We've selected one of the book's experiences--a pilgrimage to an ancient, mind-bogglingly ornate temple in Tamil Nadu, India--to whet your appetite.
India's Acropolis: A shrine to the fish-eyed goddess
Rising from the surrounding plains of tropical vegetation like man-made mountains, the great temples of the Chola dynasty utterly dominate most major towns in Tamil Nadu. For sheer scale and intensity, though, none outstrips the one dedicated to the Fish-Eyed Goddess, Shri Meenakshi, and her consort, Sundareshwara, in Madurai.
Peaking at 46m, its skyscraping gopuras stand as the state's pride and joy--Dravidian India's Empire State, Eiffel Tower, and Cristo Redentor rolled into one. The towers taper skywards like elongated, stepped pyramids, every inch of their surfaces writhing with an anarchic jumble of deities, demons, warriors, supernatural beasts, curvaceous maidens, pot-bellied dwarves, and sprites--all rendered in Disney-bright colors, and topped with crowns of gigantic cobra heads and gilded finials.
Joining the flood of pilgrims that pours through the gateways beneath them, you leave the trappings of modern India far behind. A labyrinth of interconnecting walkways, ceremonial halls and courtyards forms the heart of the complex. Against its backdrop of 30,000 carved pillars unfolds a never-ending round of rituals and processions.
Day and night, cavalcades of bare-chested priests carry torches of burning camphor and offerings for the goddess, accompanied by drummers and musicians blasting out devotional hymns on Tamil oboes. Shaven-headed pilgrims prostrate themselves on the greasy stone floors as queues of women clutching parcels of lotus flowers, coconuts and incense squeeze through the crush to the innermost sanctum.
Perhaps the most amazing thing of all about the Meenakshi Temple is that these rituals have taken place in the same shrines, continually and largely unchanged, since the time of ancient Greece. Nowhere else in the world has a classical civilization survived into the modern era, and nowhere else in India are the ancient roots of Hinduism so tangible. It's as if Delphi or the Acropolis were still centers of active worship in the dot-com era.
Reprinted with permission from Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: A Rough Guide to the World. The book hits stores on Oct. 1, 2007, and you can click here to purchase it at amazon.com.