Composed and consciously shutting out the latent snobbery of her non-believer heart, SEEMA MUNIZ steps into the revered ancient interiors of the Meenakshi temple

Two rock doves flutter above me to land on the monolithic buttress supporting the entrance. A tiny salamander slithers across the path. People dressed in silk, forehead smeared with ash and sandalwood paste, eyes filled with jasmine scent and fervour file past. I touch the stone-carved pillars; their damp coolness feels soothing against the sun-soaked granite floors where we walk bare-footed on this hot summer day. 

A cat basks in the snug embrace of one of the sculpted gods. Its proximity to such divine company hasn’t spurred it to lose touch with its wild instincts for a quick in-house adventure. My eyes follow its maverick movements as it sidles up and down around the pillars, finally finding its way towards a hidden window and quietly disappearing therein. No doubt, in search of something new…or maybe merely seeking some privacy away from the bemused expressions of the devout.

Seema Muniz

Many temple guides are eager to woo us and show us around. They speak several languages and understand different psyches. Their locution and interpretation varies depending on whether the individual is local or a foreigner. But, it’s getting harder and harder for us to walk on the parched grounds. We do not have the same stamina as these thousands of devotees thronging here from various parts of India. 

Mere observers, our little group of four is full of oohs and aahs and wows, captivated by the sheer magnanimity of such a project taken centuries ago. The fervent beauty and the flowing rhythms of sculptures draw us into the very soul of rapturous harmonies. The painted murals too are immersed in the perpetual light of earthly colours. Marching down aisle after aisle, under the beatific gaze of thousands of gods, goddesses, twelve-hooded serpents, ferocious demons with dragon faces, elephants, bulls and The Great Rattus itself, a sense of awe gives way to a sudden surge of catharsis. ‘Free me from myself so I can aspire to be Thee: Joyous, calm, filled with light in all thy myriad manifestations’, I pray.

Back on the streets outside the temple, it is business as usual. Vendors from rows after rows of small shops call out irresistible deals to attract customers. An out-of-place showroom seems to be truly cashing in on the spirit of the place with the following caption on its storefront sign: “Your Search For the Incredible Ends Here..”. The store is dedicated to American brands like Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, and Route 66.

I want to buy something local for my mom as a souvenir from this holy place. The sun is relentless and the dry heat is beginning to rise in swirls, inviting me to disappear into the cool dark interior of a small shop. I walk into a non-descript hand-woven silk emporium looking for a saree. Within minutes, my aspiration to emulate the great gods has ludicrously rolled off my being. I am human again as I dive into some petty haggling with the shopkeeper — the adrenaline rush coursing through my bloodstream is wickedly palpable.

Seema Muniz, a feature writer with the Times of India group in the nineties, is an avid reader and educationist, who homeschooled her son until tenth grade, while drifting between New York and Alaska with her family. She is also an artist, with a few solo and group shows in Albany, NY, to her credit. 

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