This was my journal entry for a short trip I took away from Shantivanam...
Madurai is a large pilgrimage center near the southernmost tip of India. Thousands flock there every year to worship at the great temple located in the middle of the city. I spent the last three days there, traveling with an American friend who, like me, has been at the ashram for several months. It took us six hours to get there on the dusty back country roads in a crowded bus.
Bus travel is a challenge in this country. The roads are usually rough. The drivers always cram as many passengers into the bus as possible. People sit in the isle. They ride for hours that way, always moving at an excessive speed. Apparently, they consider high-pitched, squeaky female voices to be sensuous. That is what they always play on the bus’s audio system. Also, I assume since the audio idea is relatively new to them, they tend to approach it with an adolescent frame of mind. They play the music at a volume level that actually causes distortion in the small speakers. This is rather irritating to any westerner listening to it.
I was glad to arrive at Madurai. Though the same type music is played by loudspeakers throughout the streets of the city, at least it wasn’t played into my ears from directly overhead. There are not as many cars in Madurai as in other, equally large, Indian cities. The southern tip just doesn’t seem to be as developed as Madras or Bombay. Still, people crowd the streets, hurrying here and there, rickshaws are abundant.
The temple was the major reason for going there. It featured three large towers, several smaller ones, and a network of other structures. There were mythical Hindu carvings over the entire area, giving it a surrealist, magical quality. I was allowed to tour the interior of the temple with my camera one afternoon. They have magnificent mandalas painted on the ceiling in once bright colors, now fading with the exposure of time. I suppose the entire area was painted at one point, but it is not longer practical to do that.
A hallway with mandalas painted in the ceiling. There are hundreds of such paintings.
The temple is over 1000 years old. It looks strange when you first come upon it, towers reaching higher than any of the more modern buildings surrounding it. Its architecture is alien to all that is around it, representing the tide of change that is rampant in the country.
Close-up of one of the towers. Each tower has many hundreds of carvings.
In the evening, hundreds of worshippers meet in the lower levels of the temple to chant and throw Ghee at the statues. I was caught up in one crowd as it approached the goddess Kali. I moved with them, unable to escape their momentum which irresistibly carried to the stone figure. All their faces were focused upon it, their minds intent with there chanting.
Later, walking through the other areas of the lower level I saw vast markets, tourist traps basically, filled with religious merchandise that pilgrims could purchase. Beads and portraits and incense and icons of all manner were being bought in great profusion. I thought of Jesus in the Jewish temples many centuries before this one was ever constructed.
Outside the temple, walking through the streets of another place and time, I was approached several times by pushers wanting to sell me opium, marijuana, and other drugs.
Note: It is obvious from more recent photos that the temple has been thoroughly upgraded and painted since I was there. Great to see.