The highlight of today, day three of our Tamil Nadu trip, was this temple called Thirumayam that we discovered. It’s a Vaishnava temple built into a hill, not far from chettinad, on the way to thanjavur.
And it was to thanjavur we were on our way to when we saw the Thirumayam fort and temple near the road, and decided to make a short detour and stop. In other words, later today we went to the Brihadeeshwara Temple (or “big temple” as it is known in these parts), and yet the highlight of the day remained Thirumayam.
For some of you that may not add up. So let me explain.
Over the last four years, we’ve done quite a few family road trips. Most of them have been in Karnataka. During one of the earlier ones we discovered that all of us quite like going to “ASI temples” – those that are currently maintained by the archeological survey of India.
Many of them are obscure. In some, we are the only ones around at the time we go. Some may have some worship, but many don’t since the idols have been damaged during one invasion or the other. That doesn’t matter to us.
What does is that these temples are incredibly pretty. Most have nice carvings on them – hence the archeological value. And most are old.
There was a coffee table book on Karnataka’s temple architecture I had got several years ago. We’ve planned entire itineraries based on that book.
I remember going to Tirupati around Christmas in 1991. It was so crowded and the lines were so long that I didn’t want to go back. My wife had a similar independent experience about the place whenever she first went there.
It was a similar experience in Mantralaya, or any other popular temples I’ve been to. The crowds are quite off putting. Especially if you are not of a particularly religious persuasion (and we are not religious) you start wondering what the point of jostling with such massive crowds is.
And as it got reinforced during our trip to the Brihadeeshwara this afternoon, I’m actually claustrophobic. Big crowds of people, or people walking past me and close to me, really put me off.
We entered the main temple, and the queue to see the idol stretched till the entrance. One look and we decided we’d had enough and put exit. Earlier, when we had gone to drop out shoes in the shoe stand, the absolute chaos of (lack of) organisation there meant we just left our shoes there without bothering to take a ticket for them (they were there an hour later when we returned).
Even on Thursday when we went to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the crowds were big enough to put us off from wanting to see the idol – seeing the temple and its architecture and beautifully carved pillars was Darshana enough for us.
And so while the Brihadeeshwara was fantastic, and I’m really glad I finally saw it, our experience there was discounted by the crowd. And that made the place far inferior.
Later, we went to the similar but smaller temple at the nearby Dharasuram. We went at a time when there was no worship, but I enjoyed that much better than Brihadeeshwara, all due to the relative lack of crowds.
Crowds put us off, disorderly crowds even more so. And if that means we don’t see the main idols at several temples, so be it. Seeing the temples and the carvings and architecture is more than good enough.
At Thirumayam (picture above) we were possibly the only “tourists” (that was clear from our appearance and dressing, and our lack of proficiency in Tamil). And I was amazed to see how nice everyone around was.
One of the priests took a few minutes off his worship to explain the temple and other deities there to us. Another pilgrim (possibly a local) shared some of her Prasada (rock sugar or Kallu Sakkare) with us – unprompted.
The vibe – which can come from the lack of crowds – was incredibly friendly. And that’s been our experience in all the seemingly underrated temples with good architectural value.
The problem with supply of visitors being too high is that the attention goes down. And that makes the experience inferior. Unless of course you believe that catching a direct line of sight to the idol is going to compensate for this – which for a lot of people matters, which explains why demand sustains despite the inferior overall experience.