TRICHY, India - I arrive in southern India to a monumental heat wave and drought. The heat is like a hammer, the sun a smelting kiln. At three in the afternoon, when the mercury hits 40°C and the overheated roads and buildings turn the whole town into a baker's oven, I lie in my room wrapped in wet sheets under an overhead fan. Any sightseeing has to be done before 10 am. The tourist hotels are privileged because they're allotted unlimited water. The rest of the town receives water for a limited time only during the day. Empty jugs, cans and pots form long lines in front of street water taps, waiting for the moment when the water is turned on. More affluent people buy their water from tanker trucks that deliver it daily to their houses. Long queues form behind these trucks, too.
The water shortage hits the villages the hardest. In some, where wells cannot be dug any deeper, residents raid the toilets of train compartments for water when the trains stop at the station. One quick-footed village woman jumps on the train for as long as it sits in the station and hands out buckets full of water amidst shrieks of joy.
The temples built by the Dravidian kings who ruled Tamil Nadu from the 7th to the 17th centuries are considered the purest expressions of Hindu architecture. They certainly are the most exuberant. The vast temple complexes are surrounded by high walls with several soaring, wedge-shaped towers called gopurams. Inside are more gopurams and more walls protecting the highest tower of all, over the sanctum sanctorum - the home of the deity, where non-Hindus are not allowed.
That's all right, though, because all the fun is on the outside. Each gopuram is covered with tier upon tier of colourfully painted sculptures - gods, mortals, demons, animals - all in frenzied poses. The tower reliefs are as crowded and busy as Indian streets.
The Sri Rangam temple in Trichy actually has 21 of these gopurams. I scan them with binoculars for a closer look at the hysteria and find the jumble of figures quite dizzying.
These Dravidian temples are more than just places of worship. The Shree Meenakshi temple in Madurai is a veritable small town. Inside its encircling wall are bazaars, museums, courtyards and innumerable shrines visited by thousands of pilgrims every day. A resident elephant roams the temple grounds accepting baksheesh from pilgrims. She passes it to her keeper, then taps the donor on the head with her trunk in blessing.
Past the courtyards, labyrinthine corridors pillared with carved beasts lead to the mysterious shrines where the pilgrims pray and make offerings. A woman carrying a bowl of coconut chunks and lotus petals circles a black idol. A man, forehead encrusted with yellow rice and ashes, prostrates himself. Two young girls sprinkle an intricate pattern of coloured powders on the floor. A bald family pours aromatic oil on a reptile statue that is so worn away by previous anointments that its shape is hardly discernible. Ash-smeared brahmins sit propped against pillars, reading to themselves or mumbling to an intense group of listeners.
One of the brahmins spots me. He hurries toward me with a welcoming hand extended. I try to make a getaway. Too late. His hand grips mine in a vise-like hold, while with the other, quick as lightning, he smears a red tikka on my forehead. The sweet smell of incense, the chatter of hanging bats, trumpets, drums and mystical chanting, now the tiny tinkle of a bell... all these contribute to the otherworldly aura that fills the temple.