As we make our way through the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in south India, famous for its thousands of Hindu temples, my questions about Hindu religion, mythology and its customs continue to grow, such as; ‘Who and why are there 33 million gods?’, ‘How do you choose which god to worship?’ and ’why does Ganesh have an elephant head?’……
Our Hindu temple trail starts in Mysore, famous for its essential oils. Chamundeshwari Hill temple is set high above the city and is dedicated to Shiva, one of the three main gods in the Hindu religion. Shiva ( who is blue) is the ‘destroyer of evil things’ and Chamundeshwari temple seems to be a popular place! Enthusiastic Hindus line up to make offerings of fruit, flowers and spices and in return receive a blessing from the priest. It all seems a bit quick and mechanised for something so holy! We learn from our guide that all Hindu gods have ‘vehicles’, usually animals or birds, which transport them from place to place. Shiva’s vehicle is a bull, so this temple is adorned with bulls, in addition to many statues of Shiva.
We are back in the bus passing fields of rice, sugar cane, coconuts and palms. Dotted along the roadside there are brightly painted houses, wandering cows and shacks selling coconuts, chai and Indian snacks. We arrive at Keshava temple, built in 1268 but defaced by the mogul army some hundred years later. Invading armies would chop the noses and arms of all the statues in a temple. This was considered as a great insult and these temples were no longer seen as fit to worship in and are now referred to as ‘dead monuments’. Keshava temple was dedicated to Vishnu, the ‘operator’ god and was built using an interlocking system of soapstone. It took 500 sculptors 68 years to carve the temple and it boasts over 6000 individual statues. The carvings are stunning. Every detail of Hindu mythology have been meticulously etched into the stone. Our guide, Jacob shows us some interesting carvings depicting scenes from the karmasutra, which back in its day was considered as THE sex textbook. Inside 3 statues of Vishnu, roof carvings depicting the opening of the lotus flower and 16 magnificent columns, created with help from elephants and horses are housed. This temple lives up to its reputation as ‘the Island of art’.
On the south east coast of India, Pondicherry, a previous French colony sits in the Bay of Bengal. We visit a temple dedicated to Ganesh, the Elephant God, considered to be the remover of obstacles. He is the son of Shiva and Parvati (who has 4 arms). Apparently, Ganesh lost his head in a case of mistaken identity (this seems to be a common theme in Hindu mythology!). His father then asked an elephant to donate his head, thus the elephant headed god, Ganesh was created. There is an elephant outside the temple. Inside it is colourful and crowded with curious tourists and eager Hindus queuing for a blessing. The walls of the temple are adorned with the stories of Ganesh and his family. I like Ganesh, he seems a cheery chap, removing all those obstacles!
Finally, we reach Madurai, an ancient city of 3 million, famous for Shree Meenakshi Temple, dedicated to the goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva. This temple is remarkable. Five outer towers stretch to the sky and are full of blue, green and red statues of Hindu gods, goddesses and mythological creatures. More than 10,000 people visit daily. When we visit in the early evening there are around 2-3 thousand people in the vast halls. Some have come to celebrate an engagement, some to pray for new life and some to make Pongal (dish of cooked rice with milk and jaggary) to celebrate and receive blessings for the birth of a new baby. The pilgrims from Kerala are here, dressed in long black dhotis. They are fasting for 45 days (one meal a day, no meat, sex, alcohol or tobacco). They spend 10 days praying and receiving blessings at many temples across southern India. Inside this temple it is a mirror of daily life in India. Its busy, colourful and full of families sharing food and celebrating life. The scent of jasmine and incense drifts across the halls.
I ask Usha about the 33 million gods. ‘They are all relatives of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, or are one of their numerous incarnations’ she says. Every god is the god of something…… luck, money, knowledge, patience, bravery, patience, remover of obstacles, etc, etc. You can make offerings to any of these gods, although usually there is one ‘family god’, which has been passed down through many generations. I guess this is not so different in our western culture, where many have turned to a god of their own choosing, As I sit on the steps of the pool at the centre of Shree Meenakshi temple, the mother of all temples, I choose the god of peace, love and adventure, wherever he may be……?