Only two things have left me totally awestruck. The first one was some 10 years ago. My father was posted in Madurai in Southern Tamilnadu, once erstwhile and rich capital of the ancient Pandya kingdom. We set out on an evening journey to a temple nearby which my father was really curious to visit. I was not very happy with the idea because I was missing 'Pepsi Ungal Choice' on Sun TV that evening. So I was kind of dragged kicking and crying to this temple and naturally, wasn't really favourably disposed.
We left the city lights of Madurai for the rural countryside. Halfway through our journey, power went off and the road on which we were traveling was pitch dark. To add to it, as we neared Thiruvedagam, we slipped off onto a mud road and it was one bumpy ride! Finally, the driver stopped in the midst of a jungle, or so it seemed to me. I got out the car and couldn't see a damn thing to save myself and was kind of looking to the heavens for help, when I saw the silhouette of a soaring gopuram or temple tower right in front of me. It was the night of a full-moon and the twilight sky was sparkling with a few stars and it was the first time I was totally impressed. The temple tower was as ancient as anything and the sculptures were as life-like as anything I had seen in my life. We went into the temple. It was bereft of electricity and the only guiding light was a single light from the garbhagriha of the Shiva sannidhi.
We explored the temple in the light of lamps and moonlight. The soaring monolithic columns, immense prakarams, life-like sculptures and the astonishing beauty of the deities left an indelible mark on me. I read up on the sthalapuranam of the temple after we returned and it is one of the places of historic importance which steered the course of the Pandya kingdom.
The sad thing is that the temple had no electricity or even oil to burn lamps in the sanctum sanctorums of the deities because of lack of money. How poor can a temple be that it doesn't have oil for the lamps? There are scores of temples in southern Tamilnadu suffering from lack of attention and funds. These architectural marvels largely remain unknown to the world at large, hidden away in the remote villages of Tamilnadu.
Whenever I get misled by the propaganda that India is a god-forsaken land of teeming, miserable millions languishing in filth, heat and dirt looking toward the west for redemption, I remember these masterpieces of an era of splendor, wealth and culture unsurpassed.