A priest, at least that's what I'm calling him because I don't know my way around a Hindu temple yet, offers a metal tray to the middle-aged woman who just maneuvered her way through the small door cut in the rock. She gives him a plastic bag of leaves and flowers, which he distributes methodically behind him, on and in the altar. Dan and I crane our necks trying to see what's happening without getting in the way.
The priest sets a burning candle on his tray and the woman cups it with both hands, almost stroking it. Our two new friends, the reason I'm assuming we haven't been asked to leave the inner sanctum, give a few coins to the priest and do the same, and motion for us to follow. I ask them how and what it means, but before they can satisfy curiosity a horde of boys and young men push through the small door and we back off to give them room.
Our friends dab ash on their foreheads and we go outside to look down on the city from our 80-meter perch on Rock Fort, Trichy's tallest landmark. They seem to find it strange we don't know what to do in the temple, but don't really comment on it, just waggle their heads from side to side. Everyone we talk to does this bobbing headshake, but we haven't yet pinned down what it means when they do it. Yes? No? OK? Maybe a mixture. We chat to the men about Trichy and the view, but they're in a hurry to get back down the 300 or so steps to the bottom of the giant rock outcrop and we still want to take some photos, so we say goodbye with many handshakes and an exchange of business cards. From a Western viewpoint, you'd think we'd known each other for years, not just the last fifteen minutes.
But that's how it's been during our time in Trichy, and even waiting in the Kuala Lumpur airport before we arrived. Our interactions have been extremely friendly--people want to stop and chat, or just say hello, or simply shake hands. It's the friendliest place we've ever been.
We spent the first day here exploring, wandering side roads and just getting a feel for things. I keep wanting to compare it to China—the dust, the crowds of people, the noise, the sanitation. But really, this town looks more like some of the ones we saw in Thailand and Cambodia. It's low-rise and, although it's a city by population, it looks more rural than it is.
The second day we ventured to Rock Fort, and the temples to the Hindu god Shiva that have been built into it. We explored a few streets of the bazaar at its foot, bought a Punjabi shirt for Dan and got persuaded to wear ropes of flowers in my hair by a woman so zealous she braided my hair for me and gave me her own bobby pin.
Our third day we saved for the biggest temple in Tamil Nadu—Sri Rangam. This 600-year-old island temple dedicated to Vishnu has eleven walls around it and 21 gopurams (tall, almost Aztec-looking towers). The tallest gopuram is more than 72 meters tall and is painted in eye-catching pastels, mostly blue and red; we saw it clearly from the top of Rock Fort the day before.
For this trip we decided to hire a guide so we could start to understand the mythology of the Hindu temples; after the tour was done, I realized I still have a lot more reading up to do! Vishnu, one of the three gods Hinduism worships, has 10 incarnations, if I remember the guide correctly. These incarnations are called avatars, and each avatar has a special history, and, I'm supposing, special attributes to worship. The gods (and their avatars?) also have wives, and brothers, and servants... a lot to take in on just one tour.
A lot of the fun of visiting temples in China was surreptitiously watching the worshipers; it's the same here but it doesn't seem like we have to be so secretive. Several people came up asking for their pictures to be taken. We also watched a family getting their portraits done after the kids had had their ears pierced. The kids had shaven their heads, been blessed by the priest and had their ears decorated with big gold studs. This is an important ceremony here, the guide said. I'm intrigued to find out if this is important all over India, or just here in Tamil Nadu—everything we learn about India brings to mind even more questions.
Next stop: Tanjore, a trip graciously suggested by a man we met at the airport in Kuala Lumpur.
**Click here to see our photos of Trichy**
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**Click here to see our travel tips for Trichy**