Perhaps the biggest drawcard for visitors to Tamil Nadu are the major temple towns and cities of the state. The Cauvery Delta which lies near the centre of the state and extending to the coast, has long been the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu and many of the great dynasties of Tamil history had their bases in this region.
The area between Trichy, Tanjore and Madurai has a wealth of temples which are as varied as they are beautiful. From the massive temple complex at Srirangam (adjacent to Trichy) to the wondrous UNESCO World-Heritage listed structures at Tanjore, Gangaikondacholapuram and Darasuram right through to small village temples which combine elements of Hinduism with ancient animist beliefs, the variety of sacred sites in this part of Tamil Nadu is astounding. While it is not possible for non-Hindus to visit the inner sanctums of all the temples, local people are never less than welcoming- time spent in the courtyard of one of the large temples may see you leaving with invitations to people's homes and at the very least a bevy of new friends.
Temples are of great spiritual importance to the Tamil people, but there is little hint of piety in any aspect of their worship, or their use of sacred places. The temple is so much more than a holy place in any Tamil town, village or city; it is a social hub, a meeting place and, in some cases, a place to live. A great example of this is at Srirangam temple where the innermost sanctum is not significantly larger than elsewhere, yet the construction of 7 concentric outer walls over many centuries has seen the entire complex grow to something like 60 hectares - Srirangam is indeed a town in its own right and is home to several thousand inhabitants. At Madurai's famous Meenakshi temple, one entire colonnade has been turned into a market, while the area around the central golden-lotus tank doubles as a centre for networking and social contact as well as a being a place of great spiritual significance. It may be stating the obvious but the contrast between the hushed reverence of a European cathedral and the intense hubbub of a south Indian temple could hardly be more marked.
A special mention must be made of Tanjore's Brihadishwara Temple- known locally as the 'Big Temple'. This truly remarkable place celebrates its 1000th anniversary in 2010 and yet apart from the use of electric lights and amplification equipment, little would appear to have changed here since its original construction. The oft-told story of Brihadishwara includes mention of the 80-tonne boulder which sits atop the central sanctum tower. This rock was manoeuvred into position by elephants and the use of massive ramps of sand which stretched for some 6 kilometres into the (then surrounding) jungle. This truly stupendous feat of engineering still defies belief a thousand years on. If you are in Tanjore in the late afternoon, the temple is the place to be- the golden granite which makes up the temple seems to almost glow as it reflects the rays of the setting sun.
Smaller village temples are less remarked upon but they play a very important role- again often a dual one combining worship and more prosaic aspects of life- in the life of people outside of the major centres. In many places the origins of these temples are obscure or lost to history and we are left with a tantalising part-picture of their history. Animist beliefs are never too far from the surface in India and many of these have been incorporated into what are now more mainstream belief systems. Our drivers in Tamil Nadu all have favourite local places which they like to take their guests to and sharing their knowledge of these special, 'hidden' gems is a great thrill for them.
Yet another of the temple towns of Tamil Nadu is Tiruvannamalai. The vast Shiva temple here, and the sacred mountain, Arunachala, are among the most revered places of spiritual devotion in the south of India. Completing the 14km circuit of the mountain's base is considered to be of great spiritual benefit and a constant stream of people can be seen circling the road or inner path almost constantly. However, each month at full moon the regulartrickle of pilgrims becomes a veritable flood with estimates of the number of people completing the circuit during the 24 hours of full moon generally put at well over 100,000, more or less the population of the town of Tiruvannamalai. Once a year at Deepam, which falls during November or early December, the crowd which comes to circuit the mountain surpasses this number by a factor of five- yes, half a million people descending on the town.
These temples, great and small, are amazing places where on occasion time seems to stand still, where modern India is left outside the temple walls and the rituals which go on within are performed largely as they have been for centuries. The sheer devotion of the local people is a joy to behold and it is hard to leave any Tamil temple without a sense of connection to the divine.
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