Ancient Indian texts say that our temples are built in the image of a man. If you look at the structural blueprint of the Indian temple in any region, the crown of the temple – mandapa – is representative of a man’s crown. And the gates and outer verandah, his feet.
Temples have been the abode of passing on tradition, oral history, sacred texts – vedas and shastras, philosophy, reason and wisdom. Temples, until the previous century, were homes to Devadasis – young girls who were married off to a deity or god of a local temple and devoted their lives to the service of the temple and the local community. Here, Devadasis learnt and carried forward the tradition of Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian dances.
Temples were places were the locals gathered together to perform sacred rites, conduct ceremonies of import, and celebrate festivals with the community. Temples were seats of learning for the young Brahmin, who learnt not just philosophy and sacred texts, but also artithmetic, science, history, geography and medicine.
Varadaraja Perumal temple in Kanchipuram, 75km from Chennai
The Indian temple formed the crux of the socio-cultural life, with the kings of the region/state playing the role of patron and supporter. Beautiful architecture, sculpture and wall art were born with the patronage of the rulers and devout kings who adhered to the gods of a particular temple.
This culture slowly disintegrated with the arrival of the British, and today, there will hardly be a handful of temples where these practises are followed with reverance, as a custom, or because it’s needed. Today, temple activity is relegated to mere tokenism, and culture within the temple controlled by the high priests. There are scores of devotees thronging religous places and going on pilgramages to holy cities to solve their problems and ask for blessings – but the temple space has lost if sancitity as a place where culture and ethos could florish.
Of course, texts learnt in a temple are today freely available in a library or on the wiki, with translations in over 200 languages thrown in as an incentive. Being attached to the temple is certainly not a viable professional option that many in today’s age would consider. And dance and music are better enjoyed in the ACed confines of an auditorium with the latest acoustic technology.
I recently read about priests in this Thai temple who lent refuge to HIV+ people by giving them a place to stay, rehabilitating what was left of their lives, and giving them moments of cheer. There are some temples, still, in India, the Jagannath temple in Puri, Orissa, where the “Rath Yatra” festival is still celebrated every year with with fanfare. Stray cases of priests doing philanthrophy by educating the underprivileged child of their village in the temple courtyard are heard of.
I think temples can once again transform to places of learning and culture, a centerpoint for the community. They can be pathbreaking, non-mainstream, non-commercial centers of learning in the urban metropolis. Dance and music festivals, education of theology and ancient history, spreading awareness on diseases, and the means to achieve harmony by organizing fun events for the adults and children of the locality can be a novel way of melting our differences and building lasting relationships with the community.
Do you visit a temple in your area regularly? Are you a devout believer or do you visit just because you are expected to do so? Do you think you would want to get together with a group of kids and teach them a thing or two about temple architecture? Try it!
By Nilofar Ansher