Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Golden Temple at Vellore

One of the most extraordinary places we visited on our trip to India was the Golden temple at Vellore. This is located within a few kilometers of the Vellore Christian Medical College and a group of classmates from the 1958/59 admissions year, who had gathered for a class reunion, decided to check it out. I was along as a “significant other.”

The first thing we discovered was that there is a very strict embargo on cameras and cell phones. Everything has to be checked it, along with shoes, which is normal in Hindu temples. The photos that accompany this piece are scanned from the brochure that we picked up at the start of our visit and suffer accordingly. Nonetheless they give a tiny taste of what we saw, a mere dry biscuit before the eye feast. You can see more images, and much more detail, on the temple web site, to which this story is linked.

The aerial view shows a six-sided star-shaped covered walk-way, and one has to go right round it, up a single arm at centre right and round the circle to get to the temple proper, which stands in the middle. The grainy picture gives no real idea of scale, but one can get a rough idea. Each leg of the star is about 100 metres long, so one has to walk 900 metres around the area just to reach the temple entrance.

At each point there are sales stalls and all along on both sides there are posters in four languages telling one about the place. I could not help wondering about the opulence that we could see everywhere, with the central temple a mass of gold that must have cost millions, in any currency.

This opulence contrasts sharply with the widespread poverty throughout the countryside. The brochure gives one the real picture. An active fund-raising campaign has supported all the building and maintenance of well-equipped hospital, health clinics in the surrounding area, water distribution, a school, the development of micro industries, a reforestation program and other good works.

By the time we had joined the many hundreds of worshippers and tourist (99% of whom were Indians) at the actual worship site we understood. One of the signs summed it up – “A temple is a place of community, bringing people together.” The brochure explains it more clearly.

By sheer good fortune we had arrived as the sun was setting. A large water body – called a tank in India, surrounds the temple itself. The lights had come on and the reflection of the building was breathtaking. Everything is sight was covered in gold leaf. The pillars (16 of them), the ceiling, the walls, everything. There are said to be seven or eight tons of gilt. One of our colleagues, who had been to Amritsar, told us that the temple is three or four times the size of that famous Sikh shrine. Just as we thought we had reached the exit we were held up by the start of a prayer service, or Puja, and for 45 minutes we sat quietly as the priest went through his rituals to the accompaniment of chanting and the continuous ringing of a bell above our heads. Those of use who had paid the "expensive" (about $5.00) Rs 250 were on the inner ring of the circle and so we were allowed near the holy sanctum after the service and received a blessing as we left.

The set-up was not entirely ancient and spiritual. On the way out we had to pass through a series of stall where all sorts of religious items and knick-knacks were on sale to deal with the secular. The modern management of the tourist line-up – some attribute it to the Disney Corporation – has not escaped the attention of the Indians. Of course it's a great way to raise funds.


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Vellore Golden Temple

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