As we traversed a wide variety of temples, I found an exploration of the major Hindu deities to be one of the most interesting parts of my time in India. Shiva, the destroyer, is a fascinating deity, both feared for his capacity to create chaos, but also revered for the life-giving capacity of his being. Shiva is the origin point of the holy river Ganges, and is often depicted with the river sprouting from his hair. His connection to wildlife is clear, as he is typical imagined with cobras coiled around his neck and in his hair, or resting atop a tiger pelt. An ascetic, he wears little clothing, and shuns the modern world by retreating to the forest. His presence was honored in many of the sacred groves we visited. His son, Ganesh, is often present in some form at Shiva temples, visualized as an elephant-headed god.
We visited far fewer temples in sacred groves that honored Vishnu, the preserver. However, Keshavraj temple, a monument to Vishnu, was one of my favorites. Here the local community had created an elaborate temple atop a hillside, with a waterspout running from an ancient mango tree in the forest above. Accessible via a small door that forced you to bend at the waist, as if in reverence to the god, the temple grounds were surrounded by stands of fishtail palm and other species cultivated by the village below. Winged serpent eagles stood guard around Vishnu’s chamber. Outside the temple lay a simple tribute to Vishnu’s wife, Lakshmi.
True to my sentiment for forest, I found my deepest connection to temples contained within sacred groves. Those that had a weak association with the presence of forest did not hold as much power or mystery for me. My sprite was clearly drawn to the spiritual power of the forest as much as to the deities within.