Andrew Taylor glimpses a little more of India's past than he bargained for in some of its ancient temples.

Guiding tourists must be sorely trying at times. Our tour guide, Ramesh, is explaining the religious significance of the seventh-century Kailasanatha Temple in Kanchipuram, one of Hinduism's most sacred cities, near Chennai in southern India. However, his group of ignorant tourists, especially me, is pointing and sniggering at the ferocious erections on the lions guarding the temple entrance.

“That's one way of saying namaste,” I whisper to the hawker tugging my sleeve.

He's trying to flog sandalwood statues of Krishna, made in China; bamboo flutes, made in Vietnam; and postcards, copied at the local Xerox shop. “I am a small business. I'll make you good price,” he says, showing me a pictorial booklet of the Kama Sutra.

But Ramesh shepherds us inside the temple, a no-go zone for India's small businessmen, and points out the sandstone friezes of Pamela Anderson-shaped women cavorting with the gods. “The arrrrtists had verrrry good imaginations,” observes Ramesh, his R's vibrating like a cat's purr.

Just like teenage boys. With more than one billion people's karma to deal with, India has no shortage of shrines, each one dedicated to one of the millions of Hindu deities, as well as the gods of every other religion.

They're also generous with their namastes; for a couple of dog-eared rupee notes, two priests daub our foreheads with red and white dots and pray for our prosperity, good health and well-being. Given the state of India's traffic-choked, potholed roads, not to mention holy cows and suicidal rickshaw drivers, their prayers won't go to waste.

That night, cultural barriers are quickly breached at a hotel in Mahabalipuram (try saying that after a few Kingfisher beers) when talk turns to overzealous policing. Like cricket, it is an obsession shared by Indians and Australians, says our other guide, Raj.

After hearing how Australian police use school zones and dodgy speed cameras to rake in cash from hapless drivers, Raj explains how he negotiated a 1500-rupee ($37) speeding fine down to just 100 rupees by telling the policeman who nabbed him: “Here, you can keep the bike. I'm not paying you.”

Raj and Ramesh offer the sort of enlightenment about India that you won't find in a Lonely Planet guide. The David Boon-sized moustaches sprouting from the upper lips of almost every Indian male over the age of 12 are grown “to filter the air”, Raj says, keeping a straight face.

The next stinking hot day, we drive to Chennai where Ramesh points out, with disdain, a polyester sari.

Judging by the sweat pouring off its wearer, it's not a wise wardrobe choice in 35-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity. Like everything else in India, there is a sari caste ladder, with polyester occupying the lowest rung, below hand-woven silk and machine-woven varieties.

Ramesh favours rather formal attire, a long-sleeved shirt tucked into high-waisted pants, as he discusses the intricacies of temple art, occasionally mopping his brow and patting his comb-over.

Other Indian men wear the miniskirt-sized lungi, which looks like an adult nappy.

Unlike Scotsmen and despite the intense heat, Indian men do not go commando, Ramesh assures us.

But there are no certainties in tour guiding, as we discover the next day.

We're in our 10th hour of travel, first by rail, then by potholed road, from Chennai to Hassan, which is well and truly beyond India's black stump, and the novelty is beginning to wear thin when Ramesh asks us whether we'd like to detour to a 10th-century shrine at Shravanabelagola.

It's 600 steps up a granite mountain and must be climbed barefoot, which sounds about as enticing as a bout of diarrhoea, until Ramesh explains why it is one of the most sacred sites for followers of the Jain religion.

In a country of strange religious practices, devout Jains are perhaps the most unusual of all.

“They don't squash ants,” says one of my travelling companions, neatly summing up the complexities of Jainism, which among other things instructs followers to avoid eating meat or legumes and vegetables – such as potatoes and onions – that are grown beneath the ground.

They abhor killing, but Jains don't mind pain; aspiring monks must remove any body hair by pulling it out strand by strand.

This last statement has everyone wincing until Ramesh adds: “They also rrrreject the worrrrldly pleasures by not wearing clothes.”

Nudity seems more likely to attract good times and it's certainly enough to rouse our travel-weary group to action. We bound out of the bus, push past a scrum of hawkers and hand over sweaty footwear to a man so ancient he was probably around when the shrine was first built.

Hot granite is not kind to soft feet and some enterprising gents offer to carry visitors up the 600 steps in a sedan chair for 250 rupee.

It's a tempting offer but the toddlers and nannas barely raising a sweat as they stroll past shame me into making the climb.

The sweeping views of the plains and Ghat mountains to the west distract from my creaking knees and swollen cankles as I shuffle up the mountain. But it is nothing compared with the sight waiting on top: a 20-metre high statue of Gommateshwara, a king who renounced his power to meditate himself to nirvana, without a stitch of clothing to hide his anatomically correct manhood.

However, the Jain priest namasting visitors is wearing a lungi, so perhaps Ramesh is right.

In India, it's definitely a case of so many temples, so little time.

But the effort is usually rewarded.

The temple at Halebid is off the beaten track, which is almost every road in India, but is regarded as one of the finest examples of Hindu art and architecture.

It isn't one of the better examples of Indian efficiency; building began in the 12th century and was barely completed 200 years later when Muslim armies invaded. Sadly, not everyone appreciates the splendour or sauciness of the Hoysala dynasty's temple art. When the invaders reached Halebid in the 14th century, they took offence at the 20,000 statues and knocked the heads off all the ones within reach. Knowing their dislike of idolatry, the Hoysala temple artists placed the sexy statues, featuring bare-breasted beauties and well-endowed gents in various Kama Sutra contortions, on the highest levels of the temple.

The temple at Belur is equally impressive, with row upon row of delicately carved statues depicting scenes from Hinduism's various sacred texts.

The temple was built to commemorate Vishnu's success in killing a nasty type by dressing up as a woman and challenging the demon to a So You Think You Can Dance gyrating competition.

It's a rare religion that celebrates gender bending and Ramesh admits life was “frrrreer in the 12th century”.

The Jain and Hoysala temples are a tough act to follow. The enormous Mysore Palace, lit up at night like a Las Vegas casino, is a wondrous sight, but it cannot compete with the important business of Twenty20 cricket.

That night, the IPL final between Bangalore and Hyderabad's Deccan Chargers is played in South Africa. Hyderabad's win generates considerably more chatter than the recent elections, which see the government returned to power and Rahul Gandhi labelled a gay icon on the Indian equivalent of Mornings with Kerri-Anne.

The next morning, high in the Chamundi Hills above Mysore, the queue to enter the temple dedicated to the goddess Chamundeshwari is endless so we gatecrash a wedding. The bride does not hide her displeasure, but the groomsmen insist on taking our photos and send us off with fruit.

At the bottom of the hill, we come across a troop of monkeys, one of whom tries to pull my shorts off to grab my wedding banana, which I reluctantly give to him. Among the countless namastes, debates about Ricky Ponting's captaincy and bartering over tourist trinkets, it's the only cultural misunderstanding I encounter during my journey.

The writer travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Cathay Pacific.



Cathay Pacific flies to Chennai and Bangalore via Hong Kong, see


The 18-day Kerala and Southern Highlights tour starts from $4460. Includes return international economy airfares, accommodation and all meals, local transportation in India, daily tours and entrance fees, an English-speaking national tour escort, local guides and visa fees for Australian passport holders. Wendy Wu Tours, phone 1300 727 998,