Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Guess The God

Some of the most interesting sights in India are its Hindu temples, from the ancient cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora to modern mandirs. The Hindu pantheon is full of colourful gods and fantastic legends of their exploits, scenes of which cover the walls of their temples. I've therefore devised a little game to amuse myself, where I try to guess the various deities on display and the associated stories. I'm not often successful but I'm getting better all the time as I learn more of the mythology. Still, I do manage to recognise Ganesha most of the time!

The southern state of Tamil Nadu, in particular, has some extraordinary temples. Older dynasties are represented by the monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram and the great Chola temple at Thanjavur. The latter's 70m central tower is topped by a dome made from a single stone which, because it weighs over 80 tonnes, required an earthen ramp 4 miles long to get it to the top! Tamil temples are usually characterised by their gopurams. These are gateways that are surmounted by huge, pyramidal towers. Every inch of these towers are covered in gods, demons, mythical beasts, heroes and anything else the sculptors happened to dream up, all painted in garishly bright blues, reds and greens. Two beautiful examples of gopurams are found at the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Tiruchchirapalli (it has the highest one in the world at 73m) and at the Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai, which I really enjoyed in no small part due to the continuous and slightly hypnotic mantra of Om Shiva resonating throughout the complex from the many loudspeakers (it probably had some subliminal message). Not only are the temples interesting architecturally, but I find it fascinating to see people carrying out their devotional duties. It is very different to services that one sees in churches and mosques which are usually led by priests and are very ordered. Here people come in and set about doing their little ceremonies (lighting candles, circumambulating statues, offering bananas to the resident elephant, throwing coconuts against a wall (honestly!)) in their own time. Temple complexes also seem to be places where people just come to relax and perhaps have a picnic in the cool shade.

From the previous paragraph you may also have noticed that there's an old proverb in Tamil that says: don't use two syllables when you can use six instead. OK, I did make that one up, but there is no escaping the fact that many of the place names are unnecessarily long and unpronounceable. Luckily Tiruchchirapalli is usually referred to as Trichy and Udhagamandalam is more commonly known by the much cuter name of Ooty.

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