Part of my 3 week trip to India earlier this year included a visit to a series of temples in Tamil Nadu – popularly known as the "Navgraha temples". I came away from that trip amazed at the enormous potential for tourism in Tamil Nadu and saddened by how much of it goes to waste due to frustratingly archaic customs.
Driving into a tiny village of 10 or 20 houses that holds at it’s centre an enormous temple complex that covers a square acre of land left me wondering what was this place like in it’s heyday. Or walking down a 500 foot hallway with curved archways soaring 50 feet into the air, you wonder whether the European architects of the Renaissance were really all that original. When one finishes praying at the Garbha graha of a temple and notices that every square inch of the rock is covered in gold leaf – it’s a glimpse into the enormous wealth of those Pandian kings that drove this building spree.
Astonishingly, almost none of these locations suffer from the typical infrastructure woes that plague most Indian tourist destinations. Reasonably good governance has been a hallmark of Tamil Nadu politics for decades now – translating into rail and air access to the major towns in this temple belt, 2-lane all weather roads to every village, and 5 bars of cell phone coverage wherever you go. And if you have to cross a dry riverbed on a rickety wooden bridge that creaks with every motorcycle that brushes past you – well that’s part of the adventure isn’t it? You also get reasonably decent accommodation (that can be booked on the Internet!) and great South Indian food in every restaurant. So why are these places unknown outside South India?
The first problem I believe is that annoying rule of "No photography allowed inside the temple premises". Whether it was due to Hindu priests believing that photographs stole the deity’s soul or the bureaucrats fearing thieves would use the photographs to decide which temple jewels were worth stealing, all you can get are photos of the temple entrance or it’s Gopuram. Which after the 50th such photo, tends to get really old. How do you promote a place when you can’t even show it to another person?
The other issue is with the Hindu customs – which barely tolerates Indians of other religions entering the temples and outright refuses to let foreigners in. I see the crowds of foreign tourists at the temples in Singapore’s Little India, which (no offence) have barely a fraction of the history of some of these "Navagraha temples" and wonder how much these tourists would be amazed seeing the crystal Lingam that the temple priests in one place claim was placed there by Lord Muruga himself. What would they make of the story of how the stone Lingam in one temple leant to one side to allow Lord Brahma, cursed to be born a human, garland the statue and thus attain Mukti? Every idol and nearly every tree in these temples has a fascinating, richly detailed history that could reward and entertain the patient traveller. Yet thanks to concepts like "aacharam" and "madi", they remain out of bounds to any foreign tourist who might make it this far.
I want to wrap up this post with the incident that truly defined this trip for me. We arrived at one temple a little too early and one of the ubiquitous vendors suggests we take a walk "just a little while away" to a Lord Venkateshwara temple that had just re-opened. We walk barefoot down a stony path trying to avoid the goat dung underneath and the curious village dog around our ankles. Finally, we come to a red brick wall which opens up to reveal two "shelters" thrown together from wood planks hastily nailed together. We walk in and a temple priest informs us that the temple is probably over a 1000 years old and was hidden by the jungle till someone "discovered" it a few years back. He points out the single remaining Vimana of the original temple, stained dark green and with a single stubborn tree still growing out of a crack in the roof. I look at the serene face of Lord Venkateshwara, his features blurred by centuries of rain and neglect and wonder how many generations of people have walked by, not knowing they were being blessed by an almost-forgotten God.
India still has the power to surprise and move us – it’s cynical, careless children.