I’m not Hindu. In fact, I’m not religious. I’ve said it before, mildly delivered, with just the slightest inflection at the end to indicate this is not a question, but a statement.
As I stand inside Kapaleeshwarar temple, it whispers a statement of its own: you don’t have to be religious to see religion’s beauty.
Evening darkness has settled upon the grounds. In front of me people press themselves against the stone floor, as if mid-pushup, but with such intensity of expression and trembling of palms that it cannot be anything but a prayer. Others stand around a man carrying a lamp. I follow their actions and cup its light, smoothing its soft heat up and over my head. As he heads back into the temple’s recesses the swarm disperses.
The temple is by no means empty or quiet- people talking, soft singing and low drumbeats all visit my ears. Yet somehow the temple radiates its own atmosphere of tranquility, thrumming a pulse separate from the Chennai bustling beyond the gates. Now only the fragrance of jasmine, bought from the street side and pinned in my hair, remains to connect me to the city outside.
Here, on the inside, there are different types of beauty at work. There is the grandeur of the Gopuram* composed of carved figures. Each layer tells a story, tiered like a wedding cake, yet infinitely more extravagant. The floor is decorated with kolam**, each one a kaleidoscopic plume of colour.
This is the beauty that first seizes your attention. It is unlike its subtle sister, who furnishes the temple quietly. And it is beholding the latter, an offering of candles, that I find myself most in awe.
It is simple: a box holding diyas***. The box’s silver metal gleams, mirage-like, while the flames reflect off its surface. Together they conjure a small Aladdin’s cave. Each candle is filled with oil, or, like the one nestled in my palm, ghee. I admire their teardrop shape. When lit, they are like flaming petals.
The wind tousles the jasmine in my hair while I wait, almost expectantly, for the candles to go out. None of them do. My friend informs me that using ghee as a candle base lets them burn for a long time. “Practically forever.” They sit resilient, and I stand, mesmerized.
The logical part of me, the part that tells people I’m not religious, reasons that it must be the architecture of the box that keeps the candles lit. But the wind dances in the shell of my ear and whispers another answer: sometimes, perhaps, we can have faith that there’s something more.
*Monumental tower normally found at the entrance of temples (especially in Southern India)
**Form of painting using rice, white rock or chalk powder
***Oil lamp made of clay