HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, June 27, 2011

Inside the Sri Meenakshi Temple

As I mentioned in my previous post, I don't have pictures of the interior of the Sri Meenakshi. You had to pay 50 rupees to bring in a camera, which isn't much, but I didn't feel like dealing with it, and I was already frustrated enough from dealing with the city. I visited the temple three times, and on one of those trips I decided to write down what I saw I walked through it. I didn't have a guide, so this post will be missing a ton of imagery and symbolism that my miniscule knowledge of Hinduism can't account for. Nonetheless, I hope you find my observations at least mildly interesting. Here goes.
The layout of the temple. The poorly drawn red arrows indicate the route I followed through the complex.
Approach the South Tower, one of the main gopurams, all of which lord over nearly every building in the city, and walk through the entrance. The tower is carved in astonishing detail. Animals, commoners, and gods are brilliantly displayed in bright reds, blues, greens, and yellows.

Go through the metal detector, past the security cameras and the man who pats you down, and you are in the outer-most ring of the temple.

Cross under a second smaller, but no less detailed, gopuram, and the first thing you see is the tank, to your right. Drained of water when I was there, the tank, which is probably about half the size of an American football field, is ringed by ghats, or steps, on which worshipers bathe themselves when there is water to do so. If you sit on the ghats, a young Indian child may come and sit next to you, as just happened to me. He didn't say a word, he simply watched me write.

Long, open corridors line each side of the tank. The biggest hall, on the left side, has four rows of columns running its length. Each column has a unique carving cut into it - some depict gods; others are mythic animals, such as one specimen with the head of a lion, body of a horse, and talons of an eagle; and others are scenes from Hindu literary works. Along the wall opposite the tank are several incarnations of gods, enclosed in various cages - one is clad in gold, another is a simple stone vault, etc. The ceiling has colorful depictions of deities running down its middle, while bright, circular artwork lines the left and right sections. There is a huge line to get into the sacred inner sanctum. Sadly, this area is for Hindus only, so I will never know what it looks like.

Walk to the end of the corridor, under yet another gopuram, and you emerge in the middle of a huge hall, face to face with a dominating Ganesh (the elephant deity) statue. The hall is probably 100 yards long and 20 feet high, and it is also full of carved columns, twenty-nine on each side, and amazing ceiling artwork, as well as chirping bats. As I lean against a column and write, two Indian men approach and ask where I'm from:
"America, but I live in Vietnam."
"Aren't America and Vietnam enemies?"
"Oh, well we used to be, but now we're friends."
"No, I think since World War II you've been enemies."
"Uh nope, not anymore."
"Oh, Ok."

Walk to the west end, take a right, and you enter a similarly sized and decorated hall. Atop each column sits a golden lion seated on a pink throne. Along the outer wall, set back inside enclosures spaced every 10 feet, sit small black obelisks, with a lit candle placed in front of each one. A stone cow kneels in front of the last one. At the end of the hall is the Parasankthi Shrine, with seated deities at its back.

Take another right and you are in the third of four halls that surround an area where "Foreigners are not allowed". No dieties line this hall, only another area on its left that is off-limits to foreigners. The last hall, however is much different

It is wider, with less symmetry in its shape. Dozens of incarnations of gods adorn its walls; many of the columns depict gruesome scenes of victory; the smell of burning ghee permeates the air; a very holy-looking painted stone cow sits in the middle of it all. Be careful not to trip over seated or prostrate Hindus, entranced in devotion.

An exit from this section of the temple sits under a gopuram in the middle of the outer wall of the corridor. Walk out and you can either turn left, which takes you back to open air, or go straight, into the Hall of 1,000 Pillars. Sadly, this hall is chock full of little stands selling utterly worthless crap, which ruins the atmosphere. The Temple Art Museum is also here; I hear it's interesting, but the tickets are another example of India's pathetic two-tier pricing system - 5 rupees for an adult Indian, 50 for a foreigner. (I know it's a small amount of money, but on principal it's infuriating.)

I forgo the museum and turn left. An open pathway leads to another hallway, after passing a deity that must have been particularly special that day - a large group of worshipers were placing coconuts, flowers and, more dangerously, candles on the floor in front of it.

I enter the hall and immediately to my right stands a huge, live elephant - dressed in its own sari, its face painted in the same way as many of the people staring at it. It is trained to accept a snack from a person, and then pat them on the head with its snout as they bow to it.

Walk to the right end of the hall, passing under an archway that looks, oddly, like a pharaonic headdress, and you emerge back at the tank, opposite the corner you started at. Walk to that spot, and you'll see Hindus patting white chalk on a small Ganesh statue as they exit. Walk back under the two gopurams you entered through, and you've just seen one of the most important temples in all of India.

(If anything I said was accidentally offensive to any Hindus, I apologize. Like I said I am pathetically ignorant on the subject.)

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