In Nepal we were told more than once that there are 33 million gods in Hinduism. Multiply that by at least 1 million shrines and temples per god and you end up with exactly ZERO that include any signage or interpretation for English speakers (an informational kiosk would be nice). This is fine when the shrine is literally a stone bump in the street (like the one pictured to the right, also anonymous). But what about when it’s life-sized gods cut straight out of a stone mountain?
I took Indian Civilization 101 and Hinduism 201 in college. I know that Shiva is a popular Hindu god and rides a bull named Nandi. I know that Ganesh is often spelled Ganesha and broke off his own tusk to throw it at the moon for laughing at his elephant head, which also explains why the moon leans. Rama is one of Vishu’s many incarnations (as is Buddha) and is always blue.
Since we arrived on the subcontinent, Erin and I have learned that Krishna often plays the flute, Parvati rides a tiger, etc. But honestly, if you have not grown up worshipping one, or multiple, of these 33 million gods AND you don’t speak one of the 780 languages in India, then you kind of just have to step back and let the pantheon dance all over you.
Actually, I just googled whether Parvati rides a tiger. Turns out no, she rides a lion, but this is the perfect example of what happens when you try to nail down specifics in Hinduism. From https://vedicfeed.com/goddess-parvati-facts/, “Goddess Parvati is expressed in many roles, forms, moods, epithets, and characteristics, and each of her forms is worshipped as an individual goddess. There are more than 100 names given to her for her roles in Hindu stories. Despite that, as a goddess Lalita or Lalita Maha Tripura Sundari (one of the 10 Mahavidyas), Parvati contains her 1000 other names listed in Lalita Sahasranama (text from Brahmanda Purana). Goddess represents the wide range of what women can do for society and her family.”
So I learned that she rides a lion but apparently my question was grossly superficial compared to what I could know about her. Which, essentially, summarizes how it feels to be an outsider swimming in thousands of years of religious evolution.
So! When Erin and I arrived in Tiruchirappalli, also known as Trichy, it was meant as a connection between one long bus ride and another long bus ride on our way to Pondicherry on the east coast. But we were there for a full day so we went to the famous “Rock Fort.” The Fort refers to a huge rock that has been used as a historic fortification and site for multiple temples over the past 1,500+ years.
Two of the temples are originally from the 7th century and are quite well-known. So much so that Erin and I met a group of guys from Malaysia over dinner who were here on pilgrimage to those temples. One temple is exclusively for Hindus and does not allow for photos. The other, Ganapathi, is at the top of the rock, and allowed Erin and I to participate in the puja ritual, but still no photos.
At the bottom of the 400+ rock-cut steps you take off your shoes and either throw them in a pile with hundreds of others, or you give them to one of the vendors who will watch them for you–assuming that you buy a puja bag from them. Our puja bag included a bunch of grass (we were told this was for “bottom Ganesh” – i.e. the one at the temple at ground level) and then a coconut, a couple bananas, and some flowers for “top Ganesh” (i.e. the one at the top of the rock).
After walking hundreds of hot stone stairs barefoot you get in line, give some money to a guy at a ticket counter (as an offering), get a receipt, then step through a small door into the temple after the group in front of you is done. A priest stands in front of a smaller door beyond which the actual original Ganesh shrine is lavishly decorated. The priest has a platter that you put more coin on, then he dips his finger in red and white paint, marks your forehead, says some prayers, you give him your “top Ganesh” puja, and he cracks your coconut, gives half of it back to you, then adds the rest of the stuff in the bag to the decorations on the shrine.
The people waiting behind you at this point have their shoulders in your back so it’s time for you to move on. It felt like a rough-and-tumble Disneyland except with a profound feeling that something big could happen at any time, spiritually speaking.
After we walked back down from the top and collected our shoes, Erin suggested we go to see a “rock-cut temple” mentioned in Lonely Planet. Half a block down from the touts hawking tiny statues of hindu gods and behind some houses we found it. We were greeted by a tranquil and shady open area with benches, no people, and one of the coolest religious sites I have ever seen.
Carved straight into the rock is a 40’x20’x10′ opening that contained two side rooms for shrines and 10 bigger-than-lifesize statues of Ganesh and other Hindu deities. The labor and skill involved in such a feat is incomprehensible and yet, where are the worshipers? Where are the institutional accolades–cultural, religious, or otherwise–for what certainly must have been the climax of an ancient society?
Yes, there was a sign noting that this is a protected archeological site, and it is assigned to the Pallava people from around 600 CE. But that was all.
An 8-foot Ganesh, carved straight out of the cliff supposedly 100 years or more before the shrine in Ganapathi at the top of the Rock Fort, stands in a deserted space, no cattle drive of worshippers, no alms to pay for maintenance. What gives?
I’ve spent more than an hour or two online looking for information about this temple. Despite the beautifully carved entrance pillars complete with explanatory inscription, I could not find a history of this temple. Even the Wikipedia page about Pallavan art and architecture doesn’t call out this specific temple, but it does ascribe two different timeframes to the “rock-cut period” of the architecture. In one university article the Pallava people are described as Aryan, meaning they migrated into India from Europe around 1,750 BCE. Yet Pallavan architecture is widely referred to as the beginning of the “Dravidian Style,” that ultimately influenced architecture throughout SE Asia. But Dravidian is the name assigned to the people who lived in South India prior to the Aryan migration. Blargh!?!
To summarize: Hinduism is old and complicated; Like all religions, its power comes from faith, not facts; and, as a non-religious tourist sometimes you have to just let the power of someone else’s faith inspire you with awe and go back to your guesthouse and watch The Extraordinary Attorney Woo on Netlfix and not obsessively try to understand what you just witnessed.
Awesome. I love that you went there and did the whole thing. You shoulda tossed your shoes in the pile, though! (Wink)
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