My first visit to a South Indian Temple

Yesterday we went to a large South Indian temple.  It was the first time I’d been to a South Indian temple.  The first thing that sticks out most in my mind is that the temple did have the feeling of the holy and the sacred.  I wasn’t sure I’d feel that as my grasp of Hinduism is tenuous at the moment and because not all churches even give me that feeling.  My second reaction is admiration of how well-run it is, how people are pleasant, and how beautiful it is.

 

Below is a more detailed account:

 

We arrived in the rear of the temple.  The parking spaces closest to the door are reserved for handicapped people and for temple volunteers.  There are many volunteers.  As we approached the door, there were signs reminding people that the walkway is not a play area.  The first thing I worried about was my shoes.  I was searching for a place to take them off as wearing shoes is a taboo in the house, especially in front of home altars, and even more so for temples.  There was a smiling priest near the entrance who gestured for us to continue inside to find a place to take off our shoes.  We walked around the lower level of the temple passing the gift shop and went around to where we could take our coats off.  Then, we walked some more and found the room to take off our shoes.  Most people also took off their socks too which surprised me a little. 

 

Next, we saw the washing station.  It is two low faucets that are motion activated.  There is a sign reminding people to wash their hands and feet.  Then we left that room and climbed the stairs to the holy part of the temple.  Right at the entrance to the that part is a place where people can purchase the things they need (like flowers, for example) to do their pujas.

 

Finally, we entered the prayer area.  This was a large area with small altars to many different gods.  Each god or goddess was lovingly dressed.  Even the linga which is Shiva was dressed with cloth wrapped around it.  Lingas are stones in the shape of cylinders, they are not in human shape so it surprised me that had cloth wrapped around it. Satya says that every day before the temple is opened that they are washed and dressed.  Each altar is based on a design from a temple in India.  Satya liked to point out which aspects were from Karnataka.  Each altar is labeled with the name(s) of the god(s) or goddess(es).   Around the room were religious sayings carved into the wall stones.  The sayings were written first in Hindi or Sanskrit and below had an English translation.  Each altar had a large box beside it labeled “Hundi”.  People can put their monetary offerings into the boxes.  Some of the altars had plates with red powder.  People can anoint their foreheads or necks with the powder.

 

We walked around to each altar and said a short prayer at each.  Some of the gods and goddesses were familiar to me like Ganesha, Shiva and some were unfamiliar like Ambika or the 9 that represent different parts of the day (some of the 9 are benevolent and you pray for their help and some are not, so you pray that they leave you alone).

 

Then, we stood in line for a blessing from the priests.  In the middle of the room is a much larger altar with a very large god inside.  The god is covered in flowers and dressed.  There is a priest who stands inside chanting.  Outside, people stand.  People join in the crowd at any time, it isn’t necessary to be present for the whole ritual.  It reminded me of a Greek Orthodox service in that way-people come and go, but towards the end many people are there.  At the end, one priest walks in the middle holding the plate with the lamp.  People hold their hands over the flame and then bring their hands to their forehead.  Some also bring their hands to their forehead and then over their heads as if they are washing themselves.  People can leave monetary offerings on the plate. 

 

Next, two more priests come around.  One holds a hat-shaped object.  To get this blessing, you bow your head and the priest will put it on your head for a second or two.  There is also a priest who will put a juice or oil (coconut, I think) into your hand.  For this, Satya told me to hold my hands like for Catholic communion-cupped with the right hand over the left.  The priest will put the juice or oil into the right palm.  Then, you are to drink it.  Anything leftover you put into your hair instead of rubbing into the left hand or rubbing it off on your clothes.  Finally, a priest came around with a spoon and put a spoonful of raisins into everyone’s hand.  Satya was disappointed that none of the priests offered us flowers.  He said that sometimes the priests will gather the flowers that fall from the gods or goddesses and give them to the waiting people.  After the raisins, the ceremony was over and everyone dispersed.

 

We sat on the floor for a while praying and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.  Satya told me that in some old temples in India there are checker or chessboards carved into the floors.  Temples used to be community gathering places where people would relax with their friends and play games in addition to praying.  There were others sitting on the floor too.  At the back there were a few folding chairs. 

 

I enjoyed looking at the people.  The little girls were very cute.  Small baby girls wear little anklets with bells on them.  Older girls wear long, brightly colored dresses and tops or tunics and leggings like salwar kameezes.  Most young girls don’t wear sarees. One young girl had white flowers strung into her ponytail.  It is very traditional in South India for girls and women to have white flowers, usually jasmine, in their hair. Boys do not wear traditional clothing.  Some women wore sarees or tunics but many also wore regular sweaters and jeans.  The priests wore traditional clothing, but the men did not.

 

Some families performed special pujas.  One family we saw sat on the ground on a narrow red rug.  It looked like there were parents, grandparents, and small kids.  A priest sat in front of them chanting prayers.  Near another altar was an area where people could smash coconuts.  Coconuts are often used in South Indian ceremonies.

 

I liked the atmosphere of the temple and how relaxed it was.  Everyone was intent on their own prayers-some walking around and praying.  Others sitting on the ground and praying or quietly chatting with friends and family.  Some prostrated themselves in front of a particular altar. 

 

I enjoyed seeing the families together.  Grandparents would show their grandchildren what to do.  I like how participatory many rituals are.  Kids can help break coconuts and put flowers on the altars. 

 

We hope to visit more.  Satya hadn’t been there for three or four years.  We hope to go once or twice a month.  It is a long drive for us-over an hour each way, but we thought that it was worth the drive.  

 

My next entry will be about the temple cafeteria and gift shop.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Devaki
    Nov 21, 2008 @ 21:46:10

    Wow, you are very open and understanding about our culture! I enjoyed seeing an Indian temple through your eyes, I could picture everything as you described it but there were so many things I hadn’t noticed myself. Lovely post!

    P.S. I am a half Kannada origin person myself. 🙂

    Reply

  2. minnesotameetskarnataka
    Nov 22, 2008 @ 14:02:56

    Hi Devaki,

    Thanks for the compliment! I tried to be as accurate as possible.

    I am enjoying learning about Hinduism and Karnataka. So far it has been wonderful.

    -Min

    Reply

  3. Gori Girl
    Jan 11, 2009 @ 21:12:09

    Interesting! I’ve never been inside a South Indian temple before.

    Reply

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