Our trip has gotten off to an amazing start. After a couple of days in the seaside town of Mamallapuram, where we started our classes on meditation and a course on the beliefs of Hinduism and temple worship, we headed for Chidambaram. Chidambaram boasts one of India’s oldest working temples and is on a 22-acre complex of concentric walls that have been built over the millennia by various kings that ruled the state of Tamil Nadu.
The Chidambaram temple was established so long ago that no one is exactly sure how old it is. Once account places worship at the spot began over a 100,000 years ago. For millennia, the temple has been run by the same clan of priests. At one point there were over 3000 priests working at the temple. Recently the numbers have dwindled to about 300 priests. Last year, in a move that enraged the Hindu community worldwide, the Indian government forcefully took over the running of the temple.
In light of all of this, we were treated to the most extraordinary experience at this temple. Before we arrived, a temple priest that Dandapani (our guide and teacher on this journey) has known for many years from his monastic days, invited us over to his home for coffee and tea before our first encounter with the temple. By no means a rich man before the government take over, the family is now being threatened to be plunged into a deep state of poverty, but it didn’t seem to dampen his spirit of generosity. All eleven of our group, plus the priest, his son, wife and vegetarian boxer (named Busa) sat on the floor of his 10 x 10 one room home and enjoyed delicious chai and coffee before heading for a night ceremony at the temple. Before we went to the temple, the priest shared the mystical history of the temple with us that seemed to date back to the earliest days of India’s settlement.
He then explained some of the mystical aspects of the temple, a real gift that helped us to decipher some of what we were about to encounter.
He led us to one of the inner sanctums of the temple. This sanctum is devoted to the aspect of Siva that represents Love. Siva (the one supreme God in the Saivite tradition) is represented in 3 forms in this particular part of the temple as the God of Love, Willpower and Wisdom. He led us into the sanctum and chanted some blessings on our behalf and the energy of the place was so strong that many of the people who were near the sanctum began to weep (myself included). It’s hard to describe exactly why, but at least in my experience, it felt like pure love did indeed permeate that place and the weeping was out of sheer joy of the experience.
We gathered ourselves up after the ceremony and headed back to the priests home to enjoy a dinner served on banana leaves in the traditional south Indian style and were lucky enough to learn more about the traditions of the temple and the priests that love and serve the place.
The next morning a few of us decided to get up early and to return to the temple for a morning meditation on the floor of the temple. Even at 6am, the place was bustling. Priests were opening the temple and readying their sanctums for various rituals that take place all day long at different times. After about 30 minutes of sitting and being with the place, I joined a line (one of the most orderly and respectful I’ve ever seen in a temple) and just enjoyed the feeling that permeated the place. Being amongst so much love and devotion was incredibly uplifting for me.
At 7am, our kindly priest host joined us and lead us around the temple and we witnessed a procession of a people as they carried a murti (statue of a deity) being carried from one shrine to another. We then headed back into the main sanctum where the priest allowed us to get in very close to the inner sanctum where the priests where performing puja. This is a very rare and high honor.
We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then went back to the temple. This time our host showed us around the grounds of the temple complex. Telling us various tidbits of the temple history and the legends that go with it. We saw amazing sculptures and wall engravings and were even honored at the end our tour the sanctum that housed the original lingam (representation of Siva) that was installed by the founders of the temple (Patanjali – writer of the yoga sutras). This was an exceptional blessing, as non-Hindus are almost never allowed such a privilege. We ended our time at the temple (which was an incredibly full day) with a special blessing ceremony being performed by our friend the priest, at the end of which he gifted each of us with a shawl.
Then we followed him back to his home where his wife and sons (also priests) treated us to another delicious meal that was served on banana leaves on the floor.
It was truly a remarkable day.