The temples of South India offer unique pilgrimages that are voyages into faith, antique rituals and varied history. These temples are architectural marvels that
have withstood centuries of historical invasions.
The sculptures and friezes are testimony to the emperors who were patrons of temple arts and proof of the social, military and cultural milieu of the times. Even music in South India rose from its temples over 2000 years ago. Its evolution is linked to the hymns and compositions of many saints.
Here’s a look at some spiritual experiences you can seek from temples that have withstood the test of time.
BIG TEMPLE, THANJAVUR
Sit on the lawns in the temple complex, either in the early morning or just before dusk and gaze on the sculpted tower above the sanctum of Lord Brihadeswarar at the Big Temple. It’s an extraordinarily uplifting experience. The world falls away and you are alone in the infinite space that stretches upwards from the pinnacle of the massive granite tower and a remarkable example of Chola architecture. It is as if the tower is a vertical signpost to eternity.
RATHA BEEDI, SRI KRISHNA TEMPLE, UDUPI
While the devotee has a unique darshan of god Bala Krishna through a small metal window, the entire temple town and mutts carry a spiritual aura. It’s best felt during a stroll in the atmospheric Car Street or Ratha Beedi, making a pilgrimage to Udupi and its temple truly special.
MOONRISE AT KANYAKUMARI
Whether you are standing on the multi-coloured sands of the beachfront or on the terrace of a tall building nearby, the spectacle of the red sphere of the sun sinking in the western horizon and the silver disc of the moon appearing simultaneously in the eastern horizon is beautiful. After your darshan of goddess Kanyakumari walk to the coast and and watch the moon rise high above the calm waves.
DASERA FESTIVAL, CHAMUNDESHWARI TEMPLE, MYSORE
The air is celebratory during the nine-day Dasera Festival in Mysore. Led by the royal clan of the Wodeyars who first offer puja at the Chamundeshwari Temple.The festival begins with a procession of decorated elephants – a grand spectacle. On the last day of Vijayadasami the celebrations from the temple round off with a dazzling torchlight procession.
THE WEALTH OF TIRUPATI TEMPLE
The devotee’s offering is a symbolic contribution towards paying off the mammoth wedding loan Lord Balaji took to wed his consort, goddess Padmavati. Legends aside, the riches of Tirupati Temple, over INR 22 lakh daily in cash offerings alone by devotees, is staggering, not including the offerings in gold, silver and precious jewels. Halt by a large glass-walled hall where bags full of coins and currency notes are poured before temple officials who sort and count the monies. One look at the piles can make an onlooker understand why this temple is one of the richest in the world.
SINGING PADMANABHA’S PRAISES
The temple of Padmanabhaswamy offers the unique experience of seeing the 18-foot gigantic deity in the sanctum. Devotees move slowly past three golden doors to first see Vishnu’s head under the crown of the celestial serpent, Adishesha, then the navel of the deity, from which a lotus emanates, earning him his name, Padmanabha, and finally his feet. To divine the beauty of temple’s presiding deity, drop by Swathi Sangeethotsavam held in memory of King Swathi Thirunal, who composed and sang songs in praise of his beloved Padmanabha.
AARTI AT NATARAJA TEMPLE, CHIDAMBARAM
If one is lucky enough to attend the first abhishekam of the day (a little after dawn), the oblation to the small spadiga (crystal) lingam in the sanctum of Nataraja in Chidambaram is a special experience. Milk and curd, honey and coconut water, panchamirtham and sandalwood paste flow over the transparent contours of
the tiny lingam resting on its silver pedestal, while in the background the elegant forms of Nataraja and Shivakamasundari glow richly in the mellow light of the many oil lamps in the sanctum. Finally, when the curtain to the left parts briefly and the aarti flames light up the dark space of the Chidambara Rahasyam, punctuated by the glitter of the golden vilva leaves, even the most down-to-earth onlooker cannot help but be in awe.
KASHI OF THE SOUTH
We’re told a trip to the beautiful seaside Mahabaleshwara Temple of Gokarna is as rewarding as that of Vishwanath at Varanasi. You come close to believing that nature worship has a point while on a pilgrimage to this temple by the beach. The Atmalinga shrine is rife with legends, giving life to epic stories that have been retold time and again.
POORAM FESTIVAL, THRISSUR
Vadakkumnathan Temple and its neighbouring Paramekkavu and Thiruvambady Temples at Thrissur burst forth in a riot of colours and festivities during the Thrissur Pooram Festival. Elaborately caparisoned elephants, a grand procession with local musical ensembles and lakhs of devotees gather to witness the annual festivities at the temple’s Swaraj grounds. Do stay back to enjoy the fireworks that go on through the night.
The various art forms that emanate from them are proof that temples were museums of art. Krishnattam at the temple at Guruvayur is prayer as performance when traditional temple dancers daily don elaborate costumes and enact dramatic sequences from Vishnu’s life. The themes for the dances include birth, eternal tussle between evil and good, social and familial duties and salvation for the soul in the Singing Padmanabha’s Praises name of the Lord.