Thursday, March 06, 2014

Blessed by an Elephant

Greetings All,
We started our India trip in the temple city of Madurai, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities whose date of origin goes back 2500 years!  The main draw here is the 7th century Hindu temple of Meenakshi Amman.  It is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Pavarti, known here as Meenakshi, and her consort Shiva, named Sundareswarar here.  We arrived around 9:00 PM to witness the evening ceremony.  We were told that cameras were not allowed but when we arrived people were taking photos with their cell phones which were OK.  Unfortunately, we left our cell phone behind so we don't have any photos of the ceremony.  I will try to describe it briefly.  Every night, around 9:30 a statue of the Hindu god Shiva is removed from his shrine and carried to his wife, Parvarti's shrine. The ceremony starts with the ringing of a bell and the statue of Shiva emerges from his chamber in a silver palanquin (covered litter for one passenger, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles by four or six bearers). 

Carrying Shiva in a Silver Palanquin (I stole this photo from the web)

He is preceded by a priest carrying a lit torch and followed by men playing drums and blowing a horn.  We rushed ahead of the procession and took up a strategic place in front of Pavarti's chamber to watch the rest of the ceremony.  The palanquin with Shiva arrived and was set on the ground in front of Pavarti's chamber.  A priest fanned the smoke from burning incense on it all the while the drums were beating and the horn blowing.  The symbolic feet of Shiva were brought and placed on the floor next to the palanquin.  A priest washed them and placed garlands of jasmine and lotus flowers on top.  Finally the statue of Shiva was carried inside Pavarti's chamber where they would spend another blissful night together.

The next morning we returned to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, this time with a cell phone.  We entered through the north gopuram or gateway tower.  There are 5 gorpurams one at each of the north, south and west entrances and 2 at the east entrance.  The tallest is the south gopuram at 170 feet and the oldest is the east tower built during 1216-1238.   Each tower is multi-storied, covered with thousands of stone figures of animals, gods and demons painted in bright colors.

North Gopuram

Close-up of Stone Figures

In one of the outer courtyards of the temple complex was an elephant!  She was trained to "bless" you after you gave her a donation.  It was kind of hokey but I couldn't resist.

"Blessed" by the Temple Elephant

I tried to gauge if she was happy or not but couldn't tell.  She appeared to be well cared for.  Inside the temple complex are shrines surrounded by corridors with carved stone pillars and brightly colored ceilings.

Inside Meeakshi Ammam Temple
The figures on the gopurams and the murals on the ceilings are repainted every 12 years except for this one original mural depicting the marriage of Shiva and Pavarti.

Mural of Marriage of Shiva and Pavarti

The marriage of Pavarti and Shiva is also depicted in this carving where Pavarti's brother Vishnu is giving her away in marriage to Shiva.

"Marriage of Meenakshi" Sculpture

The architectural masterpiece is The Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam ("Hall of 1000 pillars") built in 1569. 

The Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam ("Hall of 1000 pillars"). 

The pillars (actually 985) are carved with gods, figures that are half man and half woman, and yali (mythological beast with body of lion and head of an elephant.

Close-up of one of the Sculptures

We left the temple and  climbed to the top of one of the nearby shops for a better view of the whole complex.  Three of the 10 gopurams and the golden shrine over the Meenakshi sanctum are in this view.

Three Gopurams at Meenakshi Temple

We left Madurai and drove for 4 hours to Periyar National Park.  The sanctuary is India's largest protected area covering 357 square miles.  In the center of the park is Periyar Lake where we would spend the next 3 nights in the former summer palace of the King of Travancore.  The lake was formed when the Mullaperiyar Dam was erected back in 1895 by the British.

Periyar Lake with the Western Ghats in the Background

Boat trips are offered 5 times a day and we were able to get 2 seats on the last departure.  During the dry season animals congregate around this crucial water source.  We saw herds of Sambar deer grazing along the edge of the lake.

Sambar Deer

Periyar is home to 900 to 1000 elephants but we saw only one.  Also grazing along the lakeshore were herds of Guar or Indian Bison, the world's largest bovine. 

Gaur Herd

Bulls can weigh up to a massive 3300 pounds.

Gaur Bull

Bonnet Macaques, endemic to southern India, were feeding in the trees behind the Lake Palace.

Bonnet Macaque

The next day we drove about 26 miles in an open jeep to the other side of the park.  Along the way we spotted this beautiful Blue-winged or Malabar Parakeet feeding on some pods in a tree next to the road.  These parakeets are endemic to the Western Ghats of southern India.  You can easily tell a male from a female as males have a red beak while the females have a black one.

Male Blue-winged Parakeet

We also spotted a Malabar or Indian Giant Squirrel in another roadside tree.

Malabar Giant Squirrel

We reached a place called Gavi from which we were to do a walk in the jungle.  We arrived late so all the boats to take us across Gavi Lake were in use.  Our guide told us we'd have to walk along the road to get around the lake.  "Oh well..." I thought.  About 20 minutes into our walk our guide spotted some monkeys in the trees.  Suddenly, he became very excited!  They are Lion-tailed Macaques, among the rarest and most threatened primates in the world!  They allowed us to approach very closely and we spent at least 20 minutes with them.  There was a big male, a female carrying a baby on her belly and some juveniles.  What a privilege to see such a rare and magnificent creature!

Lion-tailed Macaque

We went off in search of Nilgiri Langurs.  Although not as rare as Lion-tailed Macaques they were proving to be more elusive.  We caught glimpses of them in the forest canopy.  On the drive back we found them in some trees near to the road.

Nilgiri Langur

We returned to the Park's west entrance and caught the last boat trip of the day.  One of the rangers on board told us that Dholes or Indian Wild Dogs had recently killed a sambar on the lakeshore and that we were approaching the site.  One of the dogs had moved off but one was still on the kill.

Dhole at a Kill
The endangered dhole is the only member of the Cuon genus which differs from the Canis genus by having fewer molars and more teats.  They hunt in small packs tiring out their prey after a long chase and kills by disemboweling them as is evidenced above.  

Wow, what a great start to our trip to India!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc      

1 comment:

Roy Neuer said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful reports.

Roy Neuer