I have always been interested in ‘culture’ – knowledge, belief, behaviour, art… food! Looking into different cultures is fascinating. Opens you up to new ideas, gives you different perspectives. One of the best things is that once you know about these things, you can pick whatever you like to incorporate into your own life.
For this week’s Challenge, I have been trying to pick a single picture to best represent Indian culture, but as I think about it more and more: India doesn’t seem to have a single culture.
The Indian subcontinent stretches from the snow-covered Himalayan mountains in the north to the humid backwaters lined with mangroves in the far south, spanning over 3000 km.
While in the North the eating of beef is not done, the people in the South seem to have less of a problem with that. Flavours and ingredients change as you travel. One of the more obvious changes being that the further south you go, the more coconut is added to the various dishes.
Though Hindi may be the official language, every state has its own language, and especially older people don’t even speak Hindi but rather Marathi, Malayalam, Tamil or one of the other several hundred languages and dialects.
Hinduism may be the religion of the majority of the people, it is surely not the only religion in the country. This became very clear in Kerala, where next to every temple there seemed to be a church and across the street from the church a mosque. No wonder Kerala is called ‘God’s own country’!
While driving from Kerala into Tamil Nadu I didn’t need a sign to tell me we had crossed state-lines. The changes in the road, the buildings lining it, the behaviour of traffic were speaking for itself: this was a different place all together.
India seems to me a hotchpotch of different cultures. A world of impressions, all crammed into a single country.
So, then why this photo of the Sthanumalayan Temple in Suchindram, Tamil Nadu?
Because it was probably one of my most impressive experiences of Hindu culture.
While in Kerala I wasn’t allowed into the temples I came across, being a non-Hindu. On the way to Kanyakumari, we took a detour to stop by this temple, which was unfortunately closed for the afternoon. We were told to come back in a few hours, and I would be more than welcome to visit it then.
Though not a religious person myself, I do like to visit the various Houses of God that people create – I find the different ways they find to express a similar concept interesting. I have seen plenty of churches, visited a few mosques and synagoges here and there, and even a Buddhist temple or two. But never a Hindu temple. Sure, I was coming back!
Upon our return, Shankar, the man who told us to come back, was willing to take us on an elaborate tour around the temple. But not before taking off our shoes, and my boyfriend even had to remove his shirt and wear a cloth over his shorts.
I was amazed by the size of the temple – it doesn’t appear to be this vast on the outside. For the larger part of an hour, he took us past the white, lime-plastered statue of Nandi – a bull, serving as the mount of Shiva – one of the biggest in India. Through hallways lined with granite pillars. Passed the shrine containing the main statue – the linga, representing Shiva (Sthanu), Vishnu (Maal) and Brahma (Ayan) – giving the temple its name. Stopping by a shrine for Ganesha for a prayer, only to continue to the main hall containing a tall, granite Hanuman – the Monkey God – statue. Here we brought a small offering and received a dab of bright red kumkum to the forehead – a nice addition to my salwar and the jasmine flowers in my hair: East meets West 😉
The whole temple can be considered to be an architectural achievement, full of beautiful craftmanship. However, one of the most impressive aspects were the four musical pillars in the dance hall. Carved from a single piece of granite and able to emit various musical notes when struck with the hand *auch* (I tried).
Overall, I absolutely enjoyed this experience, made special by the efforts of Shankar, who was one of the people who helped at the temple during rituals and festivals (“Shankar may be part of the temple, he does not get paid by the temple” *hinthint* ;)). His explanations of the what-and-how of the temple definitely gave our visit and extra dimension and a better look into Indian culture 🙂
For those that would like some Indian culture on their Goodreads list, India has some really good writers. Whether you are interested in the lives of Indian families during the British regime (try Amitav Gosh – Sea of Poppies or The Glass Palace), or in the lives of Indian families living outside of India, struggling with the cultural changes (my favourite is Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri). For an impression of working class city life pick up White Tiger by Arvind Adiga, while Where the Rain is Born by Anita Nair brings you short stories about Kerala. And if you really dare… try India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha, about the history of the largest democracy in the world (tough one! I’m still chewing).
Any other suggestions are also more than welcome! I’m a book-worm 🙂