Ancient Temples in South India

IMG_2362Went on a short “heritage walk” yesterday featuring three small temples in Chennai that are very near to the huge temple complex in this area- I’ll feature that temple in another blog.  Our speaker was a passionate historian who is very upset at how temples are being “updated” without regard to historic preservation, covering up ancient scripts on the walls that help date the various kings who built and added on to the temples over many centuries.  It was heartening, however, to see that a large crowd of mostly Indian folk came to this talk/walk- there are people who are interested in their own history, in spite of the deep forces of modernization.

These temples were first built many years ago and then expanded and updated by kings who came and went over many centuries.  Some are devoted to Siva and others to Vishnu, with the wives and stories of each depicted in colorful scenes on the “gopuram” (tower) walls.


Siva, Parvathi, and their sons Ganesh (the elephant god who rides on a rat) and Murugan (who rides on a peacock)

The most interesting feature of our guide’s talk was on the temple water tanks, which are common areas of holy water, bathing and ritual attached to temples.  In ancient times this area had multiple temples with water tanks that were kept clean and flowing with connected underground in and out flow channels.  These tanks, an ancient water catchment system,  likely seeded the whole water table in the area, providing reliable water for residents’ wells.  Nowadays, she says, the tanks are not properly maintained and the old water system is in disrepair.  The water tank pictured below is empty and full of weeds and garbage.


It’s my understanding that the largest Indian temples are under the jurisdiction of the government- I’m not sure how that works.  Most temples, however, are small and private, maintained only by local donors and charities.  Many of these have fallen into disrepair and even changes dictated by local politics.  India, a deeply religious country, does not have the clear division between church and state that we have in the US- I find it disturbing but that’s because I’m an American!  I think many Indians agree, however, that too many Indian politicians do use religion to divide and conquer, to offer a pretense of holiness for political gain, and that spirituality and politics should be kept clear of each other!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Adele Strasser says:

    The sculptural story wall is amazing. Again reminded of how the Bhutanese temples have every possible surface covered with religious stories as a way to have documented ‘history’.
    Any comment on why Parvarthi face is green. Adele


    1. Good question- why is Parvathi green? Of course Krishna is usually depicted blue- so I’ll see what I can find out! Cynthia


  2. Tomas says:

    Looks like they would need continual painting to keep them so bright!


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