Outside Kamakshi Temple in the town of Kanchipuram

Up at 5 a.m., the taxi arrived at the Gem Inn around a half an hour later. It was Arul, who had fetched me from the airport upon my arrival in India some three weeks ago. All he drivers who had served us are with the AMT Tours & Travels company. I had assured the American contingent Saturday that they were welcome to join in, however the early start seemed to put them off. Imagine my surprise the next morning when I encountered Tim Mousaw at reception. We drove to Ilango’s apartment. Thiyagu, a member of his software development team, had also decided to participate.

The original plan had been to head directly for Vellore’s Golden Temple complex. Ilango wanted us to see the temple when lit up at night, however Thiyagu had an even better suggestion, that we deviate off the main highway and view some traditional temples first [list of temples of Tamil Nadu]. With four of us including the driver cramped in a relatively small car, it proved a bumpy ride for most of the day.

Elephants being hosed down at Kamakshi Temple

Around 08h00, we stopped off at Kanchipuram (Kāñcipuram), located on the Palar River, and known for its temples and hand-woven silk sarees. Kanchipuram is also called as “City of 1000 Temples”. The Kamakshi Temple, with its four entrances, is a famous Hindu temple dedicated to Kamakshi, one of the forms of the goddess Parvati or the universal mother goddess, seated in a majestic Padmasana, a yogic posture signifying peace and prosperity, instead of the traditional standing pose.

The grounds of Kamakshi Temple, Kanchipuram

Father and daughter

Dravidian styles of architecture are most common amongst the Hindu temples of South India, consisting almost invariably of the four following parts, differing only according to the age in which they were executed:

Ilango and Thiyagu

The principal part, the temple itself, is called the Vimanam. It is always square in plan and surmounted by a pyramidal roof of one or more stories; it contains the cell where the image of the god or his emblem is placed.

  1. The porches or Mantapams, which always cover and precede the door leading to the cell.
  2. Gate-pyramids, Gopurams, which are the principal features in the quadrangular enclosures that surround the more notable temples.
  3. Pillared halls or Chaultris, the proper name being Chawadis.

Worshipers in major temples typically bring in symbolic offerings for the prayer or puja. This includes fruits, flowers, sweets and other symbols of the bounty of the natural world. When inside the temple, it is typical to keep both hands folded together as a sign of respect.

Families visit the temple

The inner sanctuary, where the murtis (a representation of a divinity) reside, is known as the garbhagruh. It symbolizes the birthplace of the universe, the meeting place of the gods and mankind, and “the threshold between the transcendental and the phenomenal worlds.” It is in this inner shrine that devotees offer prayers and salutations to the presiding deities.

Sculptures of the gods on the main pyramid-gate, Kamakshi Temple

Devotees may or may not be able to personally present their offerings at the feet of the deity. In most South Indian temples, only the pujaris (priests) are allowed to enter into the garbhagruh. Visitors and worshipers to Hindu temples are required to remove shoes and other footwear before entering.

One of four pyramd-gates, Kamakshi Temple

Entering through the main gate, a courtyard surrounds the main temple. Families, the elderly, the young, the wealthy and equally, the poor, are encountered within the precinct. It’s an extraordinary sight for the uninitiated, upon first encountering a Hindu temple, a place of serenity and complex mysticism. At the rear of the couryard, behind a large pool, a number of elephants were being hosed down within their cages. We met a father, his wife and daughter, keen to establish our country of origin. At no stage did I feel unwelcome, despite not being permitted entry to the inner sanctum.

Kamakshi Temple

We adjorned for breakfast at a hotel in the town, Ilango insisting that we order a mini tiffin, a tray containing an assortment of foods, including dosa, sambar idli [see recipe], pongal with sambar [see recipe], coconut chutney [see recipe] and pudhina chutney [see recipe], which I particularly liked.