The Meenakshi Temple in so many ways demands superlatives. The splendid precinct, the towering gateways, the colourful statues and the vibrant life - all are breathtaking. Alas, the distracting thing is its transformation from temple to attraction. Meenakshi is one of only a small number of occasions when I am very aware of the throng of tourists.
One contemporary and unfortunately necessary effect of the temple’s popularity on the tourist trail are the security arrangements. This may not be a World Heritage Site, but it does appear on terrorist hit-lists and, as a consequence, certain items are not allowed inside: knives, other weapons and anything with batteries, including cameras. (However, the ubiquitous mobile phone is allowed in - and you can use it to take pictures providing that you buy a licence once inside.) And so, abandoning shoes and camera, I enter, through the security screen - men to the left, women to the right.
Inside are visiting devout Hindus making supplications; a line of monks on pilgrimage, devout, strident, with a sense of purpose; locals attending their gods as part their daily ritual; and European and American tourists ticking off yet another site before boarding their air-conditioned coach to travel to the next 60-minute wonder.
This may appear a tad cynical but consider the amount of time such ‘tourists’ have in order to give attention to the detail, to understand the layout, appreciate the history of the architecture, comprehend the meaning of the symbols. What is the difference to them between walking through a market, keen to see what there is but with no intention of buying anything, and walking around a beautiful temple, appreciating the spirituality, the culture and the people?
I suppose that this the tourist’s paradox. Here I am, visiting places that other tourists go to, but trying to avoid being seen just as a tourist and all the negative connotations that that term holds. I grandly think that I am above all that. I think that I am more at one with the place than they can ever be. Even now, some time after that day, I cannot come to terms with the fact that I was just as much a tourist as they were. Okay, I may have stopped a bit longer at one or two places, may have wanted to ask a second or third question. But what, I think, I really wanted was to do what I have been able to do at all other temples: to stand still, to be quiet and to feel that in some way I could connect with the space, the place, the universality of the spirit.
The temple in Mylapore is quieter, the temple at Thanjavur, more peaceful, the Jain temple at Shrevanabelagola more conducive to just being in the moment. Magnificent though it is, the Meenakshi Temple has crossed the line, a victim of its own popularity.