Anuradha Goyal: As you know I write a lot about temples. I love to visit the temples. So, today I thought I’ll invite a guest who is an expert at interpreting temples. At introducing us to the aspects of temples that we usually tend to miss. We have Shri Ramakrishna Kongalla with us. He is by profession an academician in the tourism space. But if you follow his Twitter, Instagram handle, you would see how intimately he knows the temples. How well he acts as a bridge between the world of scholars who study Indian Temples and the layperson who actually visits them to pray. So Ramakrishna Ji welcome to Detours.
Ramakrishna Kongalla: Namaste, thanks a lot for the introduction.
Detours video on youtube: How To Visit Indian Temples? with Ramakrishna Kongalla
Listen/watch the audio/video on the IndiTales Youtube channel for the conversation on the topic or read below.
Ramakrishna Kongalla on how to Visit Temples
Anuradha: So, Ramakrishna Ji, let’s start talking about a topic both of us are passionate about, temples. Today, let’s talk about how to visit a temple? Most of us, we go there, we stand in front of the deity for a few seconds or a few minutes and we come out. That’s visiting the temple. Sometimes we stand and admire the architecture of ancient temples. But walk us through, how we should visit a temple? Which is the most important thing in the temple that we must spend some time at?
Ramakrishna: Yes, Mam with your permission before starting this discussion there is this very beautiful Shloka from Jabala Upanishad. This is very important in this discussion. After I read it out you will understand why it is so important. It goes as so:
It says like Yogis and Sadhus, they have Shiva in their heart. So they need not go to visit a Murti in the temple. Whereas we normal people, we are ignorant. We are filled with Agnana. It is for normal people like us with Agnana who is supposed to go to a temple and visit a Murti. So, this concept very clearly is explained already in Hinduism. Saying like that because again this concept comes from the west, idol worship, and Murti worship. Then writing negative things about it. But it is already said in the literature of Sanatana Dharma itself. Saying that the sadhus and yogis, they don’t need to go.
So, we have to understand the basic fact that we are ignorant people. We do not know much and with a lot of curiosity to understand the things we have to go to the temple. Very clearly, stated in our own Jabala Upanishad. The basic things that we have to focus on when we go to a temple are one is the Garbhagriha and next to the Mandapa.
When you enter the temple, the Garbhagriha where the Mula Murti is or the Moola Nayaka or the chief deity is present is a closed chamber. It contains a lot of energy. That a concept of energy in Garbhagriha itself is again a different topic. So, when you are visiting a temple before both sides of the Garbhagriha or the Dwara of Garbhagriha, we have observed the people standing in a line. Because the energy that is radiated in the Garbhagriha can be absorbed by us.
So, generally, because we are not aware of this energy that is being radiated from the Murti and the Garbhagriha we do not because maybe we think it is fashion or because we do not want to stand along with many people there near Garbhagriha we tend to neglect that aspect.
Standing near Garbhagriha and having darshan of the chief deity or Mula Murti, we have to spend some time sitting in the Mandapa that is just there before the Garbhagriha. You should spend some 5-10 minutes sitting in the Mandapa. Generally, it has become a fashion that they touch the floor of the Mandapa with the hand and they come out. So, when you are doing so not paying attention to the Garbhagriha or sitting in the Mandapa you are not fulfilling that aspect of visiting the temple, the motto of visiting the temple.
So why should you sit in that Mandapa? Because with a lot of Vedic Mantras, with a lot of Archana, Aarti, and all these ritualistic aspects the place itself has got a psychological aura in it which can bring some positive energy and positive feeling in us.
For example, the incense sticks that we light in the home itself is a very good example of how positive energy that brings in us. So you have to spend at least five-ten minutes sitting in the underpass so that you have that lot of positivity and also observe the energy that is there in the Garbhagriha and Mandapa. These are the two aspects we have to focus a lot on.
You can also listen to this conversation as a Podcast
Anuradha: I also think that when we go and pray there or chant there, we also add to that energy.
Ramakrishna: Yes exactly this also. Another important aspect is as soon as we get into the temple, we must stand below the bell of the temple. Most of the people they neglect. The bell that is there in the temple, Ghanta is made of Panchadhatu Loha. When this Panchadhatu’s are used it has got a special vibration that can influence the Kundalini in our body. So, whenever you stand exactly below the bell and you ring it there is a number of rings that we have to give there are 8, 16, 30 to 64. But then we will not get into the aspects of numbers. But then this much when you are doing it, the vibration will always remind you that you have to pay focus on the Murti and Garbhagriha and not anything else.
Anuradha: So, in the Garbhagriha we pray and then we take Charanamrita or Tirtha you call it in south India, and what’s the significance of that if you can speak for half a minute on that?
Ramakrishna: Yes, after visiting and sitting in the Mandapa then standing below the bell and then ringing it. Then the next aspect is the Prasadam and the Panchamrita or Charanamrita that we take. The Panchamrita and Charanamrita are very tricky terminologies. We will talk about that but then Prasadam. It is also said because on Tholi Ekadashi we conduct this Satyanarayana Swami Vrata. There are five stories we read when we organize the Satyanarayana Swami Vrata. It is very clearly mentioned there in those stories that if you are coming out of the temple without receiving the Prasadam then it is not a good omen.
Anuradha: So it’s not a complete visit?
Ramakrishna: It’s not a complete visit. The reason is the Prasada itself is made of different nutritious grains. It is actually an extra nutritious supplement to human beings. That is one thing. When it comes to Charanamrita or Panchamrita, it contains five elements like cow milk, curd, ghee, honey, water, etc.
It is called Charanamrita when a Snana or bathing is done to a Murti which is outside the Garbhagriha. So, basically there are two Murtis in a temple. One is the Mula Murti which is immovable and one is the replica of Mula Murti outside the Garbhagriha. Which we can visit and we can touch called Utsava Murti which is also taken outside during the festivals. So that bathing is done with Panchamrita to the Murti and again this Murti is also made of Panchadhatu. When the bathing is done all these five elements they come from the feet of the Murti. That is the reason it is called Charanamrita.
When this Snana is done to a Murti, the minerals that are there in the Murti the Panchadatu, they also are in the Charanamrita. That Charanamrita when consumed, we again are supplied by the minerals and nutrients.
Anuradha: So, we have visited the Garbhagriha. We have spent some time in the Mandapa. We have stood below the bell which is ringing or we ring the bell and then we’ve taken the Charanamrit. What next?
Ramakrishna: After taking this thing then we have to pay attention to two important aspects. One is the inner Pradakshina and outer Pradakshina. Because if you are not doing Pradakshina then your temple visit is incomplete as this is a major aspect. While doing inner Pradakshina generally we go around the Garbhagriha. For outer Pradakshina we go to a whole aspect of a temple-like Garbhagriha.
Generally, before talking about outer and inner Pradakshina, let us make this clear basically, there are two kinds of temples majorly seen. There are many. But then majorly seen in India is the Shiva temples and Vishnu temples. Shiva and Vishnu both of them have their Vahanas. Shiva has Nandi and Vishnu has Garuda. So, before their Garbhagriha at a little distance, you find their Vahan Mandapa whenever you are doing Pradakshina. Externally you must cover these Mandapas. Nandi Mandapa and Garuda Mandapa along with the Parivara Devata also.
For example, if it is Vishnu, you have Bhudevi, Sridevi, Vishwaksena, Garuda, etc. If it is Shiva you have Karthikeya, Ganesha, Parvati, etc. So, all these have to be covered in the external Pradikshina.
When it comes to internal Pradikshina it is only to Garbhagriha and its external walls. You just have to observe internal walls are not much intricate as the external walls of the temple.
Why should we do Pradakshina? Because Pradikshina itself is a kind of a classroom, a class, a lecture, or an education. It’s like Wikipedia. Because when you come out of after doing the Pradikshina of Garbhagriha and when you are doing the main outer Pradakshina, you find a lot of sculpture on the temple walls. When we are going along with the family around the Pradikshina Patha, what do we see? We see the sculpture, some we know some we do not know. Then our kids when they come to us and ask a father like what is this?
Is this the Rama who is shooting Bali? Is that Sugriva who is nearby? So, such kind of question and cross-questioning takes place. So, while doing that we are discussing our Itihasas. We are discussing because temple walls are decorated with the Itihasas-Puranas. All these stories and episodes when you are going around, you are discussing those Itihasas-Puranas and the kind of information and the message that is there behind them.
Anuradha: I call them the open-air history written which is out there. Somebody who doesn’t know anything about the stories may not be able to interpret. But anybody who knows even a bit about the story will be able to see the whole story even in a single scene.
Ramakrishna: No doubt, like I have very good examples even in my village. Illiterate people who cannot read-write the books they knew volumes and volumes of stories about Itihasas and Puranas. They can better say the story of Ramayana and Mahabharata than me. Also, they can better identify the temple walls and the sculpture that is there, because they have been visiting the temples. They were understanding the episodes, that are saved.
Anuradha: And more than that they understand the wisdom behind it and let’s not forget these are the people who created those stories on the walls.
Ramakrishna: Yes exactly, no doubt. Then most of the stories that we observe on the temple walls are generally the good versus the bad, right!. So, for example, when you go around the Chola temple or Chola Shiva temples you find all the Swarupas of the Shiva like Tripurantaka Murti, Kalantaka Murti. Every episode like a god is fighting evil. So they say if it is evil there is an end to that evil one day no doubt.
Anuradha: And it is also a reminder of the fact that when things go bad the gods will step in.
Ramakrishna: Yeah, exactly and that is what creates belief in us towards the god.
Anuradha: So, it also tells you that if you are going through a bad time the gods will step in to help you at some point in time.
Ramakrishna: Yes and that is the reason out of all these aspects taking a Pradakshina in the outer external space of the temple is very much needed. We should not neglect this aspect at all. Because this is a kind of education for us.
Anuradha: A very important point you make is that this is how young children learn it. They visit the temples with their elders with their parents, grandparents and because children are naturally curious they will ask questions and that’s where they get grounded in these very stories which carry the wisdom of our ancient civilization.
Ramakrishna: Yes, the beauty you understand here mam like for example Hazara Rama temple of Hampi or for say any other temple also. You have this base of the temple. In the base of the temple, you find animals like Simha (Lion), Ashwa (Horse), Gaja (Elephant), and Makara (Crocodile). All these animals have got a different representation. Makara represents the water. The Gaja represents strength. Then Simha represents power and sovereignty. Ashwa represents the trade and prosperity of the kingdom.
When a kid asks his father, what is this? Then the father explains this is the Simha, this is Ashwa. He may ask then why are these animals there on the temple wall out of curiosity. Then the father has to explain the reason is this. So, from childhood onwards when you are visiting a temple you are said what actually they represent and what they stand for. Generally, it is actually the essence of life actually, like we say Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha. Nothing is less and nothing is more all the four we have to have.
Anuradha: After we’ve done the Pradakshina what are we supposed to do?
Mula Murti – Must see during your visit to temples
Ramakrishna: Yes Mam and see in between after Pradikshina and all these elements one thing I would like to mention which is very important. Understanding the Mula Murti itself like visiting. Let us say there is Mahishasurmardini Murti. So she is with ten hands and then she has got ten Ayudhas in her hands and she is standing killing a Mahishasura. When you see killing Mahishasura it is obvious the message is clear that she is killing the evil.
These sculptures, they have recorded the information that they want to convey to us. What is that for example, Mahishasurmardini is standing with a Chhuri. We call dagger. She is standing with the ax, she is standing with the bowl. So, all these elements that we have to understand what actually they represent.
For example, What does ax represent? It is called as Parashu. It represents that we have to cut the worldly attachments. Then the Chhuri which is very sharp it says your focus has to be very sharp. So every Ayudha or weapon that is there with the goddess Mahishasurmardini has a meaning. If you are visiting deity even 100 times and you are not knowing their meanings that will not change your life. But then, when will that change a life? When you do know the meaning of that Parashu and Chhuri. It is that to cut the worldly attachment.
Learnings – when you visit temples
You should not be so much emotional towards the relations that are there in the world and then have to be focused. When you know their meaning, whenever you are seeing Mahishasuramardini you are saying this to yourself. Be focused, do not get emotional through the worldly relations and attachments. So, when you are seeing you are saying this again and again whenever you are visiting Mahishasurmardini, it is a kind of hypnotism to yourself.
Anuradha: This is like reading a self-help book repeatedly which keeps telling you things you probably know. But you need constant reminders to remind you of those things. That brings me to another question Ramakrishna Ji. You have studied this. So you understand the meaning of a Parashu or a Trishul or all the Ayudhas that our deities carry. But most of us have no grounding in it. Especially, those of us who grew up in North India. We really have zero groundings in these aspects.
I remember, once at a museum where there were some photography students trying to photograph sculptures. They could not even identify Vishnu and Shiva. Forget about the other deities not so easy to identify.
So, where do we go? How do we understand these iconographies or these stories? There is not much literature available. I would not really depend on internet sources. Because you know you have to take them with a pinch of salt. So, Can you tell us a couple of sources where we can get authentic information about this?
Ramakrishna: Yes Mam, we may be from our childhood onwards neglected the beautiful stories that were said by our grandparents. We were into different other things. But we have not paid attention to those beautiful stories like Panchatantras or Shiva Purana, Vishnu Purana. Maybe you must have spent your childhood by watching those Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana. But then nowadays people do not. Because of this, they are not aware of the episodes or the aspects that are there in the temple or stories.
The next thing is the Archaka who is in the temple. It is his duty to at least conduct a small kind of lecture or maybe five minutes or ten minutes or gather some 10-15 people and explain what actually it means. So, now what has happened to the duty of Archaka has become only to recite Vedic Mantras and say nothing.
Archaka’s Role – When you visit temples
Anuradha: You are very right actually. I think I have seen this only at a temple in Bet Dwarka. The main temple in Bet Dwarka has this periodically. I think every half an hour or every 10-20 minutes based on the crowd. They make everybody sit down they give a little rice in everybody’s hand because rice is what Sudama gave to Krishna and they tell the whole story. Then they say that you offer Krishna this one grain of rice and your house will also get full-filled with all the prosperity just like Sudama’s house.
I found that very interesting. I saw everybody who visited the temple attending that talk and feeling far more enriched rather than just visiting the temple and not understanding what the temple stands for. But anywhere else I have not really seen.
Ramakrishna: See, what a beautiful practice it is. While doing that you have saved hundreds and thousands of people and they will never forget that aspect in their life.
Anuradha: So, I think this is a very good idea that you have floated. I hope some temple authorities will take it up, at least during the day when people come in the mornings and evenings, they have one storytelling session in the temple.
Disseminate information on how to visit temples
Ramakrishna: Yes and that is the reason Archaka is equally respected. He has to disseminate whatever because he is more close to god, he is with the god, he understands all elements of the god. Now his duty is to disseminate that information to us.
Anuradha: In fact, now I go and sit with them. I kind of coax them into telling me all those stories. After a while, they do tell me, but most people are actually scared of them. They don’t go and ask them. I would like to tell people that go and ask. They oblige and it’s their duty to oblige you.
So, coming back to this we have done Pradikshina and we’ve absorbed some of the stories or at least remembered some of the stories that we know. After that what should we do?
Ramakrishna: I was saying because in continuation of what you asked earlier. Also, let me complete that and I will go ahead. Now, basically in India, there are Shiva temples and Vishnu temples as I said earlier. So we have to understand Shiva temples and Vishnu temples. Because when it is a Shiva temple all the aspects related to Shiva are present. If it is Vishnu temples all the aspects related to Vishnu are present.
Read simple books
So, generally, you want to understand them better. You need not do anything. You need not get into big books like read Agama Shastras or something. Simple children books we have this Panchatantras or like Chitrakathas of children books which are there. So buy Shiva Purana and Vishnu Purana. Just read and understand what are the episodes that are there and this is what I did Mam. You won’t believe I have this dreamland publication colorful books, I purchased them and I read them.
So, when I read I understood that. Almost I was clear of most of the elements, what is Tripurantaka, then what is Vamana Avatara then what is actually Varaha, when does he come. So, what happens in Varaha like he is rescuing Bhudevi from Hiranyaksha. The sculpture is where you don’t need anybody to explain that to you. Because you already know the episode you can interpret everything that is there.
Anuradha: Yeah, but once somebody needs to tell me that or the ones I need to know. So, what happens is that now you and I probably know that these stories exist. Or every sculpture comes from a story and nothing comes randomly. But most people need to know that these stories exist. Then, once you know, then finding the source these days is easier. You just have to go to the internet and basics you will get.
Coming back to the temple I have a couple of small questions. Can you talk about the Jagati? The plinth on which the temple is built things like stairs, the Sophana Marg, and a couple of these elements that we may not be aware of.
Ramakrishna: Yes Mam, observe these terminologies they’re very interesting for example, we say Jagati. The word itself is very interesting as Jagati comes from the word Jagat. It means the world and above this Jagati, above this world, exist a temple which is the house of the god. So, he’s above this world. That is the message we have to understand from this. Then again always this Jagati – the highest platform that is there is to be accessed by the staircase. This staircase is called a Sophana Marg that is the way to heaven.
So, why is it way to heaven? Because you are going above this Jagati to see somebody who is above this world, who is god and the house of God is Swarga or heaven. Why? Because that is where you have some peace, you have some happiness, you are free of all negative and ill thoughts.
Anuradha: And it also is a way of detaching yourself from your own little world and getting out of that frame of mind and spending time some quiet moments with something beyond you.
Ramakrishna: Yes true. That is what is Jagati and Sophana Marg. Once you get on to this Jagati then you have a temple and the structure of the temple is also very interesting. When you are at the entrance you have a small Mandapa which is a little narrow. But when you go a little ahead then you have a little bigger one and the next to the bigger Mandapa. Then the Garbhagriha and Shikhara are much bigger than what we have seen earlier.
So, in this representation of what is happening, the chart or the arrow is going up and up. When we have entered the temple after crossing the Sophana Marg, the desire to seek God was little. As you keep moving towards the Garbhagriha that desire or the Iccha is increasing to attain God more and more. It is like maximum when you are before the Garbhagriha. So, that the shape of the temple, going from low to the high itself is a representation of how that curiosity towards the god or attain the god increases in us that is the representation.
When should you visit temples?
Anuradha: So, we’ve spoken about how to visit the temple. Now I will wrap it up by asking you a simple question. When should you visit the temple? Like on a daily basis or on an occasional basis or on festivals. Is there a structure that one should follow?
Ramakrishna: Wonderful question Mam. Generally, we have seen it is a normal practice that people visit the temples early in the morning. Any neighborhood temple which is nearby maybe some 200 meters or 500 meters. This has been a common practice. While visiting this temple, we wake up very early, and that waking up in the early is called Brahma Muhurta. So, after refreshing and nature calls and all that you bathe yourself.
You are ready to go to a temple and then after immediately going to a temple you are chanting Vedic Mantras or you are reading something or you are meditating. So all this is purifying your body, it is purifying your mind. It is also keeping you physically healthy because you are getting up in the Brahma Muhurta.
Brahma Muhurta to visit temples
Anuradha: So, for people who do not know Brahma Muhurta, it is about one and a half-hour before the sunrise.
Ramakrishna: And the beauty of this time is that when you wake up, you have to visit a temple. You are saying to yourself again and again to see the god.
Anuradha: Yes, and practically speaking, I saw a lot of Devi temples, and a lot of them are situated on a hill close to you. So, if you visit those temples you have taken care of your morning walk, your morning jog, your hiking, trekking. Then you have taken care of your 5-10 minutes of meditations per day. You soaked in the Sun which is becoming a big problem these days with Vitamin D deficiency. If you follow this ritual you have actually taken care of all kinds of health – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual by just doing this.
Ramakrishna: And that is the reason, visiting a temple in the early morning is more healthy and people stay longer. This is what is the secret.
Anuradha: So, this is daily and now beyond daily?
Ramakrishna: Beyond daily. I will share an example first, my father is an agriculturalist, he is a farmer. So, what does he do is we have this Karthi called Margashira. Whenever there is Margashira because I am saying what happens in my home. So, we used to do is we celebrate it as a festival.
Anuradha: Magrashira Nakshatra you are saying?
Ramakrishna: Yes, Margashira Nakshatra. Generally, that happens just before the arrival of the monsoon and finishing of the summer. When this happens, father says at least seven feet of land gets cooled up and it is time for the monsoon to come. So, we take a small Murti to the field and we keep it there, we keep flowers. We also keep some Prasadam in the home and we visit the nearby temple to offer a kind of puja and festival that happens. Soon after this what my father does is he gets ready making his field ready to sow.
Visiting occasionally in festivals now and then is actually remembering a natural calendar naturally. You need not train somebody and that is the reason the Tuli Ekadasi. It is celebrated in a leisure time after sowing. So, by then monsoons have arrived there were one or two rains. Once when the rains are done, now you are celebrating happily giving thanks to the god Satyanarayana or any other god.
Anuradha: That’s interesting because that’s why the local calendars differ a little bit across the country. Because they follow their natural cycle naturally.
Nature cycle to visit temples
Ramakrishna: Natural cycle especially with related to nature because with the monsoons that are in Kerala or Karnataka are not same that in the Northeast, Odisha and West Bengal, etc. Their celebrations differ from the others, celebrations and visiting temples and celebrating festivals and offerings, etc. is obviously following a natural calendar that has been from generations immemorial. Agricultural class is the best class wherein you can observe such practices and we can learn from them.
Anuradha: Great, Ramakrishna Ji. This was a great conversation. I have a lot of other questions for you. But we’ll probably request you to come back and speak about specifically about South Indian temples, North Indian temples. For today, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge about the temples. I hope some people will follow this routine and they will start visiting temples little more intimately than they were earlier doing this. So, thank you so much for this.
Ramakrishna: I would request everybody to do so. Because that is the way we can preserve our heritage. Thanks a lot for asking the questions and for this great opportunity. Thank you, Namaste.
Anuradha: Namaste, Thank you.
Transcription by Harshil Gupta, and intern with IndiTales under IndiTales Internship Program.
Edited for this online publication.