Tiruchirappalli (also thankfully known as Trichy) is home to two of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu, south India. The Rock Fort with its unassuming entrance off the main bazaar, is crowned with a temple dedicated to Ganesh, perched on top of a huge outcrop of sandy coloured rock which dominates the southern part of the city. A long flight of 437 steps cut into the rock lead up to the summit with views of the city and the flat plains beyond as far as the eye can see.
It is a strangely dislocated and lonely home for the Trichy Ganesh, perhaps due to its dizzy altitude, but the climb presents plenty of interesting diversions, beginning with the stalls selling offerings for the deity; small tied bundles of fine green grass which are associated with Ganesh, along with the usual mix of roses, small bananas, and coconuts. Part way up, there is a temple to Shiva built on a lower level of the outcrop, and further up, cut outs in the walls offer ever smaller views of the city below.
Here we encounter some friendly mountain goats pressed up hard against the grilles in the wall, looking for edible treats. As we finally descend from our Ganesh darshan and priest’s blessing, the resident temple elephant’s evening meal is being prepared in his stall opposite the temple office. His head and trunk are swinging from side to side in excited anticipation as his keeper prepares balls of rice the size of grapefruits from a large bowl, and deftly loads them into the elephant’s mouth in much the same way that mothers here feed their small children. He is obviously relishing his meal, and reminds us that it we have missed tea time, and are ready to tuck into something more substantial.
The Ranganathaswamy Temple sits on an island in the Cauvery River in the northern part of Trichy known as Srirangam in a setting that would have once been totally wooded. Srirangam is home to Ranganatha, the form of Lord Vishnu shown reclining upon a coiled serpent, floating in a cosmic ocean.
The scale of this complex is colossal with the main gateway or gopuram at a soaring height of 73 metres. The inner sanctum is enclosed by seven concentric walls that create a succession of courtyards, the first two of which are occupied by shops, restaurants, flower stalls and tailors to name a few. It’s the first time I have seen a bustling commercial town within a temple complex, but then it is the biggest functioning temple in India, occupying a footprint of 2.5 square kilometres, so perhaps this kind of co existence is only natural.
We stop for a coffee at Narasu’s, attracted by the shop’s sign of a neat well-coiffed lady delicately raising a cup to her thirsty lips. All manner of business is being conducted briskly in the late morning as we advance through the courtyards and gateways in our journey towards the centre.
At the entrance to the fourth enclosure, we leave our shoes in the care of a man with a small shop selling cool drinks, and hope to be able to find him on our return. The atmosphere and excitement is ramping up, temple guides are vying for custom, priests are administering all kinds of blessings and rites around numerous shrines, small bells are tinkling up close and further away.
The light is piercingly bright as we leave one shady pavilion or neon lit shrine for another and walk into the daylight, sounds carrying, then stopping around corners. Pilgrims are praying, picnicking and sleeping, pacing themselves for this spiritual extravaganza.
It is all marvellously and endlessly fascinating, but suddenly exhausting, and our minds turn to the necessity of finding the little stall with the cool drinks and our shoes, and then lunch.
There are no shortage of places to eat, but we notice a cart on one side of the street carrying a couple of over sized aluminium cooking pans. One is full of lemon rice, another with curd rice, and three men are unloading them into a tiny shop with two tables and a couple of benches. We get talking, and they tell us that they have cooked the food at home and have brought it in to sell in this tiny shop, something they do every day.
We are to be their first customers that day, and eat just cooked lemon rice, a kind of tomato pickle, and some yoghurt with sliced pink onion. It is a meal fit for the gods.
Lemon Rice serves 4
- 340g rice, long grain or basmati is fine
- 4 tbs sesame oil (gingelly) or vegetable oil
- A generous sprig curry leaves, about 20
- 1 tsp mustard seeds
- 1 tsp urid dal
- 1 ½ tsp chana dal
- ½ tsp asafoetida powder
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 2 – 3 green chillies
- 2 lemons, juiced
- 2 tsp salt
- Cook the rice, strain and set aside for 10 minutes. Then transfer to a mixing bowl or large tray.
- Mix the lemon juice and salt together.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan. When it is hot, add the mustard seeds, and as they pop, add the urid dal, chana dal and asafoetida. Let the dals turn a reddish brown, add the green chillies, curry leaves and turmeric.
- Remove the pan from the heat, and pour this over the rice. Add the salted lemon juice at this point, and stir everything together taking care not to break the rice grains.
You could garnish the rice with some chopped coriander. If you want to add some peanuts for extra texture, add 2 tsp of red or pink skinned peanuts to the frying pan after the dals.