Braving the notoriously dangerous traffic, this short essay that I wrote back in 2007 is about a spontaneous, (almost) death-defying, 80 kilometer day trip by scooter to Chidambaram, a holy site in southern India.
Sun-baked and fleeting, the humid South Indian landscape falls beneath the thrumming wheels of our old scooter. In a roaring blur, we miraculously manage to stay alive on a treacherous road, competing with gigantic, gaudily-painted trucks, ramshackle buses, whining mopeds, overloaded tractors, obliviously slow bicycles, stubborn crowds and sauntering, humpbacked cows.
No rules of traffic impose themselves here. Narrowly avoiding one catastrophe after another, we make our way to the holy city of Chidambaram in search of its famed temple. Built over 1,600 years ago, it is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva in his incarnation as Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer. Depicted as a fire-ringed figure balancing gracefully on one foot, stamping out the demon of ignorance, Shiva is poised in the blissful throes of tandava, the cosmic dance that simultaneously creates, sustains and dissolves the entire universe.
After several obscure turns, we deliver ourselves into Chidambaram’s wide avenues and an unending torrent of urban humanity. Lost – until we caught sight of a long procession and a phalanx of crimson. We recognized them as young brahmin priests, heading for the temple. Happily we ditch the scooter and fall in line with the throng of devotees, musicians and bright-eyed, sari-wrapped women with garlands of jasmine in their hair. Walking in a thick cacophony of drumbeats, jangling bangles and the cries of toddlers carried by pious parents, there’s no time nor space to feel out of place. Sweating with anticipation, we eventually arrive at a massive, painted gate, as the raucous music continues. Emboldened, the pilgrims let loose a song to be let in.
Finally, the doors open and a tide of movement sweeps up the pageantry. Pushing forward into the courtyard, a staggering stone tower or gopuram greets us with its riotous surfaces, crawling with hundreds of intricate carvings, fierce divinities animated in neon-bright blues and oranges. Past the gopuram gates, we enter a darkened stone hall and a monumental, sculpted colonnade stretches before us. Our eyes adjust and we can see many structures overlapping with open-air spaces and chambers, with rituals being simultaneously performed all over the temple grounds.
We explore another chamber, where a bare-chested, robust young priest with velvet eyes beckons us to make an offering to Shiva, enshrined as a onyx figure behind a grille. The thickly incensed air suspends the afternoon sunlight, as devotees gather in small groups, singing and worshipping at altars. A handful of priests make music, the reedy sound of oboes intermingling with the throaty echo of drums in a flow of devotional abandon that calls to the gods.
Rowdiness and reverence coexist effortlessly in this place, manifesting as a million prayers to Shiva dancing a delicate balance between creation and destruction. Even as the day darkens and we prepare to leave – at the mercy of the pockmarked Indian highways once again – we marvel at this small taste of timelessness, a divine rapture spilling its forms from these walls, of creation’s rejoicing.