x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Ask the Expert: Revel in the cultural riches of Kerala's temples

The Indian state offers plenty more to curious travellers lured by news headlines of a fortune within one of its temples.

Q: All the excitement about the treasure unearthed at the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala has made my wife and I keen to visit the state. We're planning a three-day trip, and want to spend a day touring the temples. Can you recommend other must-see religious monuments in Kerala?

A: Besides the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum, other important sites of worship include the Guruvayur temple, near Trichur, and the remote Sabarimala, in the Western Ghats. Visiting all these important sites involves a fair bit of travelling - definitely more than just a day of sightseeing. For example, Padmanabhaswamy temple is at Kerala's southern-most tip and Guruvayur temple is up north, so be prepared for longish journeys between destinations. If you don't have enough time, decide on two or three temples and plan a two-day trip around them. You could hire a car, but the fastest way to get around is by railway (visit www.keralatravels.com for train schedules).

Begin your journey at Padmanabha Swamy temple (www.sreepadmanabhaswamytemple.com), now in the news for the 33 billion rupees (Dh2.73 billion) worth of treasure unearthed from its underground vaults. Boasting Dravidian architecture and a 30-metre, seven-tiered gopuram, the temple dates to the eighth century and was maintained by the royal family of Travancore - the temple still follows its centuries-old traditions, and is the wealthiest in India. With two more vaults to be opened in the next few days, security is at a high. Access to the inner areas of the main building has also been restricted. Also, only Hindus are allowed to enter, so you might have to be content with taking pictures of the temple from the grounds while pooja (ceremony) or darshan (viewing of the deities) is going on. The temple is open only in the morning and evening.

Next, travel to Sabarimala. Take a train from Trivandrum to Pampa (about two-and-a-half hours) then trek the 5km to Sabarimala. Located in the dense forests of the Western Ghats, the temple is hard to reach - the road is uphill and winding - but the effort is worth it. More than 40 million people visit this holy site every year - it's open to people of all religions - but note that women between the ages of 10 and 50 are not allowed inside. A homestay in Pampa, such as the popular River and Rubber, costs from 2,000 rupees [Dh165] per night (book through www.heritagestay.com).

Guruvayur temple, also called the "dwaraka (doorway) of the south", one of southern India's most important pilgrimage destinations - is about 30km northwest of Trichur, a small city about a four-hour train ride from Sabarimala. The temple is said to be at least a thousand years old, while the image of its main deity is considered to be more than 5,000 years old. The temple is distinctive in appearance for its two gopurams, and its main attraction is a seven-metre tall deepastambham, or pillar of lamps. Like the Padmanabha Swamy temple, only Hindus are allowed inside.

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