14. say goodnight to the gods
We are going to the Brihadeeswarar temple for evening pooja. That’s the Hindu practice of daily prayers.
There are representations of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati in the temple, and they have to be cared for by the Brahmins. I’m still not sure what they look like.
In the mornings in the temple, each god is washed and dressed with real fabrics. A tempting breakfast is prepared for them, flowers are arranged in front of them and bells are rung to wake them. Actually they are elsewhere during the night somewhere in the cosmos, and this ceremony is to draw them back to the temple for the day. In the evening they are readied for bed. Devotees attend these ceremonies much as Christians attend church.
On our way to the temple after dinner we see a wedding groom in a carriage drawn by a horse. Our guide Ram says he is going to his wife's family's house and that it is a happy coincidence considering what we are going to see tonight.
We arrive at the temple. Lights illuminate the buildings and walkways. Small offering candles of tiny bowls of wax burn here and there. The rest of the grounds are pools of darkness.
We go through two huge entrance gates before we leave our shoes in the designated area. An 80-ton representation of Nandi the bull, Shiva’s vehicle, sits on a dais facing the entrance to the main temple, where we climb the stairs. No photography is allowed inside.
We follow our guide nearly to the end of the long corridor to the inner sanctum. The centre is roped off. We have all been given a piece of a plant as an offering to Shiva. Mine smells and looks like artemisia. Others have marigold leaves. Suddenly Ram our guide gives me a banana leaf with a very pretty long pink rose garland on it, and tells me to give it to the Brahmin who is tending the shining metal palanquin in front of us. You can just make it out in the main photo. He takes our offering and spreads the flowers on top of the palanquin.
People line both sides of the narrow corridor. There is very little room. The shivalinga in the sanctum is hidden behind a huge black curtain. The faithful are standing on either side closer to it than we are permitted. There is an air of anticipation. Suddenly, quite theatrically, a Brahmin pulls back the curtain back to reveal the shivalinga, and a chant goes up. It's very loud and plosive in this small space. There’s a colourful background and lots of draped flower garlands over the stone. It’s an impressive sight. The priest waves a triangular candelabra around. Someone calls out and the faithful chant back forcefully.
A Brahmin leaves the inner sanctum and comes down the corridor towards us waving a container. Smoke is billowing from it, filling the space. Everything moves so quickly. The palanquin with its little umbrella is picked up and the whole procession including smoke follows it out of the building. We are swept along. I think Shiva is in the palanquin. I’m not sure what’s happening or where Shiva is going. That's our guide Ram holding up his phone to take a photograph.
We have hardly reached the bottom of the main stairs when I realise that he’s going to visit his wife Parvati. We saw her small side temple today. I recall being told in the bus something about Parvati never going to Shiva’s bedroom. It must always be the other way around.
A similar short ceremony happens in the Parvati temple. Someone yells at two little girls who are blocking the view. Suddenly that part is over and everything is on the move again. We quickly move to a side corridor. We wait. Another curtain is drawn. Then, it’s pulled back. Ahhhhh. Lord Shiva and Parvati are on a swing. They’re ready for bed, and they’re just relaxing together. I’m transfixed. It’s such a simple delight. A husband and wife relaxing on a swing before bedtime. The gods are so human. The religion is so simple.
Everyone is satisfied. They turn as one, and leave the temple. It’s so quick. Lights are being switched off to make sure everyone leaves. Only one elderly Brahmin is still in Parvati’s temple, under a solitary light, pouring milk into the hands of those who wish it. It’s a way to ensure a pregnancy or a to find solution to a problem. Ram tells me that if I wanted to become a grandmother again, I could donate the milk to the temple kitchen.
I feel deeply honoured to have been allowed to witness this ceremony. What I've told you seems so little to know and yet I think to understand would take forever.
Lots more tomorrow. A Hindu funeral, a blessing by a holy man. Another beautiful temple. Night night buddies.