Temple tripping

Temple tripping

There used to be a rule when I was on holiday as a kid. One church equalled one ice-cream. One museum equalled one ice-cream. One stately home equalled one ice-cream. Never mind that -with the benefit of hindsight- it seems to be a rule invented for the benefit of my mother and her love of the cold stuff. That shit worked.

Yes, I may have wanted to watch tv or listen to my walkman (I know, I’m old), but we were somewhere interesting so we were going to see interesting things, dammit. And with the reassurance of that frozen chocolate-chip prize in my little head, off I marched around spectacular cathedrals and world-class art galleries in Paris, Florence and beyond. So in that way, I guess, ice-cream is responsible for most of my cultural education.

Now don’t get me wrong, we’re no angels. We’ll bribe our way into anything if we have to, but Olivia, at the tender age of four, seems to have a bizarrely boundless enthusiasm for temples, stupas and very big Buddhas. Who knows, maybe she’s rebelling as the kid of two non-believers? Whatever the reason, it’s pretty useful when you’re spending six months in Asia.

It was our last week of Sri Lanka, and we’d decided to take it easy in Trincomalee, catching up on the blog, jumping into the sea, eating our weight in fresh seafood. Except it rained quite a lot. And, it being low season, things were shut quite a lot. And what seafood there was, was frozen quite a lot. So, we found ourselves kicking around with not a lot to do quite a lot. One day, though, we were driving back from some thrilling nappy run when we saw a Hindu temple right on an unglamorous stretch of the main road. I vaguely remembered reading about its existence, so we pulled up for a quick look. We didn’t leave for hours.


The outside of the Pathirakali Amman temple is insane. A Hindu temple in the Dravidian style of architecture, it resembles a grand rainbow-hued birthday cake, with added gods and creatures busily battling, climbing and grinning down at us. The further we walked around the building, the more elaborate it got. But we couldn’t have predicted what was inside.

We took our shoes off and shuffled through the door, expecting a classically beautiful, reverent scene. We looked up innocently, and BAM. It was as though we’d landed on another planet, or at least been parachuted into a hallucinogenic music video. Like the lovechild of Pink Floyd and Cbeebies, the only thing this temple lacked was subtlety. A riot of colour clashes and animals and almost grotesque details, this was pupil-dilating, jaw-dropping stuff. 

Barbie pink sat next to teal and gold and ultraviolet. Great chestnut horses reared up against lysergic rainbow columns. Pale pearlescent birds spread their elaborate tails into the corners of the building. Turquoise dragons belched out chains of tiny people along their tongues. On the ceiling, snake-draped gods and big-breasted goddesses met in the middle, flanked by giant octopuses and disembodied Mick Jagger lips. There were butterflies and babies and laughing cows. More was more and anything went.

We roamed the place separately, each in our own bubble-gum dream, both kids  hypnotised by the cartoonish spectacle of it all. One man prayed silently in the centre. Another was hard at work in the back, dismantling something or other in silence. I wandered over, asked him what he was doing. There had been a wedding there that morning, he explained. So he was taking down the decorations. Of course he was. We looked around, at the maximalist technicolour glory surrounding us and exchanged a wry smile. Decorations, obviously. That’s what this place had been missing.

Pathirakali Amman Temple
New Moor St, Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

+94 262 222 760

Entrance free, donations welcome.