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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

"Sorry about that,'' Murugesh, the driver, says mildly. Far from unnerved, the Indian among my traveling companions politely asks him to park on the verge for a moment so that we can all hop out and chase the goddess down the road.

Kali, after all, is a deity not often encountered, at least not outside Calcutta, where the cult of this incarnation of Shiva's wife is particularly passionate. There she is worshipped as a malevolent black-skinned wraith, a gore goddess dripping with blood, her neck garlanded with snakes and skulls. This Kali takes on a more placid and benevolent form: mild-mannered, the Source of Being, the Redeemer of the Universe.

Whatever one's spiritual orientation, it seems only civil to pay one's respects to the local dignitaries, human and otherwise. And so we dart back to the car to grab a bunch of fruit and fist­fuls of rupees, then jog alongside the procession to deposit them at the idol's feet. It is not easy keeping pace with the devotees, who move briskly on small wiry legs, nearly trotting as they cut down a sandy lane to the seashore and then disappear amid drumbeats and the tootling of horns.

Scenes like this are anything but rare in Tamil Nadu, where crumbling ancient temples are so plentiful that some have yet to be inventoried; where the living embodiments of the sacred bull Nandi are omnipresent and typically well fed, unlike the sad bony hulks one so often sees living on road dividers in North Indian cities; and where the animist roots of Shiva worship—the first formal expression of Hinduism—are so naturally entwined with daily life that even a noninitiate can begin to grasp the basics of a profound philosophical system that in the West has morphed into competitive yoga and Madonna chanting Om shanti shanti with her foot behind her head.

My companions and I are undertaking an eccentric road-and-airspace loop through the temple cities of Tamil Nadu, from Chennai (formerly Madras) to Madurai by plane, then on to Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli (also called Trichy) by car, with a detour into an arid region of clustered villages that together form Chettinad, the homeland of the Nattukottai Chettiar caste. There, over the past two centuries, a close-knit community of traders and bankers erected mansions as opulent as they are unlikely in their setting, which, to put it politely, is the back of beyond.

Before setting off on our circuit I pay a visit to one important outpost of the late Raj, the Govern­ment Museum complex, set north and west of the old seaside fort in a part of the city built on a grid, an early example of urban planning in British India. It would be stretching to attempt here a comprehensive account of the treasures at this little-visited attic of empire; its collection of ancient sculptures is equaled only by that at the Palace Museum at Thanjavur.

Most people visit looking for the famous bronzes of the multi-armed Shiva known as Nataraja, or Lord of the Dance. But whenever I am in Chennai, I find myself drawn here to see the 11th-century statue portraying Ardhanariswara, a dual-sex form of Shiva and his consort Parvati, bisected vertically. One half is lithe and masculine, the other rounded and with a single, lusciously full breast. A wonder of plastic expression, and of insights both anatomical and psychosexual, the statue is just one masterpiece among many. And the room where it stands is but one in a complex of structures that overall provide a survey of 19th-century knowledge—and that unwittingly reveal the discomfort induced in British minds by the expressive artistry of ancient Hindustan, which they tended to disdain as lurid, pagan, and corrupting of Victorian morality.

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