The site in Helensburgh was declared divine because, “it is said the gods always play where groves are, near rivers, mountains, and springs and in towns with pleasure-gardens.” – Brihatsamhita
In the late morning light, the gleaming white surfaces of the Sri Venkateswara Temple glowed bright and stark against the surrounding forest. Barefoot worshipers and tourists scrambled across the hot marble terrace. They posed for photos in front of the towering main entrance and retreated inside when their feet began to burn. Across the way, in the shade of eucalypts, visitors placed their shoes on tiered wooden racks. Sulphur-crested cockatoos shrieked in the highest branches overlooking the small northern gardens.
Barret, Shweta, Bryan and I followed the steady flow of people from the hot courtyard into the cool hallway where the dense aroma of incense hung in the air. Although Barret and I had never been in a Hindu temple before, there was something very familiar and comforting in that scent. It reminds me of cluttered Catholic churches in Dublin and the ash-covered shrines in Macau.
Inside the Sri Venkateswara Temple were shirtless priests with gold necklaces and bright cloths wrapped around their waists. They assisted worshipers with certain poojas (prayer rituals) and, when not called upon, performed their own duties or relaxed on benches scattered throughout the building.
Outside the main hall was a chart that listed the various costs of priest-assisted poojas. Depending on who one prayed to, the benefits ranged from ‘considerate improvement in education’ to ‘eventuate auspiciousness and/or to accomplish righteous things.’ Every church has their way of collecting funds from their worshipers, but there was something about this chart that reminded me of a home-improvement project and the priests flitting about the temple were helpful associates at a hardware store.
My friend Shweta wanted to perform an Archana pooja for Lord Vishnu. Archana is a shorter pooja in which the names of one’s family are recited for blessings. The four of us went up together and Shweta gave a metal bowl filled with fruit, holy basil, flowers and incense to a priest who had been seated against the wall. He asked for our names and began to chant.
At the end we cupped our hands to waft the smoke of burning incense over our face and then the priest poured a small amount of sweet water into our hands for us to drink. He pointed out two pots of sandalwood paste for us to use for the tilaka. However when Barret and I hesitated, he stepped towards us to put a tan dot on our forehead and followed it with a scarlet one.
It’d been awhile since the last time Shweta visited the Sri Venkateswara Temple, but she fondly remembered one of the most beautiful places to visit afterwards- Stanwell Tops. We were sitting on the grassy bank that overlooked the beautiful coastline when I noticed a family that I’d seen at the temple.
Varahamihira, the author of the Brihatsamhita, was also an astronomer and mathematician who discovered some of the trigonometric formulas I studied in school. Given his talent and numerous contributions to the court of the legendary ruler Yashodharman Vikramaditya, I think it’s safe to say that Varahamihira knew what he was talking about when he described the kind of land that gods love to play in. The Sri Venkateswara Temple could not have been built in a more heavenly environment.
How to get to the Sri Venkateswara Temple: Take the train from Central Station to Wollongong and get off at Helensburgh Railway Station. From there it is about 2 km to the temple. Buses leave from Helensburgh Railway Station every hour from 9.00 am till 4.00 pm.