We took a look through the two listed in our Lonely Planet, and then spent the rest of our time just exploring the streets, with a vague objective of finding the river and/or wireless internet.
No luck on the wifi cafe, but on the advice of a guy we chatted to near the river, we stopped off at a neighborhood temple for a glance and ended up welcomed into the inner sanctum.
Leaving our shoes at the door, as always required in temples, we took pictures of the small gopuram and entrance hall of the Sri Kalahasthevswarar Temple, but didn't venture in farther for a few minutes.
Unsure about whether non-Hindus were allowed past the main entrance, Dan and I stood smiling in the doorway, carefully avoiding messing up the rice-flour drawings on the stone floor. We looked around, at the pillars leading to an image of Shiva, at a few men and women sitting on the floor, and grinned at everyone.
One short woman selling flowers got up eagerly.
“Country?” she asked. “USA,” I said.
“Country?” she asked again, followed by a burst of Tamil—utterly unintelligible to me. “America?” I tried.
“America!” she exclaimed, nodding her head. Then, shaking my hand and talking in Tamil, she led Dan and I to the south courtyard. It seemed we had a guide.
We walked around the front altar and checked out the carvings and minor shrines along the side. The lady talked, and sometimes asked me questions—none of which we could understand. We'd shrug and laugh, and she'd grab my arm and laugh too, and then go right back to asking questions.
In the center of the temple were two bigger altars, housed inside a stone room accessed from the south courtyard. It looked like these altars got a lot of traffic because metal crowd-control barriers had been cemented in to show clear exit and entrance chutes.
When we got there the metal grate to the shrines was locked but the woman started calling out and soon a green-skirted priest came up, unlocked it and lit candles on a salver for us. We still didn't know what to do, but tried to look respectful. He motioned toward the flame, so we did too. Then, chanting under his breath, he took his thumb and forefinger and smeared white ash on our brows, and then dabbed the middle of that with a large dollop of red paste.
Then, with a big smile, he asked, “Country?”
After the priest's curiosity was sated, the woman ushered us to the west courtyard and pointed out each of the places where people prayed. Then, in a surreal twist, she showed us that one of her legs was a prosthesis, and asked lots more questions we had no way of understanding and laughed.
From the north side of the temple, we could enter another sanctum. From the other temples we've seen, I'm guessing that each of these altars, shrines and sanctums were dedicated to different gods, or different manifestations of the same god. A little like the Catholic saints, if a person has a specific prayer, then they will seek out whichever deities are in charge of that kind of complaint.
To me, it seems like a big celestial bureaucracy, but I'm trying to find a book that will explain it a little better, like I did with the lives of the saints when I lived in Europe. Going to so many temples to look at carvings and paintings without knowing who the artwork represents and why it's important frustrates me. .
Anyway, the north-entrance sanctum was carved out of a big block of rock, creating a crypt-like room filled with incense and mystery. We nearly left again when we saw men lying on the floor, touching their heads to the stone, but they got up, smiled and told us in plain English to “come in, please.” There, another priest gave us a sprig of mint (or basil—Dan and I disagree) and told us it was “medicine” and we should eat it. We took a nibble to be courteous and then fed it to a wandering cow later. The cow didn't want it but followed Dan around for awhile anyway.
That wasn't the only temple we visited, though I think we'll remember it best.
The day before we'd been able to look around the larger Sarangapani Temple and chatted to another priest. This guy had worked in Texas, USA for a year before coming back to do his religious duties at the temple. He had so many questions for us that I wasn't able to ask him what job he'd held in Texas before he was called away from our conversation by another priest.
At the Kumbeshwara Temple at sunset, a group of men were involved in some kind of ritual—purification, maybe? A professional videographer was filming so we decided we could take pictures too. A line of men sat cross-legged on the floor and washed rice from their hands, chanted, and wound red scarves around their heads. We were lucky to find it—if we weren't so nosy about looking into every corner of the temples, we would have missed it.
After relaxing into the friendly, non-touristy atmosphere of Kumbakonam for a few days we decided to take a bus five hours south to bustling Madurai for more temples, a palace and hopefully some better internet access.
**Click here to see our photos from Kumbakonam**