No one can travel through Tamil Nadu without acknowledging the Hindu temples. Their characteristic architecture and the life around them make you want to enter and see, if maybe not understand, what it is all about. We are traveling with our two sons, who are 14 and 16 years old, and we have decided to visit with them the most important temples throughout our journey. Western teenagers are rarely attracted to religious places, but India seems to be an exception. Outside the temples, there is always great activity. Merchants in their stalls invariably display their wares: flowers and fruits needed as offerings and plenty of souvenirs of the most original kind. Animals and men get along well in India, monkeys and dogs and often even elephants contribute to the temple scenes. Each one of us buys a basket with roses, a coconut and a packet of ram dana (Mimosa sugar balls), and we enter the temple only after we have removed our shoes.
The contrast is strong between the outside and the inside, from bright sunlight we go into a dimly-lit space where the eyes lose their pre-eminence and other senses take over, particularly the sense of smell, as a rare mixture of sandalwood, incense, and cut flowers invade the nostrils. Acting more confident than I really am, I lead the way by just following the old couple in front of us.
Everyone converges towards a spot in the temple called the Sanctum Sanctorum, where divinity resides. Once we reach it, the pujari, the man who performs the puja, the equivalent to our priest, takes our offerings and pronounces what I would call the magic words, and blesses the believers, smearing their foreheads with a red paste, the sindoor. In other temples, we were given etiher ram dana or a coconut, or a basket full of offerings to take back with us. We were told it is called prasadam, a blessed reminder of our visit to the temple. Some places of worship make you want to stay and sit down on the floor, silently observing the people rapt in prayer; others seem to push you out as soon as you have got the darshan, a glimpse of the deity. Once, we decided not even to try to enter. The crowd was so huge that we could not imagine being able to stand the pressure everyone was exerting to fit inside. There are moments in India when we are reminded that we belong to a different culture and that we are better off outside.