(Every village in southern India has at least one temple - not just a place for communicating with God, but a place for communicating with other humans, animals and nature as well. The sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of the temple are a part of my homeland I carry with me, etched into my mind from evenings spent trekking to and fro with my grandma.)
The stone temple sat stolidly on top of the hillock, its benign presence a source of comfort for the village below. The mellow rays of the evening sun turned its age-old walls to gleaming russet. Its single graceful tower reached up for the sky. I paused for a moment at the bottom of the hillock. A series of steps, roughly carved into the hillside, meandered their way up to the temple doors. The squat green bushes carpeting the hill were dotted with tiny yellow wildflowers.
As I ran up the steps, I heard a faint melodious tinkling as an errant breeze dallied with the smaller temple bells. Upon the wings of the same playful breeze, the "temple fragrance" - an exotic blend of rose and sandalwood and ash - drifted down to me. I scurried past the enormous Pipul tree that glowered guard at the entrance to the courtyard. The shaggy-bearded blind beggar propped against its gnarled trunk terrified me almost as much as my grandma's tales of the ghost that lived in its branches and was supposed to make off with naughty children.
The temple doors were still shut. They would open only when it was time for the evening worship.
I walked around the side of the structure, trailing my fingers along the smooth worn stone. At the back, in a patch of dappled shade, Maya, the temple elephant squatted awkwardly, swishing away flies with her fan ears. I reached out a tentative hand and stroked her forehead. It felt coarse, with little uneven ridges, like the bark of an old tree.
A young woman sat cross-legged on a bench nearby, her nimble fingers stringing jasmine blossoms into garlands. Their heady scent filled the courtyard.
I flopped down beside her and looked down at the village. Its whitewashed houses huddled in rows. Emerald paddy fields stretched away into the distance. Smoke rose languorously from cooking fires. In the serene stillness of the immediate surroundings, I could hear faraway sounds with surprising clarity. The rhythmic singing of villagers still at work in the fields, the occasional mooing of a cow, the high-pitched squeals of children at play - and from the mango grove to the west, the plaintive "koo-ooo, koo-ooo" of a Koel calling to its mate.
Streaks of lavender and gray-pink tinted the sky as dusk came stealing in. The temple doors opened ponderously. I walked in, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the dimly-lit interior. It felt deliciously cool and damp inside. Eager little flames leaped and danced at the rims of brass lamps hanging from the ceiling. And on the walls, their giant black shadows caricatured their movements in synchronized perfection. The idol's face gleamed black in the lamplight. Golden threads on her rich silk robes shone like strands of fire. Jewels glittered at her throat. Fiery orange marigolds were piled up at her feet.
The temple priest, bald save for a long tuft of hair tied up in a knot the back of his head, recited slokas under his breath as he prepared for the worship. The acrid smell of camphor filled the room. The heavy brass bell at the entrance started clang-clang-clanging as worshippers streamed in. The priest's chanting grew louder and louder till the words bounced off the walls.
Prayers over, the priest handed out sacred ash and rose petals and crushed bananas in sugar syrup. I popped the ash into my mouth. It tasted pleasantly gritty against my grinding teeth. I washed it down with sweet-sour coconut water.
I walked out into the night, my hand clutched in my grandmother's, and looked back at the temple. The heavy doors were just swinging shut. For the temple, and the deity, it was time for sleep.