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The Temples of Tamil Nadu

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Photo: Frederic Lagrange

One could spend days here following around barefoot attendants like the one who explains for my benefit that the taxidermy specimens are "all skin only original, inside cotton stuffing." Having thus educated me, my cicerone records his name in my notepad, and then turns up his hand for a tip. Above his head hangs a stern warning against gallery guards accepting baksheesh. Both the attendant and I understand the sign to be an empty formality. I give him 50 rupees. He gives me a toothless smile and a friendly goodbye.

My companions and I set off on the short air hop to Madurai, where we arrive in late afternoon in furnace heat and the din of temple processions, a sound almost impossible to escape in this legendary temple town. Our hotel, the Taj Garden Retreat, a series of rambling structures on one of the city's four prominent hillsides, was built in 1891 to house a British magnate who ran a global trade in goods from local cotton mills. It is tough to imagine anyone doing business from a place as spiritually and practically labyrinthine as Madurai, a seat of Hindu learning and worship and incessant bell ringing at least since Augustus took Rome.

The Pandya kings are said to have built the city—whose name refers to a drop of nectar fallen from Shiva's locks—in the third century, more or less. Although the Chola kings briefly conquered it, and the Vijayanagar kings followed suit in 1371, it was the Pandya dynasty and their governors, the Nayaks, who are credited with erecting its most prominent landmark, the ecstatically and chromatically exuberant 16th-century temple called Meenakshi Sundareswara.

There are those who refer to Madurai as a power center, claiming that the earth around the old temple emanates supercharged vibrations. I vaguely understand them, having experienced distinct energetic jolts at spots in volcanic Hawaii and at the great Gothic cathedral at Chartres. To the millions of pilgrims who throng there to pray, meditate, prostrate themselves, and perform the ritual offerings of puja, Madurai is surely a power center. Yet, oddly, of all South India's temple cities, it affects me least.

True, the relief sculptures of deities and mythical figures and erotic contortionists and gods and goddesses disporting themselves are eye-popping and riotous. But a nonbeliever can get more or less the same visual hit by visiting the Iskcon Hindu temple in New Delhi, with its high-tech robots of Krishna, Arjuna, and the temple's patron, all made about 10 minutes ago. (Well, 1998.) Like the feather-waving brothers in Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, I try to arouse some kind of spiritual feeling. The harder I do, the more I feel like a boob. I feel blank or, more precisely, as if I were about to faint. It is so hot here that the pigmented oil from a tilak used by a temple priest to anoint my forehead has melted down my nose.

Notoriously, South India is said to have three seasons—hot, hotter, and hottest. And as my traveling pals and I walk the temple grounds, gawking at the multistory gopuras; the ash-daubed mendicants; the sheds where sacred cows are housed; the fascinating coin-counting thresher used by the temple staff; we find ourselves hopscotching toward whatever shade exists, our tender soles scorching on griddle-hot pavement.

It is dimmer, somewhat, in the temple's inner sanctum but no less stifling. This sensation is substantially augmented by the scores of pillars sculptured with steamy scenes from the soap opera life of a Madurai princess who—among many other feats—shifted gender and miraculously lost the third breast she'd been born with upon encountering the right man, who was, it turned out, a god in disguise. Just following the plotline is enough to raise a sweat.

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