India’s temples are some of the country’s most interesting sights. But tourists used to church or synagogue services find it hard to understand what’s going on in in a Hindu temple; it’s alien to western ways of worship.
Central to any Hindu temple are the images of the gods, and the practice of darshan, or ‘seeing’. In darshan, the priest draws back the curtain that veils the image; worshippers, seeing the image, receive its blessing. Sometimes, the veil will be drawn back again and again for different worshippers, like a jack-in-the-box. That can seem ludicrous to us, but the aim is that each worshipper will experience (and pay for, through donations) their own darshan.
You’ll also see various gifts given to the gods. The images are often draped with flower garlands – you’ll see flower sellers outside most major temples. This is a practice that has spread to Indian Christianity, so that in many southern Indian churches you’ll see the Virgin Mary wearing necklaces of marigolds, or a crucified Christ kitted out in flowers. You’ll also see priests waving aarti lamps, usually at the end of the worship. Devotees place their hands over the flame, then bring their hands to their foreheads, thus acquiring a blessing.
The images of the gods are treated as if they are real people. For instance in Madurai, the images of Shiva and his consort Meenakshi are put to bed every night together, and woken every morning. They are also given food; coconuts, bananas, and sweets are common, and yoghurt drinks are also offered to them.
Food is, however, not burned as a sacrifice, as in classical Greek and Roman religion. Food that has been offered to the god becomes sacred. It is then often distributed as prasad to the worshippers, and communicates to them the blessing of that god. Many temples, particularly those belonging to the Hare Krishna movement, offer free prasad to the poor; at the Rock Temple in Trichy, food is prepared for two hundred poor people every day.
It can be something of a surprise to find a little boy or girl putting a sticky sweetie in your hand. Children are often given the prasad to distribute as a special treat, like letting them take the collection in church.
Hindu worship is diverse. In some temples, the rites carried out by hereditary priests are the focus of worship, and pilgrims come only to witness them, give prasad and participate in darshan. In other temples, particularly in north India, congregational worship is more prevalent, with the singing of bhajans (hymns), often accompanied by a harmonium and drums or small cymbals.
The focus of the temple is the central garbagriha, a cave or womb, in which the god’s image is housed; the temple is the home of the god, not a hall for worship. Temples are built on a geometrical plan, as a mystical mandala, with concentric walls and long halls and corridors enclosing this dark space at the centre, which is often capped by a spire. As worshippers go through each walled area to approach the centre, they leave the mundane world and come nearer to the world of the gods.
Like the great Gothic cathedrals, most Indian temples have more than one shrine; often, numerous small temples stand within the main temple compound, each with its own spire and deity. Most larger temples are devoted to either Shiva or Vishnu (Krishna being an incarnation of Vishnu); very few are dedicated to Brahma, the other major god of the Hindu pantheon. Within the temple, other gods such as Hanuman and Ganesh, or the goddesses Lakshmi, Durga and Kali, may also have their shrines.
Rules for visiting vary from temple to temple; many temples in Kerala, for instance, don’t allow non-Hindus to visit, whereas most in Tamil Nadu are open to all. Some permit photography, and some don’t; others charge a fee for cameras. Basic etiquette, however, is always the same; remove your shoes before entering the temple (there’s usually a custody service which will make a small charge), and don’t take pictures in the central shrine.