Tamil Nadu has a number of towns where there are Hindu temples going back to the 7th century. Temple architecture in the south is different from that in the north. Typically there is an outer enclosure and the entrance is surmounted by a high decorative tower called a gopuram. Within the enclosure is the main shrine often adorned with a gold dome, and I’m not talking about paint but plated with real gold!
Some of the larger temples have more than one enclosure like the Ranganatha temple just outside Trichy which has seven and which is one of the largest in India. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai has a single enclosure but it has four entrances each with a huge ornate gopuram. The more ornate gopurams are rich with painted iconography with images so packed together that its hard to take them all in.
I preferred the older Chola dynasty stone gopurams which have spectacular carvings. The detail worked in stone is exquisite.
The innermost enclosure contains the main shrine devoted to a particular god and within the enclosures, are minor shrines. Lots of activities going on in the outer enclosures. There is food such as coconuts and rice for offerings on sale. There are areas where food is cooked in some temples which is given out to the poorer devotees. Some people just seem to be sitting around, either waiting for a specific prayer time or perhaps the temple is a more pleasant place to sit than being out in the street. All the priests are men but it seemed that the majority of devotees were women, just like in our churches!
Tamil Nadu has churches and mosques as well. What I found most interesting about these is that they have elements of Hindu temple worship. You don’t enter churches without removing your shoes and many have large spaces in front of the altar where you sit on the floor. In a church in Vailankanni which is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, I saw a man approaching the altar with a small coconut tree with the coconut still attached to the end which he left by the side of the altar. Immediately outside was a large tonsure hall where pilgrims could get their heads shaved which is often done among Hindus as a form of sacrifice and devotion.
We visited a Moslem mosque in Nagore whch had an outer enclosure with five turrets, closer in style to a gopuram than a minaret, with both men and women praying at the same time whereas in most traditional Moslem mosques, men and women pray in separate areas. The chants sounded more like Carnatic music than Islamic. Again, there were people just sitting in the courtyard looking like they were just passing time. All in all, religion seems more like a way of life here than it seems to be in the west.