Why temples should not be made into tourist spots

Proposed #RamMandir at Ayodhya

With the Shilanyas of RamLalla Mandir in Ayodhya on Aug 5 this year, a wait of over 500 years has come to an end. The emotions it evoked in Hindus across the globe can only be experienced, pulling into its vortex even avowed secularists who couldn’t but help chant Jai Shree Ram as the event unfolded. While the grandeur of the proposed temple is awe-inspiring, I am afraid it should not lose its sanctity to become just another spot in the ‘must-visit’ list of tourists, as many such temples have fallen prey to.

Temple Tourism is all the rage today, but has it occurred to you that it is an oxymoron? While temples stand for something sublime, sacred and divine, tourism conjures up everything that is crass, commercial and every other undesirable quality one can think of. It is an abhorrent term that takes away from the very purpose for which temples were intended—for the ardent to find solace and oneness with the deity residing there.

So, when people with justifiable pride in their civilisational ethos say that our temples should be showcased as tourist attractions instead of the marble mausoleum Taj Mahal, I can’t concur.  Of course, the Taj is overhyped and doesn’t deserve to be the symbol of India for the world. But that in no way makes me or many like me agree to have our temples subjected to the same kind of touristy curiosity and wonder, which take away from their sublimity.

There is no doubt that our ancient temples—those that had survived the marauding Mughal and Turkish barbarians–are leagues ahead in every aspect of architectural grandeur, aesthetics and engineering, not to speak of the astronomical configuration that goes to maximise the energy fields in and around it.

Taj-Mahal-Agra-India

The marble mausoleum

The temples that survived the attacks in the south showcase our ancient glory to date. One of them is the Periya Koyil* or Brihadeeswara temple of Thanjavur which was built a millennium ago by the great Chola King Raja Raja. It has stumped modern architects and other experts with its intricate architecture and design in addition to the logistics of transporting the granite to the site and hoisting an 80-ton monolith to the top of the gopuram! The towering gopuram doesn’t cast a shadow on the ground at high noon. How awesome is that?

But would it make me comfortable to have crowds of tourists trampling the sacred precincts with scant reverence for the pervasive divinity in the very complex, with regular pujas being conducted? Certainly not!

A temple is a devalaya and not a place of worship, as opposed to a church or a mosque, where people gather to pray together and listen to sermons. It is the abode of whichever Deity’s home it is. And when we enter anyone’s home, we respect the rules of the house and the person living there. Suppose I request a guest to leave her footwear outside the door, there are two things she can do. One is to comply and the other is to ask, “Why?”

Now, I might say that I prefer to keep the house clean from outside dirt or I could say that it is the custom I follow. An ordinary visitor would accept either of the two explanations. Sometimes though, one goes to someone’s house that one doesn’t respect too for several reasons. Even then, one follows the rules of that house, unless one wants to pick up a fight, create a scene or do something equally unpleasant. In which case, the woman might argue that her footwear is clean or that she doesn’t believe in the custom I follow.

Don’t you feel that it is rather uncivilized on someone’s part to do this? I mean, it is my house and I reserve the right to set the rules and expect those who enter it to follow them. Leave aside a home, every institution, organisation or even places of worship have their regulations and rule. When you enter Harmandir Saheb in Amritsar, you necessarily need to cover your head and if you don’t have a head-cover, you can buy one at one of the shops. But you can’t go in without covering your head. Period. Many churches in the south have this rule of covering their heads too. Mosques and synagogues have separate sections for women if they are allowed in them at all.

No activist or feminist ever questions these customs and traditions, preferring to steer clear of any controversy. In the rare case that someone does file a PIL, the honourable court excuses itself on the pretext that it wouldn’t interfere with religious customs!

Compared to such ‘tourists’ who want to have a ‘dekko’ at our sacred temples, I’d rather have groups of experts who would agree to abide by the traditions of the temple to reverentially study the structure and give an unbiased historical and architectural perspective of the place. It would definitely carry more weight than the ‘wows’ of gawping tourists with their expensive camera phones and uncaring attitudes. Or would I?

For, how many of the ‘experts’ actually look at temple architecture as a spiritual whole and not just as a piece of ‘construction’ or ‘engineering’, of stones and mortar and sculptures? Or for that matter how many of the students of temple architecture approach the subject with the reverence it needs to understand the nuances that went into the grand edifice? Every stone, every sculpture is imbued with jeeva of the deities that reside in them—have resided in them since they were created by the sculptors with reverence, after invoking the grace of the very deities they were giving shape to, observing the prescribed austerities while doing it. I certainly wouldn’t want these students and experts to look clinically at them calculating their dimensions, dating the structures and dissecting the style and the ‘school’ they belonged to if there is no associated reverence. A person who is not a devout Hindu can never be able to the ‘feel’ of the subject.

A millennium old and still as awe-inspiring as ever

An expert can look at a mutilated murti and marvel at its beauty, without getting upset and angry with the barbarians who had the temerity to destroy them. But the devout wouldn’t be able to look at their beloved deity with a broken nose or limb without anguish and pain. That is the feeling a temple sculpture and a sacred place should evoke if it has to be ‘studied’ at all.

So no, I wouldn’t want any certificate from a team of experts either. We know how magnificent our temples are, thank you!

If anyone is interested in studying about the engineering feats of the Cholas, let them, do a detailed study of the Kallanai in Tiruchirapalli, which is of similar antiquity, is an engineering marvel too and is the oldest extant dam to boot, after having stood there for a millennium!

Temple tourism sounds as bad as, if not worse than, Slum Tourism, which is a great attraction in countries like Brazil and India, with their vast slums. Wealthy tourists in fancy buses or just walking with wrinkled noses go through the narrow gullies taking pics of the squalor to ‘showcase’ in their own countries as representative images of India and we allow that!! How horrible can it be! But then, this is the country that allowed a movie like Slumdog Millionaire to be made and handpicked it for the Oscars too, right?

I should mention the busloads of yatra groups here, which do have many devout yatris but are fast descending into picnic groups with more emphasis on food and sightseeing added to the yatra itinerary to lure customers. With the tour operators cramming as many places to visit as they possibly can, the true devotee is short-changed, without the satisfaction of a finding a quiet moment with his or her ishta devata. The groups are noisy, often more interested in shopping expeditions and visiting monuments than to visit temples with a modicum of devotion.

Mahabalipuram Shore Temple

I remember the debate about consecrating the temples in Mahabalipuram post the Modi-Xi summit, so that worship may start there. But without rules regulating the behaviour of tourists to preserve their sanctity, there is no point in consecrating any ancient temple for worship, especially since it is getting impossible to even regulate existing ones.

Remember the great popular uprising against allowing women between 12-50 entry into Sabarimala temple a couple of years ago? It not only violated the traditional practices of the temple but also threatened to open the place to tourists, which automatically meant the construction of hotels and other infrastructure like roads etc., disturbing the delicate ecological balance of the region. This not only would have destroyed the environment but also paved the way for future natural disasters. Thank God, good sense prevailed.

The story of any temple in the mountains is one of crass commercial exploitation and environmental degradation, not to speak of trekkers and bikers littering the trails with beer cans and food waste, often containing non-vegetarian stuff. The very hills are revered by the devout and it is an affront for them to come across such sights. What is worse, they saunter casually into a temple on their routes for a ‘dekko’ and push off. And those who enter Ganga ji with their footwear on….I could go on and on!

But tourists bring income, provide employment and help in economically uplift local populations, you might say. That is the argument for building roads and hotels near every big temple and dham. Such ‘development’ is destructive in the long run, not only of the environment, but also of organic local economic development.

Go to any temple town and you will see the commercial establishments being owned and run by outsiders, while the local populace is left doing menial or unskilled labour, often working in these very shops for a pittance. If not from another state, the owners would be from one of the bigger cities in the state, not the local people. They would naturally care little about the place as it holds only commercial interest to them. So what local development are we talking about?

Folk artistes during temple festivals

Temples in olden days were a complete and harmonious ecosystem where people from all strata of society were economically and spiritually supported and where arts, crafts, education and cultural activities flourished. Anjali George’s excellent article Temples and Traditions of Kerala talks about the temple as the owner of land and its resources in times of yore. With the government taking over the temples and their resources after Independence, this nourishing and flourishing ecosystem has been completely destroyed over the decades. From being the provider and nourisher of the society, the temple has become a milch cow for the government with the money earned through it not even being used for its maintenance and payment of salaries for the archakas, leave alone others who are dependent on them for their livelihood.

In olden times the annual temple festivals promoted local talents, giving opportunities to local artists and craftsmen, held cultural programmes and folk theatres that showcased local talents with distinguished artistes being invited to add more attraction, today they have deteriorated to filmy tamashas with commercial interests riding roughshod over the aesthetic and spiritual ethos of the festival, making it just another glitzy event with sponsors, to be ‘shared’ and telecast.

I guess I am digressing. What I want to say unequivocally is that no, I would not like any ‘living’ temple being made into a ‘tourist’ attraction with its attendant desecration of the premises and irreverence towards the deities, profaning the divinity of the premises. Leave temples for the devout to commune with their ishta devata! What are your thoughts on this?

Extra reading: https://dharmadispatch.in/what-is-a-hindu-temple-a-brief-introduction/

https://dharmadispatch.in/what-happens-when-a-hindu-temple-is-destroyed/

Images: Ram Mandir: https://www.opindia.com/  Sculpture: https://www.makeheritagefun.com/ 

Taj Mahal https://www.britannica.com/  Brihadeeswara temple: https://thrillingtravel.in/ 

Mahabalipuram: https://www.newindianexpress.com/ Pokkal Kuthirai Aattam: https://www.pinterest.es/

10 comments

  1. Hi Zephyr

    I am appalled by the Slum Tourism too

    Last Dec we visited the Madurai meenakshi temple . It was so crowded that we had to retreat before actually seeing the deity . Somehow with people throbbing places in increasing numbers the neighborhood small temple seems to give better opportunity to undisturbed tranquility.

    I also believe the Taj is over hyped and the Periya Kovil has always struck me with immense awe.

    But sometimes I feel visiting tourists have more appreciation for the magnificence of these structures than those that decide to write their exam numbers on the walls.

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    1. I meant thronging 🙂

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      1. Understood what you had meant, Jayashree 🙂 And Oh, I agree about neighbourhood and out-of-the-way temples being oases of tranquility and peace. I prefer going to bigger temples on ordinary days to avoid the ‘special day’ crowds.

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    2. Oh graffiti is another big menace of these ‘devotees.’ You know, at the Wailing wall in Jerusalem, where Jews go with their prayers, they write notes and stick them in the cracks of the walls. The cracks are completely filled up with no space for more. Apparently they are routinely removed to make space for more appeals to the Higher Power! But no graffiti there. It seems a better way of appealing, right?

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  2. Really an interesting topic and a delicate one at that. Religious places have become a commercial hub vitiating the very sanctity of shrines. The sacred feeling is conspicuously missing.

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    1. Temples need money to run but it is sad to see that from being income generating and sustaining the society, it has now just become milch cow for the state, which uses the money for “secular” purposes and not for the upkeep of the temple and its devotees.

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  3. I agree in principle. But I would also like to throw another perspective here for consideration. Is it possible to bring back the old temple ecosystem in today’s time? For some of the larger and more significant temples (spiritually, culturally, historically, aesthetically) what alternative ecosystem can be conceived which could still preserve the spirit of what a temple is supposed to be for a community and simultaneously facilitate the temple to become a place of interest for those who are genuinely curious and are willing to approach with a right attitude? Because after all we can’t deny that religio-spiritual and material development have to go together for a community and society to truly thrive. Just wondering aloud…

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    1. A great perspective, Beloo. We certainly can’t bring back old times for obvious reasons–we have moved too far from the basic idea of the temple as the nourisher-provider. But the new ‘owners’ viz. the govt can still do its part in developing the temple towns on those lines by encouraging locals to open commercial establishments catering to the needs of the yatris, both for puja and other purposes. Give them loans, rent out premises at affordable rates, have eco-friendly items in place of glitzy Chinese ware and so on. It is also a good idea to develop local cuisines in place of ‘Chinese’ and ‘Pizza’ places. Make them heritage towns. In fact, they can make it a public-private partnership too, by stipulating these conditions. As I have mentioned, try to make the annual melas a traditional affair, giving exposure to local arts and crafts and artistes instead of allowing Bollywood type entertainment with orchestra and stuff. Oh, there is a lot that can be done for sustained, local development. And oh, use the temple resources to pay the archakas and other temple staff!

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  4. Gayathri · · Reply

    Chithi, I see your point and am typing as I am thinking…. pardon any incoherence of thought.
    While tourists pay scant attention or regard to the sanctity of our temples, I have seen that it is usually our own who behave that way. Many tourists of non Indian origin show much more regard and respect to the sanctity of the temple. I observed that in Darasuram as well as in Madurai to name just a couple.
    Keeping that in mind, we may need to do more to educate our own about the sanctity, antiquity and significance of our ancient temples.
    Some of the churches and cathedrals in Europe have a section up to which tourists are allowed and the rest is restricted for the devout who come to worship. Would a hybrid like that work for us?
    Since all of the temple funds are taken by the state government (which doesn’t happen with other religious groups), temples are strapped for resources that leads to poor upkeep and results in the breakdown of once glorious structures. For example, the Tiruvanaikkaval Jambukeswarar temple of Lord Shiva (water element of the panchbhuta linga) stands in start contrast to Srirangam though it is much older and has amazing features in the architecture. Maybe a revenue sharing model would help where more funds are allocated for upkeep of older shrines….
    In a way, tourism would help if managed properly. By people with a long term vision and would definitely help yatris like me who visit as many temples as I can in a short visit.
    Having said this, I’ll also say that I loved the divinity and silence I experienced in shrines way out of the public eye and in offbeat parts of Kumbakonam.

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    1. It is one of the most unfortunate things that yatris are unmindful of a lot of traditions of each temple and need to be ‘regulated’ to fall in line. You are sadly right about some foreign tourists being more reverential, but even here, there are the tourists and those in search of spiritual experiences. It is only the latter who have the attitude you have noticed. The others are as bad as, or worse than our touristy crowds. There is urgent need for local, private or trust participation in the running of temples, for they are otherwise managed and run like any govt office/organisation with idiotic rules and a lot of corruption. And yes, there should be some controlling body to see that the money accrued is used for the proper maintenance and upkeep of the temple, ved pathshalas, gaushalas and the facilities for yatris instead of going to fund the activities of other religions.

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