Temple Territory

On a temple circuit of Tamil Nadu in India’s vibrant deep south, Helen Anderson is buoyed by ancient rituals and everyday spirituality.
January 2020

On a temple circuit of Tamil Nadu in India’s vibrant deep south, Helen Anderson is buoyed by ancient rituals and everyday spirituality.


There’s nothing quick or simple about a lesson in Hindu cosmology. “First there’s Brahma, the creator of the universe, with his wife, Saraswati.” Charles points to a candy-coloured riot of gods and monsters gazing beatifically from the temple façade at Mylapore, in old Chennai. “Then there’s Vishnu, with blue face and four arms, the preserver and protector, with his wife Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune, in the red saree, though she changes with Vishnu’s incarnations…”

With royally rounded vowels, our guide continues at length, describing the powers of the supergods, their chariots of choice (eagles, bulls, rats, peacocks) and the names of their many avatars. And their children’s names. Some say there are 33 million Hindu gods; others 330 million. Occasionally Charles will test me gently: “And Shiva is transported by which creature?” He smiles gravely when I answer correctly (“a bull”) and continues describing the bull-rider’s incarnations.

There’s a lot to remember and much that needs explaining in a Hindu temple, and the divine genealogy is only the half of it. In the temple courtyard, a priest wearing a flimsy white dhoti is making an unholy racket on something that sounds like a snake-charmer’s horn, and a long queue shuffles past a little red room full of sweating priests and golden treasures. People lie in front of shrines, daub ash on their foreheads, sit in the shade and chat with their neighbours. A pen of holy calves ruminates. The air smells of incense and cow dung – like the profusion of rituals and observances, it’s a mix of the sacred and the profane that pervades almost everything in India’s deep south.

Though Tamil Nadu is big and populous, a state approaching 80 million people with the nation’s second largest economy, it feels distinctly different to the “golden triangle” tourist circuit of northern India. In the capital, Chennai, the traffic jams are more civilised, the touts fewer and less persistent, the dress code saree-specific. Several young women tell me they’re safer here than in the north. “Tamil is the world’s oldest language,” says one guide proudly, and points out that this is one of the few Indian states that doesn’t teach Hindi in government schools. This goes some way to explaining the palpable north-south divide that pervades everything from politics to cuisine.

Pilgrimage, the world’s oldest form of tourism, motivates most visitors here. Travellers flock north to Rajasthan for crumbling forts and desert palaces, and south to Kerala for languid backwater cruises in the tropics. Tamil Nadu is officially the Land of Temples, some 33,000 of them, many dating back 1,300 years to the halcyon days of the Pallava dynasty. Kapaleeswarar in Mylapore is the first of several temples we explore on a week-long road trip from Chennai, but Tamil Nadu isn’t just temples and towers.

The French left a striking architectural legacy and an anthology of outlandish stories in Pondicherry, since renamed Puducherry (though residents continue steadfastly to call it Pondy), about 170 kilometres south of Chennai. The city’s French Quarter is full of colonial-era mansions in picturesque decrepitude, while the much-diminished Tamil Quarter has its own distinctive style featuring deep verandahs beneath steep roofs and fringed by iron lacework.

The British left a florid version of Victoriana in their southern stronghold of Madras, renamed Chennai in 1996. Charles points out the handsome 19th century edifices of the Madras High Court, Victoria Public Hall, and the Ice House, named for the huge blocks of ice that were once shipped from New England in crates lined with rice husks and stored here, before chilling the colony’s cocktails.

Breakfast becomes a search for the perfect masala dosa, the south’s crisp super-sized rice-flour crêpe, always made to order, with a spoonful of potato stew and the customary chutneys: coriander, coconut and tomato. I love watching the ritual of dosa batter being poured, spread, lifted and folded like a parchment scroll. The more theatrical morning ritual, however, is the making of filter coffee, performed across southern India. I fail to find a “metre coffee”, named for the length of the continuous arc of boiling milk and thick sweetened coffee that’s cooled and frothed as it’s poured between jugs, but several coffee-wallahs come close.

The monsoon is due to arrive within the week, and the heat rises like a wall, a little higher every day. The stories and the temples grow taller as we head west. The streets of Kanchipuram are packed with the nation’s finest silk shops but the busiest place in the noon heat is the Shiva temple of Ekambareswarar. Beyond the 59-metre gateway tower is a temple of a thousand pillars, its cool dark halls lined with 108 phallic stone lingams, and a sacred mango tree said to be 3,500 years old.

Under our bare feet are the smudged remains of this morning’s kolam, a ritual performed by millions of women throughout Tamil Nadu. These geometric patterns are sketched with coloured rice powder or chalk on the thresholds of houses, temples and shops as a sign of welcome, a humbling gesture refreshed every day at dawn.

At dawn in Pondy, the beachfront promenade is closed to traffic and we join flâneurs strolling in the French Quarter. Many of the most impressive restorations or “façade interventions”, in which new buildings are designed sympathetically with their surrounds, are restaurants and small hotels. The Indian hotel group CGH Earth runs Maison Perumal in the Tamil Quarter, a restored 10-bedroom Chettiar mansion built around twin courtyards, and Palais de Mahé in the French Quarter, a new-build hotel with enough Old-World colonnades and arches to please a marquis.

From Pondy we drive further south on country roads shaded by bowers of tamarind trees, past goatherds and clapped-out tractors struggling under enormous loads of hay and timber, and oxen with painted scimitar horns pulling carts of river sand.

There are rose petals and more jasmine on arrival in Thanjavur, home of Tanjore painting, classical Bharatanatyam dancing, Carnatic music, and bronze casting – and, of course, lots of temples. We’re greeted with garlands and a red-powder pottu dot on the forehead at Svatma, a family-run heritage hotel that embodies the city’s refinements. The old wing, rebuilt from ruins, holds artefacts, antique veenas and a grand gold-embossed Tanjore painting; the new wing houses contemporary art, a rooftop bar and on-trend spa. Its vegetarian fine-diner specialises in refined versions of Tamil dishes rarely seen outside homes, and guests can join chamber recitals, classes in Vedic chanting and southern cooking, and lectures on bronze sculpting.

The city’s premier attraction, however, is the mighty 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple. A moat and two sets of fortified walls surround palatial gateways leading to five temple complexes covered with exquisite stone carvings and topped by a massive central tower. Sundar, our guide, knows all the most Instagrammable angles, positioning me in front of stone guardians and at the entrance to long arched arcades. He explains the purpose of dozens of shrines – the most popular today being the “Shrine to Pass Examinations”, crowded with teenage students – and the relationships of the gods and monsters inscribed in stone on towering façades.

Occasionally he’ll test me: “And Ganesha is transported by which creature?” He smiles when I take a guess (“a peacock?”). It’s a rat, Sundar corrects me – though he concedes one of the god’s eight incarnations gets around on a peacock – and he continues to describe the rat-rider’s various guises.

The happy elephant-headed Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, the god of beginnings, the patron of learning. And, clearly, I have much more to learn.

This is an extract from Gourmet Traveller, October 2018.

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