The Indian temples are truly holy. For me they embody pure spirituality, the coexistence of silence and dynamism, point and infinity and divinity. To get the most out of your visit it is very wise to have a guide or a least follow the tips I have below.
1) Temple offerings
I recommend buying offerings at the temple grounds whenever you go to temple. This could simply be a 50rs garland (mala) of flowers or could more extravagant with a coconut, milk and of course rupees. These should be offered at the main idol or lingam. There will many “pandits” looking for money and so this is another place where 10rs notes become very useful. At the main inner sanctum you could give 50rs or more depending how you feel but at the little side shrines I give nothing or a maximum 10rs.
2) Remove your sandals or shoes
At all temples you will have to leave your sandals or shoes outside. I have found the best place to leave them is at the mala shop where you bought the flowers. Because you are a customer the shop owner will make sure to look after your sandals, just gesture to them so that they know you are leaving them there. Another tactic if you haven’t bought any flowers is to separate your shoes so that they are not a pair. Kind of like separating skis when you’re on the ski slopes.
3) Ear plugs
The best thing I ever figured out at a temple was that it is very wise to wear ear plugs. Believe it or not the temples can be some of the most chaotic places in India with loud bells, people screaming, babies crying and guards shoving you through the lines. If you have ear plugs in then the noise is dampened and it is easier to be inward and connect more with the subtle but powerful realms of spirituality.
4) Meditation at temples
I find that practicing my Transcendental Meditation at the temples can be an extremely pleasurable experience like no where else on Earth. It is important to find a comfortable corner or quiet spot away from the chaos where you think disturbance will be minimal. Again ear plugs are a Godsend. If someone asks me to move because I’ve been there too long or something I simply don’t respond and then I seem to become invisible. Being a white boy meditating for extended periods at temples I often become a spectacle with young children grabbing their mother’s sari and pointing. This is kind of hilarious but I just keep my eyes closed and go on with my exploration of the spiritual realms. In fact I have had some of my best glimpses into enlightenment at temples and this is certainly a major draw card for me to go to India.
5) Be Inward
As I have alluded to above. I highly recommend that you make the temple experience as inward as possible. You may be shocked by the chaos with people pushing and people asking for money etc. I keep my eyes closed as much as possible even when waiting in lines and just be quiet with myself.
6) Wear Nice Clothes
Whether you really believe in the spirituality or not I recommend wearing traditional nice clean clothes. This means kurta/ dhoti or pajama for men and a saree or punjabi dress for ladies. In my opinion, going to a temple is like meeting someone very special and so it pays to “dress for success”. Also I’ve found that if I’m wearing traditional clothing I am treated with more respect by the temple priests or even given special treatment. Also no leather is permitted in any temple including wallets and belts so beware.
7) Special Darshan – Abhishek
Darshan is crudely translated as “sight” but on a deeper level and in the context of visiting a temple it means “receiving blessings from the divine”. Abhishek is a basic pooja (prayer) that temple priests perform at the statue or lingam. It usually involves offering milk and flowers. If you want the full experience of a temple I recommend going to the “temple office” and purchasing an “abhishek”. This will mean you will get some kind of special darshan and you may even be lucky enough to do the offerings yourself! It also means you get to skip lines which can be great when the wait is hours long.
8 ) Dakshina or Baksheesh
Is the offering or donation of money at a holy place or to a holy person. It is expected that you give something any temple you visit but the amount is really up to you. 10rs would be the minimum and you could give anything more than that if you feel the desire. I like getting the special darshan which usually costs somewhere between 500rs – 1000rs because that way you are making a substantial donation but getting something tangible in return. I have had many wonderful experiences by giving a dakshina for the special darshan.
9) Temple Guide
It may be a good idea to get a temple guide especially if it is your first time. This will help you skip some chaotic lines and understand the history and special features of that particular temple. Be sure to agree on a price before the tour begins because it can be astronomical if they try to scam you.
10) Different kinds of Temples
As you may be able to imagine there are endless different kinds of temples in India. There is literally some kind of shrine or temple on every street corner. Some temples have a lingam (small rounded stone pillar) at the center and these are for worshiping the Vedic God – Shiva. Others have a statue of the Vedic God like in a Durga temple. While others are cave like with some natural rock formation that has become a place of worship. Depending where you are there may be some different customs observed such as in South India all the temples require the men to take off their shirts.
I choose my hotels based on their closeness to the temple. I figure that the closer you are the better. My experience is that if you get a hotel right outside the temple you will be in that spiritual aura 24/7 while you’re there and so the experience will be deeper and more long lasting. It also means you may be able to leave your valuables and shoes etc in your room which can be very convenient.
This picture on the right is from my hotel room outside the incredible Kanyakumari temple at the Southern tip of India.