With a self-diagnosed allergy to religion – which brings me out in sniffles, sneezes, coughs and other irritating symptoms when exposed to too much religious goings-on for too long – visits to religious sites such as temples and churches have generally been interesting affairs.
I am generally pretty open to trying new things, but still do not fully understand the necessary customs of many religions when “within God’s house”. From men having to remove their shirts in a temple in Kochi, to women not being able to have their knees on display (in pretty much any religious place – I mean, can a set of knobbly knees be so devilishly seductive…?). I never knew the rules of attire could be so strict. I thought God – no matter which name he is given or form he has taken – was meant to be welcoming to all. Apparently not if you have shoes on…
Anyway, enough sceptical, Atheistic jibber jabber – I still thoroughly enjoy visiting the wide variety of impressive temples, churches, etc. that can be found in abundance around the world. Below I have put together a Top 5 list of my favourite Temple and Church experiences so far.
- Meenakshi Amman Temple (Madurai, India)
The spectacularly adorned and beautifully constructed Meenakshi temple located in the very heart of Madurai city centre is an incredible sight. With 4 main towers facing North, South East and West, as well as many towers littering the internal area, it is understandable why Hindus travel from far and wide across South India to visit this place of worship. Upon entry we were accosted by security guards who told us we could have no shoes, must wear a skirt/lungi to cover our legs (I’m sorry I do not own a skirt…), and must leave valuables – phones, wallets, cameras, etc. – outside in the shoe lockers. Inside we found amazing murals, sculptures and far too many holy people wafting the poisoning fumes of incense into my fragile lungs. As sceptical as I am this was an amazing temple and worth the 3 days of sneezing that it caused.
- The Sistine Chapel & St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City, Rome, Italy)
During our Inter-railing trip around Europe, Soph and I visited the impressive Vatican City. Travelling in the height of summer with Rome roasting in 35+ degrees C, and being rather stubborn when it comes to getting any form of public transport, we had walked for miles in the sweltering heat only to find the longest queue we have seen to date. Thankfully the long line of “the Pope’s disciples” moved pretty quickly round the side of St Peter’s Square and into the shade of the main building. This being our first “proper” religious site visit, we were unaware that in fact there could be no shoulders and no knees on show – apparently my knees were fine, it was Soph’s that were causing offence. So off to shop to buy what can only really be described as a set of Vatican city tea towels to hide Soph’s highly offensive knees and shoulders. I should’ve just popped her in a bin bag and slung her over my shoulder really – it would’ve been cheaper. So, we queued (again!) and finally made it in – with Soph waddling around with her tea towels on – to check out the amazing artistry that makes up the beauty of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
- Virupaxsha Temple (Hampi, India)
Set right in the centre of the ancient temple city of Hampi in the Indian state of Karnataka, the Virupaxsha Temple is one of the jewels on Hampi’s crown. It took us about 12 hours to reach Hampi by “sleeper” bus from Mapusa in Goa, and upon arrival it is clear to see what attracts thousands of tourists, and even more domestic religious travellers here every year. With enchanting scenery that could have been plucked straight out of the Flintstones, Hampi is littered with grand temples celebrating the various kingdoms that have ruled throughout the ages. The Virupaxsha Temple stands tall and proud from the heart of Hampi’s “south-side of the river”, and is home to a large troop of ruthlessly pesky macaques, who will literally steal the shirt off your back given the chance; as well as the humblest of Hindu holy men, who welcome each and everybody with palms placed together and a little wiggle of the head; and of course the visiting tourists – gawking at the temples and the monkeys; and the visiting school kids – gawking at the tourists.
- Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain)
For those of you with any interest in art, one of the most exquisitely eccentric, world-renowned architects of the past few centuries is Antoni Gaudi. The Sagrada Familia, which is still under construction after the first being commissioned and the project starting back in 1882, was Gaudi’s last hurrah. The weird and wonderful architectural styles ranging from strange Gothic, through to modernism, make it one of the most interesting religious sites you will find anywhere in the world. With extremely interesting aspects to keep any artistic eye happy, and thankfully a lack of any stupid, pretentious or irritating rules regarding attire, the Sagrada Familia is a real work of art and openly tests traditional Christian church design in a wonderful way.
- Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue (Kandy, Sri Lanka)
Probably the least well known of the places on this short list, but it is a site that I remember clearly. I did not feel that I could right a list of temples and churches without including one of the sites in Sri Lanka’s cultural and religious capital, Kandy. Kandy is a beautiful city in the dead centre of Sri Lanka – the old capital of Ceylon, Kandy is home to a vast array of temples and beautiful spots, which make it feel much greener and welcoming than many other Asian cities. The Biharivokanda Vihaha Buddha Statue (The White Buddha) is a huge Buddha sat atop a prominent hill overlooking Kandy and the mountains in the distance. Again, not being suckers for public transport we took the long walk from the base of the hill up to the big white Buddha. Upon arrival, the man on the gate (having seen us take the long walk up-hill from the city in the heat of the midday sun) gave us free entry into the site. The views from Buddha’s seat were impressive – overlooking the famous Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth Relic – where you can find Buddhas tooth… apparently!), over Kandy’s bustling business centre, over the peaceful Kiri Muhada (Kandy Lake) and beyond into the rolling hills – Buddha has found himself a prime spot in Kandy!
And there you have it. A little run down of some of my favourite religious spots that I have visited so far… Many more to come though, I’m sure.