Shiva Temple / The Tomb of St. Thomas (Chennai, Day One)

Last night Jenn, Bhavani, Rob and I ventured out into the city of Chennai. When you ask anyone about the sights in Chennai, inevitably the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle is mentioned, as well as the informally known Shiva Temple, both of which are located in the district of Mylapore, a beautifully designed area by the Bay of Bengal and only a short walk to the popular marina beach.

We asked our taxi driver to drop us first at the Shiva Temple. In a small plaza glutted with parked motorbikes, we deposited our shoes near an old woman who was accepting donations for their safeguarding. The temple itself is so grand and so ornately decorated that capturing it in pictures is an overwhelming task. Please see the illicit photos posted below as evidence of my visit as well as my stupidity. After snapping half a dozen shots, I became aware that photography was clearly not allowed as a sign within the temple entrance clearly stated. I think I might have pissed off some shastis with my brief but frenzied picture-taking. Bhavani remarked that she had never seen so many priests in one place. We really lucked out, as we had come at the prime time to witness a devotional procession. All I could do as my senses absorbed the imagery was to take out my moleskine notebook from my back pocket and faithfully record every detail I could possibly jot down.

A shasti or priest emerge from a shrine to Shiva, overlooked by a small statue of elephant-headed Ganesh, as a crowd awaited patiently beside tables of burning candles and incense. He rang a bell forcefully 5 or 6 times, then went back inside the shrine to bathe the idol in milk. The procession began, and I heard the crowd begin chanting among strands of distant drumming. The sounds of payals (or in Tamil, golundas), bejewelled bracelets adorning many of the women’s ankles, could be heard as a backdrop to the multitude of voices. The men wore white robes tied around their midsections, lungis or dhotis (I’m not really sure about the difference), with buttondown shirts, or among the most pious, no shirt at all. The women remained clustered for the most part, standing near the back of the crown or off to the side in a sea of colorful silk saris, fresh flowers tied into their hair. The most common markings on the foreheads of the devotees were the three white stripes denoting an allegiance to Shiva, as well as a red dot circled in yellow. Of course there were limitless variations, and after an enlightening conversation with Dr. Sheila a couple of days ago, I suspect some of the choices were for fashion only. During the puja or ritual procession, the crowd carried lingam related to the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer. Notably, I witnessed an iron bull which I later found out was Nandi, the white bull which Lord Shiva rides. Long lines formed for bowls of kresad (sp?) which the devotees ate reverentially while seated on the temple grounds.

A short taxi ride brought us to St. Thomas Basilica, the seat of Christianity in India. After the death of Jesus, when the apostles scattered to spread the Gospel, “doubting Thomas” came to India in 52 AD and was martyred in 72 AD. The Tomb of St. Thomas, located directly behind the basilica houses the burial plot as well as relics related to the saint, such as fragments of bone and the lancehead that killed him.

Rows of pews too numerous to count stretched from the alter to the back of the church, sparsely dotted by an attentive congregation. I sat for a few minutes in one of the pews, noting the beautifully carved armrests and trying to make sense of the babble spilling from the speakers in every corner of the church. Dual voices seemed to be competing for attention, a blend of masculine and feminine utterances that made little sense to me. Most of it was in Tamil, I believe, with the occasional English phrase–a “praise the Lord” here and there–sprinkled in for good measure. A shrine on the far right side of the room, framed in blue neon light reminded me of something from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

The scene outside was peaceful and calm, as patrons lit candles near a shrine, and I even witnessed a bust of Mary being dressed in a silk sari. I walked around the basilica to the tomb. While depositing my shoes in the lobby, I couldn’t help noticing a Santa Claus poised gleefully in a display case.

…TBC…

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