Love to go on temple travels with loved ones? Following the pandemic and when there was an easing of lockdown restrictions last year, more Indian travellers opted to travel to popular pilgrimage destinations across the country.
Something about these places draws travellers from all walks of life to come in search and explore the unfamiliar territory as though in search of a story.
Few travel books in India capture one’s imagination and curiosity with its attention to the finest details and nuances of traveling across the country’s sacred temples. Published by Garuda Books, Anuradha Goyal writes in her travelogue ‘Lotus in the Stone’, “My travels were like scratching a card with nails; scratching away the label you need to remove to see what luck has in store for you. Before you see the entire surface, you have to scratch many windows. The more windows you open, the more surface intrigues you. I was opening such windows with my travels.”
Temple travel in India: Meaning, significance
“With each of my travels, I was opening a new window to the ancient past of India, slowly the whole image started emerging and as we know the whole is more than the sum of its parts. We know India in bits and pieces, but when we discover the length and breadth of it, it is a sheer joy to see how it resonates as one single string,” Anuradha Goyal tells Financial Express Online.
A rare and candid approach to travel is what makes the book an insightful read. In this exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online, Anuradha Goyal shares deep insights about her latest book ‘Ayodhya Mahatmya.’
On Ayodhya Mahatmya and its significance
An English translation of the Skanda Puran’, the author tells Financial Express Online about how she began its translation, “A couple of years back, when I visited Ayodhya to study it, I read the Ayodhya Mahatmya and it gave me a long list of things to explore in the city. I was not sure how many of them would be still around. To my surprise, I found most of them in some shape or form. This fascinated me. In the meantime, I was invited to be a part of the Global Encyclopedia of Ramayana project by Ayodhya Shodh Sansthan. One thing led to another and they asked me to translate the Mahatmya in simple English for visitors to the city. So, this is a translation and also has glimpses of my exploration of the city. Knowing the city and the places mentioned in the text helped me translate it with conviction. We have also recreated the map of Ayodhya as per the text.”
From a travel and tourism perspective, Anuradha Goyal asserts, “We need authentic documentation of the temple stories, to begin with. Only in Uttarakhand, I have seen temple stories written outside all important temples.”
Interestingly, while ‘Lotus in the Stone’ captures the essence of sacred travels of the author, the book on Ayodhya touches up Agastya Muni’s travels.
Through ‘Lotus in the Stone’, the very thought of sacred journeys across India becomes palpable as you swiftly move from one chapter to the next. The first chapter offers the author’s gripping travel account of what makes the Kumbh Mela a lifetime experience.
More importantly, Anuradha Goyal sets the reader up with an essential toolbox for undertaking temple travel. Armed with this essential tool in the form of a painstakingly well researched book, it takes a true travel enthusiast to soak up the joy of sifting through India’s multi-hued and ever dynamic ‘strands of living culture’.
What propelled you to write this book ‘Lotus in the Stone’ and what can readers, particularly travel enthusiasts, expect from it?
I have been collecting and writing travelogues for 16 years now. Individual destinations were written about in detail on my blog IndiTales. However, as I traveled more, I started connecting the dots and some patterns started emerging. It is these invisible threads that bind India that I speak about in this book.
The title has evoked a lot of curiosity and it is the first question people ask me. It is just a phrase that describes my personal journey that began with chasing stones but reached the lotus that blooms within these ancient stones of India.
The response from readers has been very emotional and overwhelming till now.
People have found glimpses of their own journeys in my journey.
One of the concerns many Indian women have is about safety while traveling alone. Can you share how ‘safe’ you feel when exploring non-touristy areas and are there safety precautions during travel that you would advise?
I feel extremely safe while traveling in India, especially in non-urban areas.
I would not discount the fact that my extensive experience of traveling in India comes in handy and the fact that I am not a late-night person. I usually get up early and by the time it’s sunset, I am tired and back in my accommodation.
I think as long as you are respectful to people and sensitive to their culture, rural India is far more safe and secure than urban India. In my talks, I have shared enough incidents where people helped me selflessly.
As a traveler, you do get cheated, charged more for services, but that happens to anyone. I do not want to give any advice, as everyone’s idea of travel is different.
I am now more of a pilgrim and explorer, I want to know the destination as intimately as possible, it is not a holiday.
What are the characteristics of a memorable temple journey that defines and shapes the overall experience for you besides the spiritual facets?
Every temple is unique. It has a history, sacred geography, a story, series of rituals, and living culture. In every temple, some of these will stand out. Look at the markets around important temples in temple towns and you see the whole economy and culture revolving around it. Some temples are simple but have amazing energy that you can sense when you spend a few minutes there.
Eventually, temples are high-energy centers, and you can sense it once you develop a bit of sensitivity. Your experience at temples also depends on when you visit them – I love early morning Aartis. I avoid festivals as they get too crowded, but they have an energy that you will rarely find elsewhere.
Strands of Living Culture, as a concept, is a recurring theme that is explored in your book and remains a key facet of your travel experiences. Would you like to elaborate?
When we read history books, we read about the culture as it was thousands or hundreds of years ago. We tend to think this is lost, but when you travel around, you get glimpses of it living in some form and shape. I found it time and again in my travels and these are also living strands from a very distant past. These are exactly the things that were never mentioned on the blog and took the shape of this book. These are the connections I found across India.
A chapter in your book is devoted to ‘What is Dharma?’, which reads differently from the rest of your book. Could you help readers understand why you found it necessary to bring this into your travel book and how travel enthusiasts benefit from it?
This chapter is to help people decide which temples they need to visit. I have often been asked which temples one should visit. This chapter attempts to answer this. I also understood what I mention in this chapter through my travels, so it is experiential learning that I am sharing with my readers.
In your chapter ‘Heritage through the Light of Engineering’, is there a reason some temples such as Tamil Nadu’s Madurai Meenakshi temple and the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala that are renowned as architectural marvels are not delved into? A brief mention of Mahabalipuram is there but there are many more hidden gems in southern India that may have been missed altogether.
Interesting that you observe that. Last month, an interviewer from North India complained that there is too much focus on South India and I have ignored my own North India. It is not comprehensive documentation of all the temples, I have used my experience at temples to tell you my journey as a traveler.
You know each of these temples that you mention deserves a complete book on it, and I am sure few exist already. As I always say in my reviews, if as a reader you want more from me, that is the best compliment for an author. Meenakshi Amman and Padmanabha Swamy willing, there should be more opportunities to write about our rich temples.
A sensitive question related to women pilgrims who undertake temple travel. As an avid traveller, what is your take on women pilgrims visiting temples during menstruation? Also, there are varied interpretations to show that Shakti temples should be strictly avoided by women during their menstruation. What are your thoughts on this?
I am a traveler. I travel to see things as they are and document them in my own way. If a temple does not allow menstruating women, I would just accept that and pray from outside and if possible wait for my periods to be over. Just like I comply when in Gurudwaras I am expected to cover my head, or not enter dargahs as a woman.
Personally, I avoid traveling when I have my periods as it is not easy to travel, especially the way I walk around and tire myself, with limited clean public toilets. My travel plans take care of that to the extent possible. When it is not possible, I comply with the rules whatever they are.
Having studied a bit of science behind temples, I am sure there are valid logical reasons for this rule.
Lately, some scholars have published books on menstruation practices in ancient cultures. You may be surprised to know that this tradition of not visiting sacred spaces while menstruating is pretty universal in all cultures.
Whether we follow or not is a different matter.
How has the pandemic changed the way you travel and what do you miss the most?
I have used all the pandemic time to write books, to read books that had been waiting for a long time. My frantic travels never gave me a single block of time and mental focus that pandemic gave me. I self-published two books – Unusual Temples of India, Bharat Ke Anokhe Mandir along with Lotus In The Stone and Ayodhya Mahatmya. I had been wanting to start a podcast, I did that in the last year with the name – Detours with Anuradha Goyal.
I think I can do with a mental break and some wellness travel for now. I think leisure travel will take some time to come back to normal till this second wave of pandemic settles down.
Walk around your own cities and towns is what I am telling everyone.