The entire city seems to be awake and on the move, even though it is only 7am. The streets are filled with activity and the cacophony of vendors and traffic. Vivek and Manika have finished their cups of coffee and are ready to go to the temple. Their marriage festivities were over just two weeks ago, and the new bride and groom have been advised that it would be auspicious to visit several important sacred sites before they settle down. They have already traveled by bus to five other temples in central southern India, but today is the most important: in this town is an ancient temple dedicated to an image of Siva renowned for His powers of granting fertility and successful childbirth.
Manika is reverentially dressed in her finest pink sari and gold jewelry, and Vivek wears a traditional white silk dhoti, his chest bare to expose the sacred thread that all brahmana men wear. As they walk down the wide avenue that approaches the temple, they buy a basket of offerings from one of the stalls and then stop to wash their hands and feet in the waters of the ancient stone pool that stands just to the left of the temple compound, sprinkling some over their heads to symbolize a bath in the holy Ganges River. They hand over their sandals to a man who puts them in racks along with the hundreds of others already left that morning. Then they pass through massive doors under a towering stone structure filled with niches containing sculptures of the Gods and mythological figures.
They immediately notice a change in atmosphere. It is not quiet here either, but the intensity is different. There are no vehicles, no market stalls, just throngs of people going different directions and involved in many activities. First Manika and Vivek stop to put flowers on a large stone image of Siva's son Ganesha, the elephant-headed God who is Lord of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles. It is appropriate to begin worship at the temple by honoring Him. Then they join the mass of people moving to the left in a wide, walled passageway that completely encircles the central temple. As they walk, they compose their minds to focus on the reason that they are here: to pray for pregnancy and a successful childbirth. Their attention is diverted by the many rooms that they pass, built into the enormous stone wall at their left. Some contain the sculpted carts and animal-shaped litters for carrying the processional images of the Deities; others hold offices for the temple administrators; some are the kitchens for cooking the food offered to the Gods; and still others are stalls for the temple elephant, and for the cows that provide milk for the pujas. Everywhere there is activity. The elephant, its head colorfully painted with vines and lotuses, reaches out its trunk to bless passersby in return for offerings of coins. A group of women squat in a circle singing songs. Children run back and forth among the devotees playing a game of tag. Pilgrims are stretched out asleep among the carved columns of a roofed platform. The smell of spices wafts from a large group sitting together eating rice and lentils off plates made from large green banana leaves.
As Vivek and Manika turn a corner they come upon an ancient tree, its branches tied with bundles of cloth offerings and prayers written on bits of paper in a tiny flowing script. Beneath it are stone sculptures of snakes, some with human bodies: the Nagas, ancient Gods of healing and fertility. Manika opens a small tin she has been carrying in her purse and smears sandalwood paste upon the sculptures, praying as she does so for the health of their firstborn child.
Finally, after walking almost a quarter mile around the enclosure, Vivek and Manika return to their starting point and enter the second gate. Inside, although still crowded, the atmosphere is more intense, focused on prayer. Again they turn left along a corridor that encircles the central temple. They are progressively drawing closer, ritually preparing themselves for their encounter with the great God. The edge of this passageway is arrayed with a whole series of small shrines, some with images of Siva, many to Gods and Goddesses secondary to His worship, and others to Siva's saints. Devotees are stopping at shrines that are important to them, lighting camphor and placing flowers on the images and, occasionally, coins at their feet. Although the young couple are intent on their goal of puja to the central image of Siva, they still stop to acknowledge each shrine as they pass, folding their hands together in respect and touching them to their foreheads.
At last they are back to enter the third and final gate. Directly in front of them is a huge plinth upon which sits a gigantic granite sculpture of the bull Nandi, the beloved mount of Lord Siva. He faces away from them and directly towards the open door of the main temple. This interior building is a large edifice, its walls inlaid with numerous niches, each holding an image of a God or Goddess. In the foreground is a huge pillared porch with a relatively simple roof; but behind that is an elaborate tower that rises in sculpted tiers to resemble the peak of a fantastic mountain. Vivek and Manika are overcome with a sense of awe. As they walk around this building, they, like the crowds around them, are quiet, concentrating on their prayers. They stop for a minute to touch a simple stone projection on the back wall of the temple, the spot that is nearest to the central image. They believe they can feel the close power of Siva. When the newlyweds return to Nandi's shrine, they begin to climb the steps up into the temple's entrance hall. Inside it is cool, the light filtered from windows on either side. Both the pillars and the ceiling they support are elaborately carved with images of Siva, His wife Parvati and their sons Ganesha and Karttikeya, along with many other Gods, demigods and mythical beings.
Ahead of them is the sanctum sanctorum, the heart and soul of the entire temple complex. The crowd pushes them tightly together, and so that their offerings are not spilled, they hold them high above their heads as they join the line to enter the inner shrine. As they pass over the threshold into this final room, a brahmana priest takes their offerings and asks their names, their community and the stars under which they were born. Inside, the walls are plain and very dark, encrusted with centuries of the blackened smoke from countless lamps. The strong smell of incense and congested air permeates everything. The noise of chanting and bells fills their ears. There is a sense of oneness with the rest of the crowd of devotees as they all press forward, straining their necks to see into the dark recess of the small central chamber. Several priests are inside. One holds a lighted lamp and circles it around and around the stone image of God Siva. It is a Linga, a pillar shape that for Hindus represents this supreme Deity. This Linga is svayambhu, not carved by any hand of man, but naturally formed by God himself. It has been worshiped here for thousands of years, long before the temple was built. Siva's devotees believe that this Linga is radiant with power, vibrant with the ability to grant any wish. A second brahmana priest rings a bell, while a third, the one that had taken the basket of offerings from Vivek, places this and others at the Linga's base and then proceeds to chant prayers to God, reciting the names, communities and stars of each of the devotees. Manika and Vivek feel thrilled by their sense of the presence and magnificence of Siva. Silently they ask Him to give them a healthy child; and they feel sure that their prayers will be answered. One priest brings out the arati, and they put their hands into the flame and put white ash upon their foreheads. The other priest returns to them their basket of prashad. Then they are pushed by the crowd out a side door and into the courtyard next to the temple. Feeling blessed, they silently return straight through each of the gates and out onto the still-busy street. These newlyweds believe that their lives have just been changed. They have passed through the many stages of preparation to meet God. They have made their prayers, had Siva's darshan and received His blessing. Now they can take the long train ride back to their home to begin their new lives together, content in the knowledge that they will create a new generation to carry on their family traditions.