‘Is there a train to Guruvayur?’ I enquire at the counter at Calicut railway station. The man is prompt with his answer. All the information is at his finger tips. He doesn’t have to look anywhere. Apparently, train ‘6308 Executive Express’ is set to leave in half an hour. I would have to get off at Kuttipuram and change to a bus. Guruvayur has no train station.
The journey to Kuttipuram takes 75 minutes. It is quite a distance from Calicut but it costs only Rs. 24. Upon arrival, I immediately get a bus to Guruvayur. I expected as much since Guruvayur is a famous place of pilgrimage. Buses are plenty and many of them are superfast services with limited stops. This is quite unlike Chhattisgarh, Orissa or Madhya Pradesh where bus services are not all that great. India’s large population is quite a good thing when it comes to public transport. Competition is intense amongst bus operators. The sheer volume of commuters means that everyone gets to make a decent profit. Guruvayur is 57 kms away and the ride costs me only Rs. 25.
The bus drops me off at the Western side of the temple. This is a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. The style of construction is typically Keralan with gables, roofs and superb timbered construction. Such temples were built by traditional craftsmen who go by the local term, “thatchan.” The fact that newer buildings continue to be built in this style is a testament that thatchans are not a dying breed by any means. They stand for an old tradition that is very much in fashion even today.
I do some repacking. I stuff my daypack into my backpack, remove my boots and join a small queue at the cloak room. At times, this temple can be quite crowded. My sister has been here recently at 3 am in the morning. She had to stand for a couple of hours for darshan. I am wondering why is it so empty today. I think I know why. Two days from now is Krishna Janmashtami. Why would anyone come today? They might as well wait for the big day.
‘No trousers,’ says the guy curtly at the counter. I didn’t really catch his words the first time and he had to say them again for my benefit.
‘No trousers?’ I ask a little shocked. What else?
‘Only dhoti,’ he says with the same firmness and a blank expression on his face.
I back out of the queue wondering what to do. I have never in my life worn a dhoti. With my zero-size waistline and a non-existent bulge of prosperity, I am beginning to have doubts if one would stay on my waist. I am almost giving up the idea of going into the temple. I hang around the covered walkway that approach the temple. The walkway is lined with rows of shops on each side. They sell little colourfuls wicker pots, the kind of pots from which Lord Krishna would steal butter. Little earthen lamps fill a basket. A fan made of dried straw and grass catches the morning sun. Near it is a pair of wooden clogs that sadhus once commonly used all across India in their distaste for leather products. Metal oil lamps in miniatures invite devotees. They are meant to be offerings to the temple. Portraits of the Lord are being sold as posters. Then there are shops that sell dhotis.
There are dhotis that are woven with golden threads. There are dhotis of pure silk. There are dhotis of intricate handworked borders. Then there are the simplest of dhotis of Indian cotton and transparent thin. I buy one of them, a four-meter cloth at Rs. 110. The border is a solid band of maroon colour. It is so thin that it is to be worn with a double drape. Problem is finding a place to change.
Near the Eastern entrance to the temple are free toilets and bathrooms. A bench at a corner gives me some clean space to change. I am joined by few others.
‘This is not for changing. You have to take a room,’ shouts the manager at the reception desk nearby.
I pretend not to hear him. I pretend he is talking to others around me. Somehow trespasses seem less severe in the company of others. Finally, the deed is done. I deposit my boots, mobile and backpack at the cloak room. I remove my shirt and join a long queue snaking into the temple. Half the time I am worried that the dhoti may slip off. I clutch it firmly all the time. I take my steps with the greatest of caution lest I should trip over my own dhoti. Some people are staring. Is it obvious that my dhoti is not tied as elegantly as the rest?
The queue moves an inch at a time. At times it does not move at all. This slow progress is good. It gives chance to admire the temple in leisure without appearing to do so. The fact is that the administration here is quite strict. Only Hindus are allowed inside. Tourists are not welcome. The only reason for coming into the temple should be to pray and not to look around.
Flanking the main entrance are superb Keralan style wall murals. Typical of this style are vivid colours and fluid lines. The eyes are always large and expressive. They convey an entire range of emotions – horror, anger, trance, astonishment or romance. Scenes are generally of a narrative nature. Every inch of the wall-canvas is packed with little decorative motifs. Trees on their own are superbly drawn, very much like the miniature paintings of Pahari.
The themes are religious. There is Krishna fighting the demon-serpent Kaliya. There is Krishna flirting with the gopis as he steals their bathing robes. There is Arjuna doing his penance, quickly followed by the boar hunt. The scene is full of energy. There are dwarapalaks standing the length of the doorways that they guard.
As I come through the gateway, the chanting of a dozen priests fills my ears. The sound has an immediate effect. The outside world is forgotten and suddenly I am inside ancient India. The priests are busy making a paste of some sort. I think this might be sandalwood paste to be used in a special abhishekam to the Lord. Beautifully crafted brass bananas hang heavily at the doorway. I see the doorway to the inner sanctum. Above the lintel is a pair of giant elephant tusks. A photograph of the old elephant hangs between the tusks.
After an hour, I had darshan. I hardly remember much of it. It was a rushed affair. I could see a small image covered in garlands and ornaments. I could hardly discern it to be Lord Krishna. Moreover, my attention was with my dhoti. I had every expectation that it will come off in the mad rush inside the sanctum. Thankfully, all was well.
What I do remember is the wonderful statue of Anantasheyana. It is an idol of wonderful relief. Lord Vishnu is reclined and his right hand is thrown back holding a flower. The flower is being offered to linga on the floor. His consorts, Bhudevi and Sridevi grace his feet and head. Above the reclined figure, sculpted in relief on the same rock, is a line of heads bowing before the Lord. The compactness of this composition is what attracts me to it. Standing below are other important gods, sadhus and kings. They stand with folded palms before the Lord.
The outer walls of the sanctum are packed with beautiful murals but only the south wall is exposed. Others are covered up with white cloth. It is a pity that such beauty should be closed to public view. Pillars in the cloisters surrounding the sanctum contain sculptural reliefs – Krishna stealing butter, the avatars of Vishnu, the well-known composition of Ram-Laksman-Sita-Hanuman, various deities decorated with ornaments and weapons, deities in their usual postures on blooming lotuses, buxom attendents holding lotuses.
Coming out from the inner sanctum, I stand under impressive wooden rafters and high ceilings. Lifesized high reliefs of gods and kings decorate pillars. Krishna and Balarama are in Kathakali style with elaborate headresses. Counters are busy collecting money for prasadams, abhishekams and pujas. Somewhere in between admiring the architecture and imbibing the ambience of this pilgrim place, my dhoti starts to slip off my waist. I quickly retie it and save my honour.
Men and women in a corner are peeling and slicing fruits and vegetables. Needless to say, bananas feature prominently even in this temple cuisine. My attention turns to a pair of giant weighing scales. This is for thalabaram, donation of gifts to the temple according to one’s body weight. There is a queue here too. There is a determined price for each donation – rice or plantain at Rs. 15 a kilo, notebooks at Rs. 30 a kilo, sandalwood at Rs. 200 a kilo and Mysore sandalwood at Rs. 1000 a kilo.
I collect my stuff from the cloak room and change into comfortable trousers. On a stage, priests are reciting in unison slokas. Their collected voices blast out of the temple into the rest of Guruvayur town. Devotees are gathered before this stage and listen intently to the recitation. I take one last look at the temple before moving off. There are perhaps more things at Guruvayur for a curious tourist but I have time enough for just the main temple. I stop at a restaurant for lunch before catching a bus to Thrissur.