Last Sunday I went to Tiruvanamallai, about 3 hours from Chennai. One of my employee's wife's family is from there, and the place is famous for the Arunachala temple, dedicated to Shiva. Many people make pilgrimages to this temple at the new moon and other festivals, especially Diwali, which originated here. One important ritual is to walk around the Arunachala mountain (shown above). A famous sage, Sri Ramana, made this place famous, and there is an ashram nearby devoted to his teachings--Somerset Maugham among others came here. Tiruvanamallai is one of the great holy places of India, and it is said that one needs only to think of Arunachala to attain spiritual liberation.
The family made special arrangements for me to be able to visit the inner sanctum of the temple with my employee and his father in law, which was really interesting (non-Hindus are not usually allowed in the inner areas of most temples, where the religious observances occur). We went past a long line of people waiting for the main deity, Shiva, and into a small enclosed area that was quite hot. The priest brought a round brass plate filled with flowers, incense, and other offerings, and each person wishing to offer prayers put his or her hands on the plate in turn. The priest asked the name of the individual and those he or she wished to have blessed, including their astrological sign, star sign, and other important details important in Hinduism. The priest then went to the inner sanctum where the god--in this case Shiva--was represented. He said some prayers in Sanskrit, and then came back out with the same plate, this time with a small fire on the plate. Then each person puts their hands on the flame, and may take a small part of the offering that has been blessed, called the prasad. A small bit of red sandalwood paste is also taken and placed on the center of the forehead, the so-called "third eye" --for devotees of Shiva, or Shaivites, the mark is placed horizontally.
There is more than one sanctum to which you can go, and we also went to the one for Shiva's wife Parvati, also called Uma. This place was less crowded than the main Shiva sanctum, but followed a similar process. Then, we went to the place which I also saw in the temple in Madurai, which is dedicated to the nine planets. The custom here is that you pay to light small oil lamps, and then walk around the display nine times. Then you pay respects to a representation of Chitragupta, who is the recordkeeper of human deeds, and who decides if someone goes to heaven or hell when he/she dies. But, as explained to me, it is considered bad luck to look directly at Chitragupta, so you look only from the side of the enclosure where he is represented. Finally, there is a ceremony where you sit down and receive the prasad, and then outside the sanctum, those partaking in the blessings prostrate themselves.
Although the temple is an important place for prayer, equally significant are the daily rituals done at home. Hindu homes will usually have a small room for this purpose, called a pooja room. When I am home on weekends or leave later for work than usual, I feel as if I am participating vicariously in this ritual, as the people next door--wealthy brothers who built a large complex to house their two families--have a large statue of Ganapathy (Ganesh) in a courtyard on the side of the house. Regularly at 8 or so in the morning and 6 in the evening, I hear the bells rung for the ritual, and if the porch door is open, the faint smell of sandalwood and camphor drifts over as well.
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