It is 6.30am local time. We are leaving the bed & breakfast to start our day. We have been in India not quite 24 hours and the day starts at what time? Actually it was fine and we soon learned that the regime of early start and a break in the afternoon suited us well. Gandhi, our driver was ready and waiting to take us to Mylapore, what Wikipedia refers to as ‘a cultural hub and neighbourhood in the southern part of the city of Chennai’. This is the first of our guided trails and we meet Lakshmi, smiling and welcoming, who starts us on our journey through the history and culture of this country.
Our starting point is the Kapaleeshwara Temple. Temples are very important and key to getting a handle on India, its life and culture. Irrespective of religion, there does appear to be a very strong connection between the Indian and his or her outlook on life and the creed of the Hindu believer. Perhaps a thousand years or more ago, one might have said the same thing except that the dominant faith was Buddhism. Whatever it is, it goes deep.
The temple is a living, working, colourful place. The imposing gateway towers over the surrounding small streets, a visual reference point for those coming from the countryside as well as for those already here. The early morning air has a slight haze to it which makes the blues of the statues on the building stand out, yet mutes the other colours. The elaborate and busy designs are so eye-catching that I look here and then have to look there and so on until their visual memories blur into each other.
I turn my attention away from the roof tops, away from the plump gods that sit on the corners, and find a brown and white cat at my feet, stretching out in the early sun, warming itself before it gets too hot. One of the temple cows is out of its byre, feeding; another is being washed down. A young calf takes itself for a wander, a small bell round its neck possibly alerting people to its presence.
A tree stands nearby that has ribbons of flowers wrapped around its branches, pieces of material tied to twigs and a few makeshift boxes with a model animal, suspended. These boxes are in fact homemade small cots or cribs, the little characters in them are gifts. The tree is a wishing tree, a tree for couples to make a wish for a child. They tie some material or a toy cot or some such to the tree and hope that their wish is granted. When they have the child, they return and take one of the offerings off the tree. Thus the balance of prayer is kept.
A black cat scurries past but I am once again drawn to the elaborate carvings on the rooftops and domes. The haze has gone and the reds and yellows have become much brighter. Like the majority of Hindu temples in the south, this is a Shiva temple though Lakshmi says that it does not really matter whether you are a Shiva or Vishnu worshipper, you can go anywhere, the individual having a shrine to their preferred deity at home. Here we first learn about Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Nandi. Their stories will follow us around and will change at each chapter. Nothing is certain about a religion with 300 million gods. “No. 330 million gods!” “Oh no. 340 million!” “No, no no. You've all got it wrong. Three gods. Several million avatars.” Well, whatever the number, the stories are infinite and various.