Temple Towns

Someone (a friend’s friend I guess) had written in the comments of a shared post on Google Reader about how he generally feels safe in tourist places. Locals there have an incentive to be nice to tourists, he said, since they depend upon the latter for livelihood. And so elements that would make the place unsafe for tourists would be weeded out.

While I agree with this hypothesis (in general) I realize that the same need not hold true for temple towns or other similar places where people go for religious reasons. There the locals have no incentive to be nice to tourists, pilgrims rather – the Pilgrims will come no matter what, and the place will continue to Progress.

So if you are evaluating holiday options from a safety perspective you are likely to be better of choosing the secular option.

The Mata Temple in Amritsar

It seems to be a slightly obscure temple. I don’t think it is on the map of most tourists who visit Amritsar. Or maybe with the increasing breed of auto drivers turned tour guides, it is now. The Lonely Planet Guide to India calls it the “Mata temple”. Locals call it the “vaishno devi temple”. The Lonely Planet guide says it is a must-visit for women who want to get pregnant. Anyway, we went. On the way back from our trip to the Wagah border.

It is an interesting temple, to say the least. The ground floor seems to be a normal temple, but the presiding deity is an old bespectacled woman in a sari which made me think that it is dedicated to some cult. Apparently not, and this is the way that Vaishno Devi is represented in most places (that is what my mother tells me). The ground floor is again noisy as most north indian temples are. As I enter, I notice this staircase that says “vaishno devi cave” or some such thing. And I go upstairs.

The first floor of the temple has been designed with The Crystal Maze (remember that awesome TV show on Star Plus?) in mind. I don’t know if it was designed that way to attract children, or if they actually decided to model the place after some famous temples, or if they just made it that way to make the place more interesting.

So in order to reach the shrine of the main deity (again a Devi), you need to go through a large number of “tasks”. You need to climb up and down a total of three flights of stairs each way (I think I counted it right). And then there is a stretch where the ceiling is so low that you need to crawl on all fours to get past. And you need to get past a blabbering madman (an employee of the temple) in order to stand in a queue – which leads into a second cave.

This second cave has ankle-deep water, and you need to wade through that. i was wearing cargo pants whose legs could be detached at the knees, but then I was afraid of misplacing them so just rolled them up. And while you were wading through the water, you had people who started shouting slogans in favour of the Mata. Death only it was. But at the end of the passage where you waded through the water, there was a wonderful sight. A one of a kind.

There was a statue of udders of a cow, and placed directly below that was a statue of a snake, and a lingam. Interpret this ensemble in whatever way you like. I first told my mother that this was a good way of ensuring middleman-less ksheeraabhishekam. Anyways we noticed people in front of us touching the udders and the lingam and the snake (yes, unlike most temple deities, these things were available for touching for general public).

When my turn came, not knowing how to handle it, I ended up groping the udders. And then stroked the lingam below. It’s been a week since we visited that temple, but my mother is yet to stop ragging me about what I did there.

That turned out to be the last of the “adventures” as we soon came to the main deity. The pujaris there gave us kadlepuri (puffed rice) as prasad, and put some saffron marks on our foreheads (eccentrically). And we were soon back downstairs enduring the noise of the main temple.