On the first day of our excursion into Chennai, we visited a wide variety of religious spaces. First, and personally most impressive, was the Kapaleeswarar Temple. This temple, dedicated to Shiva, one of the main Hindu gods, can be seen from far away because of the gigantic tower, gopuram, in the middle of the temple. This tower marks the most sacred space in the entire temple complex, into which only Hindus are allowed to go. Around the main tower are different, smaller shrines dedicated to different gods and goddesses. As we entered the temple, we passed through a truly gigantic set of carved wooden doors and proceed to the first of the many smaller shrines. Like the Hindus visiting the temple, we walked around the entire temple complex in a clockwise direction, stopping at each shrine to see each god or goddess. Right outside the temple complex, there is a massive temple tank that many Hindus use for life-cycle rituals. Additionally, this tank is shared with the Muslim community for certain Muslim holidays and religious observations. One of the most interesting spaces within the temple is a tree partially hidden away behind a shrine. This tree, which has grown to be quite large, is covered in different powders and salt. On the branches of the tree are cradles with representations of Krishna, one of the Hindu gods, as a baby. Women who hang these cradles onto these branches are usually wishing for fertility, especially women who have had a difficult time conceiving.
After we exited the Kapaleeswarar Temple, we walked a short distance down the road and entered a Jain temple. This temple, while not as large as the Kapaleeswarar Temple, was just as ornate and beautiful. Before we entered, we were required to remove anything made of leather, since one of Jainism’s main tenets is ahimsa, or non-violence, towards all life. When we entered the Jain temple, there were many practicing Jains already there going about their daily activities. One of these activities was making different shapes out of piles of rice. These piles of rice serve as sacrificial offerings that are also non-violent, since neither animals nor the soil was unduly harmed in harvesting the rice. Unlike the Kapaleeswarar Temple, which has bustling and noisy, the Jain temple was very quiet and peaceful. Many Jains at the temple also wore bandanas over their mouths in order to avoid inhaling and thus unduly harming any insects.
Finally, after exiting the Jain temple, we walked a little farther and came upon San Thome Cathedral. This church is built upon the tomb of Saint Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Much like the Kapaleeswarar Temple, it can be seen from a long distance away due to the tall church steeple. When we first entered the church compound, we visited the tomb of Saint Thomas. Inside the building where the tomb is kept, there is also a museum detailing the history of the cathedral. In the museum, there were things like pieces of bone from an old graveyard nearby, Bibles and other texts from the 1800s used in the cathedral, along with religious artifacts. In the actual tomb of Saint Thomas, there was a bone fragment, supposedly belonging to Saint Thomas, in a glass case. The tomb was a very solemn and quiet space where many people were sitting in pews to pray. Outside of the tomb was a nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ and the visitation of the Three Magi. Finally, we got to go inside part of the church. There was a Sunday Mass taking place while we were visiting the cathedral, but we were still able to stand in the back and see part the interior. In the front, there was a depiction of Jesus, which was very Indian. Jesus was standing on a lotus flower, which is very common in Indian depictions of gods and goddesses, with two sets of prayer beads. The melding of Indian influence and Christianity gave us all insight into the range of religion in South India.
Today, on our second day of exploring Chennai, we visited Saint Mary’s Church. This church is in the Fort St. George complex and was built by the British during their occupation of the area. This church was very different from San Thome Cathedral, especially since in the fact that it was much smaller. Like San Thome, Saint Mary’s still has an active congregation and is still an active church. The church, while still being active, is also a monument to many British people who died in the area, including leaders of Madras. There were also graves of many British people in the courtyard, many dating back to the late 1600s.
Over the past two days, we have visited a very famous Hindu temple, a Jain temple, a cathedral, and a church. Despite being from different religious traditions, there were similarities between the spaces. Religion, a key component of our course, is coming alive in a variety of spaces even just in these nascent moments.