Known as Dakshin Kashi (The Southern Varanasi, as it were), the Shiva temple of Sri Kalahasthi (100kms from Chennai, off Tada on NH 5) has two dominant legends associated with it.
The first one goes like this. A spider, a snake and an elephant worshipped Lord Shiva. Each had a different way of paying respect, unaware of each other’s styles. The spider wove silk webs, the elephant washed and garlanded the idol with flowers daily and the serpent decked the Lord with jewels. Once the elephant in his cleaning, discarded the jewels offered by the snake and adorned Shiva with flowers. The snake was offended, a skirmish followed and the spider got caught in the fight and all three died. The Lord was pleased with each one’s manner of paying obeisance and granted them mukthi (salvation). What followed was his taking on their names in this incarnation- Sri( spider) Kala(snake) hasthi( tusker elephant) or Sri Kalahatheeswarar.
Another one associated with this temple, is the legend of Kannappan. Kannappan, a hunter is said to have stopped the discharge from Shiva’s ailing left eye by offering his own eye. When the other eye of Shiva also started bleeding, he placed his big toe on it for easy access (since he would be rendered blind post removing his second eye) . Shiva was pleased with him and stopped him from self-inflicted blindness. An exemplary ( if extreme) devotee.
The temple is HUGE (the tower – gopuram is over 100 feet high) and houses a multitude of Gods including a Spatika Lingam. Part of the five lingams representing the five elements, the one at Sri Kalahasthi is the Vayu (air) Lingam The premises are air conditioned and well maintained given the crowd. The procession idols are beautifully embellished. The ceilings have lovely paintings now in a state of disrepair. The walls are full of ancient Tamil inscriptions- this part of Andhra Pradesh (Chittor) must have been a part of the Madras state of yesteryear. The shrine is frequented by most Tirupathi visitors as it is just a few kilometers away.
For the religious minded it is a place where you can make peace with Rahu- Ketu by offering special prayers (puja). The pujas come in 3 denominations ( Rs 250-Rs 1000). The comfort definitely varies in terms of waiting time and air con. I wonder if the “palan” ( the fruit of the prayer) also does.
The puja is done by the devotees in an assembly hall. They are seated on the floor on palahais (low stools) in about eight rows ( South Indian Marriage hall style). There is a priest who is comfortable in Tamil, English and Telugu. He walks around and instructs on a mike, in all the three languages. You can follow him or your neighbour ( in case you suffer from attention deficiency) All this lasts about half an hour.
You are left with the smell of flowers, kumkum( vermillion) and turmeric and a feeling of calm likely to be broken by a jarring request for tips from the “devoted” austere priests! The coconuts are segregated and possibly recycled/ sold. There is no wastage. One fellow traveller hazarded a guess that the small silver shiva replicas are also recycled since there is a separate hundi (drop box) for them.
This gorgeous 16th century Shaivite temple, on the banks of an almost dry Swarnamukki river, is today, in my opinion, also an interesting case study in process management .