) and Shiva (Destroyer).
I was given flowers by the priests and I took vibuthi from a tray to place on my forehead. Some devotees placed donations on the tray as thanksgiving.
Temples in India are like large caves with specific enclaves, some dimly lit for their gods and goddesses. The many deities, like Shiva, Sundareshvara or Nataraja, are actually reincarnations of the same God through the ages.
According to the Vedas (ancient scriptures), Buddha was Vishnu in his second last reincarnation. Vishnu had also taken the forms of Krishna and Rama and would be reincarnated as Kalki before the end of this cycle of the world.
Temples are also a favourite haunt of beggars who hang around the entrances as well as along the corridors leading to the various shrines.
At the Rock Fort Temple, we saw men placing long rows of banana leaves on the floor. Food would be served later. The temple provides 200 free lunches daily for the poor.
At Sri Jambukeshwara, we saw large piles of clothing donated by the wealthy.
World's Oldest Dam
During the height of their power from the 9th to 12th Century, the Cholas controlled much of the Indian Ocean and invaded the Sri Vijaya Empire, the precursor of the Malacca and Johor Empires in the Malay Archipelago.
Many of the kings were able rulers. King Karikalan, for instance, is remembered for the dam that he built 2,000 years ago and which still functions today.
The Kallanai or Grand Anicut was constructed out of stone to divert water to irrigate the fertile Kaveri delta, particularly the Thanjavur district.
The dam was further expanded both by the British and the Indian governments and now operates on electricity. A beautiful white and blue bridge has been constructed over the dam, enhancing its appearance.
A statue of Karikalan mounted on a white horse at the entrance of the dam greeted visitors while a colourful statue of former Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran in traditional garb stood in a park about five minutes away.
The park is a favourite weekend spot for locals, particularly those who love fishing. A little wall at the river bank indicates the flood levels over the last few decades.
Rock Fort Temple
It is simply amazing. Twenty years ago, I climbed the 272 steps leading to the Batu Caves Temple in Kuala Lumpur and was so tired after the effort. But I was not even panting when I reached the top of Rock Fort Temple in Trichy - a climb of 423 rocky steps.
Dedicated to Lord Ganesh (Elephant God), the temple sits on an 80-metre stone outcrop. The reward at the end of the climb is a circular space with a 360-degree panoramic view of the city.
The Rock Fort Temple also houses a Shiva temple on the lower outcrop which I didn't enter as a sign outside read: For Hindus Only.
In one of the enclaves on the way up, an elaborate old wall stone carvings was a supreme example of artwork from a long gone era.
In Srirangam, an island in Trichy, is the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, dedicated to Vishnu (The Preserver). The two parts are connected by a large bridge that offers a panoramic view of Kaveri.
To see the extent of this largest temple complex in the world, we climbed to the top of a building in the fourth wall enclosure from where we could see that the temple complex was as big as a town, with seven walled-in enclosures beginning with one for the poor and beggars, a second for chettiar traders while Brahmins are in the third, fourth and fifth sections. There are 21 grand gopurams, the tallest of which is 73m. This forms the main entrance.
One gopuram is white in colour, in memory of those killed while defending their land from the attack of the Moghuls in the 14th Century. A gold top sanctum marks the most sacred area in the temple, barred to non-Hindus. The main shrine features Vishnu in a sleeping pose under a golden dome.
Hindus in north India bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges and Indus rivers while those in south India head for the Kaveri to cleanse themselves before making their way to the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Children as well as men and women can be seen bathing here, fully-clothed.
The river bank is known as Aman Madaman Ghat. On the opposite side is a place where the dead are cremated and their ashes scattered in the river. Groups of Brahmins can be seen seated here, chanting together with family of the deceased. There are several shrines, including one where devotees come to pray to the gods of the nine planets.
Barbers have set up businesses here too, to cut hair for men, a necessary rite after a death of an elder in the family.
AirAsia is the first Malaysian airline to fly direct to Tiruchirapalli. Since its inaugural flight on Dec 1, 2008, the response had been very encouraging, with a 100 per cent load in January. AirAsia offers flights every morning at 7.40am. For details, please visit airasia.com.
-The New Straits Times