Travelling is fun but it is also at times difficult business. When I arrive at Thirunelveli I am tired. I have a slight fever and my stomach isn’t holding up too well. The bus drops me at a place where I see no lodges of the budget kind. There are lots of “hotels” around but they mean something else. This is one of those misinterpreted English words. I am not sure if I have alighted at the right place. The town has a confusing mix of bus interchanges – Town, Junction, New Bus Standm, Paladdy Bus Stand. Where should I be going and where should I look for a room? I am having a bad day.
I drop the idea of staying here for the night and head straight to the temple. The famous temple of Thirunelveli is the Nellaiappar Temple. The first gopuram I spot is colourfully packed with sculptures. It is broad and not as tall as those of Thiruchendur or Suchindram. A little later I see another gopuram which is taller and whitewashed. It appears to be a small temple from the outside but that’s just because the town huddles around it so closely. I dump my boots and backpack at a makeshift shed and collect a token in return.
‘I will close at 1 pm,’ informs the woman who looks after the stuff. It is 11 am. I hope two hours will be enough.
The first stunning detail about the temple is the wooden vaulting at the entrance. It has beautiful sculptures lacquered to shining brown. Dancers, musicians, gods and erotic couples decorate the brackets. Yalis leap out in a line. Smoothly carved pendants hang delicately. Arching ribs join at lotus shaped bosses. I wouldn’t call the whole thing sublime but it does show a lot of excellent craftsmenship in its rich details.
Inside, pillars contain more than lifesized reliefs. There is a wonderful sculpture of a woman holding a baby. Her elaborate headress, her bejewelled waistbands and pleated skirt are amongst the lovely details. Sculptures of similar artistic excellence adorn many pillars in this mandapa. A ceremony of some kind is going on in this space. People are assembled while a few priests are busy with the rituals. White smoke snakes up in the dimly lit interiors. A processional palanquin is kept readily decorated to take out the deity once this ceremony is done. The ceremony may very well last the entire afternoon before the deity goes on procession this evening.
The inner sanctum is a few feet above ground level. This distinct architectural design of placing the sanctum above the level of the rest of the temple is not unique to this temple but it is not so common either. I go up a short flight of stairs. At the landing are two composite pillars, very much like those at Suchindram. I test some of the slender columns with my hands. A deep sound comes out in different notes on each pillar. These are the musical pillars of this temple.
‘Three rupees for darshan,’ tells me the guy sitting at the entrance. I certainly did not expect this. Temples never charge for darshan and I am surprised by this demand.
The outer walls around the inner sanctum have epigraphs in old Tamil scripts. The same walls contain wonderfully sculpted pilasters. Sunlight streams through an iron grill above. In this natural light the ambience inside this old temple is simply magical. The smell of oil and burning camphor fills my senses. Reliefs on pillar are blackened with years of offering. The whole place is charged with an aura that can come only with years of worship. It feels like every prayer ever said in here echoes on a spiritual plane for all eternity.
Coming out, I walk a great deal in the cloisters. The temple may look small from the outside but it is massive. There are mandapas everywhere. There is a great deal of sculptural detail to admire in every corner. Old wooden temple carts are parked in some places. There are pillars leaping out with yalis. Following the earliest of styles, there are smooth round pillars with scroll capitals. There are lion balustrades catching the harsh afternoon sun with energy and drama. In one corridor, the stone vaulting has beautiful cusped arches.
‘Photo?’ asks the mahout who is busy attending to the temple elephant.
If I were to say yes, he would be quick to demand a compulsory donation. I am not really interested in a photograph. I am more interested in what he is doing with the elephant’s tail. A priest is standing nearby and next to him is a pilgrim.
‘Will this do?’ asks the mahout to the pilgrim. He shows him a strand of hair from the elephant’s tail. The pilgrim fingers it for a few seconds. He says something in response. It is too stiff. He wants something more flexible. Meanwhile the priest goes off to find a nail cutter.
The task of selecting the right strand of hair continues. It would be tied at the wrist as a blessing or a good luck charm. The pachyderm on the other hand submits patiently to scrutiny. It lets the pair examine its tuft of tail hair strand by strand. It does not attempt to flick its tail to ward off the flies. There are none around at this time of the afternoon and the temple premises are quite clean. Finally, the nail cutter arrives, a couple of strands are selected, clipped carefully and handed over to the buyer. Payment is made and the elephant is back to swishing its tail.
It is almost 1 pm. I leave the temple, collect my stuff from the woman, pay up for her services and stand by the road wondering what to do next. Eating anything is out of the question, let alone the famous Thirunelveli halwa. I have heard about it from people. Although available at many shops, it appears that the original halwa is from a shop named “Iruttu Kadai” which literally means “Dark Shop.” I guess it is a traditional shop that has stayed looking the same for decades. It is famous for its exceptional quality and consistency. I am told that their halwa melts beautifully on the tongue. Rumour has it that the day’s stock is sold out in a few hours each morning.
I see a doctor for my stomach problems. It turns out that the doctor is sitting listlessly, looking bored and out of business. He is actually about to close shop but I have forestalled his lunch hour. He pulls out his stethoscope and starts his examination. He must be in his seventies. Even lifting the stethoscope seems like a effort. I hope he doesn’t drop dead on me while listening to my lungs. He asks a few questions curtly. It looks like he is in a hurry for lunch. He prescribes a few medicines which he scribbles on his pad. I peep slyly at the letterhead to see if he is a real doctor. I also wonder if he has prescribed the Thirunelveli halwa as the cure.
‘What this for?’ I ask him.
‘I already told you,’ he barks rather impatiently. ‘That’s for the fever.’
I come out smiling. I kind of like the old man and will remember this encounter for days to come.