A moneyed friend of mine had just come back from a holiday he’d spent at Mahabalipuram, the temple town a few kilometres from Chennai.
Since I’d been there a few times, I’d told him about the carvings, the sculptures and the temples, and was quite eager to hear his own experiences, “Bob,” he said excitedly, “The place is fantastic! It is so huge, it stretches for hundreds of metres!”
“Which temple?” I asked him puzzled. “Not temple, but the hotel we stayed in. What a fantastic place. It has got everything inside! You don’t have to go out for anything!” “Did you see the remnants of the ancient temple slowly being engulfed by the sea?” I asked him.
“What room service!” said my friend, “You just lift up the phone and order and ten minutes they’ve brought it! Dharu, soft drinks, apple juice, pineapple juice, cocktails, mocktails, ten minutes flat Bob!” “Did you visit the Shore temple?” I asked, “I believe the tsunami that struck did no damage to the structure!”
“The gym is equipped like an Olympic one Bob, and the swimming pool has a bar in the middle. You just wade in the water with a drink in your hand!” “Did you visit the beach?” I asked.
“Bob, they have even brought white sand and created a beach inside the hotel!” said my friend, “You don’t have to go outside, you can play on the sand inside!”
I spent the rest of our time together, not hearing anything about King Rajasimha who’d built the Shore temple, or about the Pallavas, the dynasty he belonged to, nor about the Cholas who continued with the architecture of the temples, nor even about Marco Polo who was supposed to have visited Mahabalipuram and called it the Seven Pagodas, but I learnt all about the luxury hotel he had stayed in!
When I’d visited Spain and Portugal a few years ago, I would visit ancient majestic churches, architectural marvels and as I moved inside, would join visitors looking with interest at arches, domes, pillars and statues, then I’d sit on one of the wooden pews and wonder whether I or anyone had seen God?
Are we so lost in exquisite packaging that we don’t look for content; lost in lavish wedding receptions that we lose the sanctity of marriage, publicizing a project that we don’t hear the cries of the poor or hungry, covering ourselves with glistening jewelry or expensively tailored suits that we don’t see the rot of corruption within?
He flew a thousand miles to see Mahabalipuram, yet all he came back with were memories of a hotel.
What do you and I see when visiting a monastery, church, temple or mosque? Do we see a pretty girl or good-looking hunk sitting across the aisle, or are we there just for the mesmeric chanting and great singing? What do we see?