Delicate, slender pillars rise up towards the roof. The Hall of One Thousand Pillars in the Srirangam Temple contains 953 pillars, according to a Wikipedia article—someone has counted them.
It is clear that the pillars do not all date from the same time. Nearly all are simple and unadorned, beautiful in their simplicity, like birds’ legs rising out of the water, but they rise out of stone instead–all in rows, row upon row—some pillars have become very worn over the centuries. Then there follows a row or two in a different style, from another century—then more rows in another style—and on and on—all from time immemorial.
Across the courtyard in another hall, there are wider, elaborate, rather baroque columns from a more recent century, but it is the old, simple ones that are beautiful, and fascinating. The newer, elaborate sculptures of horses seem firmly planted within the boundaries of the physical world, but the unadorned, slender columns of much earlier centuries seem to be in touch with other, ethereal worlds. They are not lofty, like Gothic cathedrals, reaching impossibly upwards towards the sky. They are just perfectly simple, attracting no attention to themselves, but opening an invisible window to ancient spiritual presences.
The Srirangam Temple is the largest temple in India. The main gopuram, or gateway is one of a series of seven huge gopurams, extending in a line towards the inner temple courtyard. From other directions run other lines of seven gopurams each, twenty-one gopurams in all. Each is a tower in a series of vast concentric walls that encircle the inner temple. In between the outer walls, there are shops, restaurants, and stalls, so that there one has no awareness that one is inside a temple at all. In fact one can drive along on the roads, which we did, looking for the right gopuram that is the main entranceway. The gopurams are huge, decorated in modern times with many brightly colored sculptures.
The temple, with all its gopurams and walls covers an area of 153 acres. By comparison, the Karnak Temple in Egypt is said to cover 200 acres. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is larger than the Srirangam Temple, but it is no longer a functioning temple and is visited only by tourists.
A number of other Hindu temples in India lay claim to being the biggest, because not all of Srirangam is sacred space. There are the not-too-sacred shops and restaurants that inhabit the spaces within the walls.
The Srirangam Temple, like all temples in India, is closed between noon and 4 pm, and we arrive when it is closed. One of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever seen—an elegant, Egyptian-style cat with a small head, and fantastic leopard spots, sits outside the closed doorway of a shrine, and then gracefully glides along the wall. He must, of course, be an Indian cat, but he reminds me of the statues of Bastet, the Cat Goddess of Egypt.
A priest and his assistant emerge from behind some columns. Though the temple is closed, they will do a pooja, or ceremonial offering, for us. The door to one of the shrines opens, and inside are a dozen spectacularly elegant cats and kittens with magnificent spots—they are not basic tabby cats at all, but the spots are more like those of a leopard. Certainly, it would have been better if the cats had been spayed or neutered, but all the same, they are a beautiful sight, clearly happy, healthy and well-cared for. They live in relative safety inside the temple.
A priest who performs a puja honors the deity, in the form of a sculpture, inside a shrine. In this shrine, the God is Rama, with his wife Sita, his three brothers Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna, and the God Hanuman, Lord of the monkeys, who is revered for his loyalty.
The deity may be an aspect of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, or any of a million Gods or Goddesses worshipped throughout India. Each God has many names and many forms and has family relationships with other deities. They are manifestations or aspects of the divine, who, it is felt, cannot be restricted to one form only, but who appears in an infinite variety of countless forms—and who, ultimately, is the sacred, eternal essence who is beyond all forms, names, and attributes.
The priest chants words in Tamil or in Sanskrit; then first to the deity and then to the devotee, so the devotee can receive a blessing, offers a bowl of fire, and sometimes flowers, incense, or fruit, and a sacred red powder, kumkum, made of turmeric, which can be kept afterwards by the devotee in a little paper as a source of future blessings. The atmosphere is peaceful and other worldly.
It is inappropriate and disrespectful to take photos of the deities. In many temples, only Hindus are allowed to view the deities or are permitted to be present during the pujas, to ensure that the gods will be respected. But everyone is welcome to visit the temples and, outside the shrines in the courtyards, to take photos of the towers, the facades of the shrines, and the myriads of sculptures that adorn them—and also of the great standing sculptures outside, like the great bull, Nandi, who is in the courtyard of every Shiva temple. It is only inside the temples that no photos are allowed.
Those visiting the temples must remove their shoes, before entering the temple courtyard, and leave them there, where they are well looked after by an attendant. They are always returned, and none get mixed up, even in smaller temples where there is no attendant.
Top photo: This file has been (or is hereby) released into the public domain by its author, Zingzoo at the wikipedia project. This applies worldwide./ Thousand Pillared hall of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple
Second photo: Steve Allen / Dreamstime.com / The more recent horse pillars across the courtyard from the Hall of One Thousand Pillar, Srirangam
Third photo: Misad / Dreamstime.com / A Hanuman Langur Monkey
Fourth photo: Steve Allen / Dreamstime.com / One of the Srirangam gopurams or gateways
Fifth photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rampix / Wikimedia Commons / The bridge across the Kaveri River at Srirangam