I realise I haven’t written about temples in quite a while. It isn’t because I haven’t seen any spectacular ones of late- indeed, it could be because I’ve seen so many that I cannot describe them without bringing down archaeologists’ or historians’ wrath upon myself. The last ancient one I saw was the Jambukeshwara Temple in Trichy, one of the Shiva temples dedicated to the five elements, this one representing water. A little spring flows into the sanctum sanctorum, dimly lit by oil lamps and so heavy with prayer, you can almost feel a disembodied presence within.
The first time I wrote about a temple was in this post, enamoured by the charms of Simhachalam, several centuries old and exuding a mystique of its own, yet very accessible. The pulihora prasadam played its part, as did the location of the temple, snugly set in the hills around Vizag and affording a spectacular view of the town all cloaked in green, whatever the season (which, of course, is a form of summer all year round). I have somehow made up my mind that the Hiranyakashyapa-Prahalada story took place here, and so I shall continue to believe.
I like temples which aren’t ostentatious or excessively opulent. Some amount of gilding in a temple endows it with a certain prettiness, of course, and you could barely imagine Krishna in anything but silks and brocade. That said, I feel more comfortable in temples which are built into caves or nestle in a hillside: their proximity to nature does not brook any ostentation. The older a temple, the greater its enchantment, for it stands wrapped up in unknown stories enacted over many, many years. But new, small temples, despite having little to talk of, can attract and enslave in their own way.
Very close to where I live, under the sprawling shade of a magnificent pipal tree, is a Shiva temple. There are three shrines here- two dedicated to Shiva, one to Hanuman- and a small bracket with figurines of the Snake-god. The most remarkable of these is the Shiva shrine right under the tree; a brass linga set close to the trunk which is coated with limestone for preservation, but you can almost see stalactites, stalagmites and a Himalayan cave in the dark recess. He is accessible here: you can go up to the top step and light a lamp, strike bargains and tell secrets. There is no room for the faintest bit of self-consciousness, no one judges you for who you are or how you dress- you are equal to the person next to you, nothing more, nothing less.
Sunshine seeps in softly through the leaves. Squirrels give chase around the perimeter of the temple, and a grey bull kept in a small enclosure swishes its tail to keep the pests away. The only sounds are the clang of the temple bell and the voice of the priest. An elderly man sits on a cement bench by the tree, watching through thick lenses as devotees trickle in and out steadily. This is a quiet corner of town, far from all the noise and divisive debate and greed. All that people bring here is a little simple faith, and some coins or crumpled notes in gratitude. May it stay that way.