The Great India Temple Tour
Henceforth referred to as the TGITT, or The Tour That Shall Not Be Named, which is probably too much of a mouthful.
I swear on my newly-wed wife Evangeline and her 13-inch screen, that I had no idea this 12-day trip was going to turn into one long temple visit. More precisely, 13 long temple visits, though I wasn’t spared the kindness of pacing it one temple per day at least. I was annoyed when on the very first day, they visited a city temple, and our family temple near our old home, but thought that was the extent of the devotion.
How wrong I was.
The next day, we visited Sri Padmanabaswamy Temple, known for its reclining statue of Lord Krishna, visible through intermittent doors. On our way to Alapuzha, we also made a stop at Attukal temple.
Stepping into the temple, any temple, I kick into automatic grear. Leave the shoes at the entrance, step over the middle step at the doorway. The beat of the drums surround me, and my hands are up in an automatic, but completely insincere supplicatio to the gods. I understand why it is so easy to get into the habit, into the beat of the drums, into the rhythm of ritual, step to the march.
I look around and spot the Shabarimala pilgrims performing their pujas. They too, feel the beat, do the rituals. I step carefully to avoid touching any priests and tainting them with my unpurity – the least bit of contact would necessitate them having to bathe all over again. It is a different kind of unpurity, as a woman, which prevents me from visiting Shabarimala until I am menopausal. I remember tagging along with my father when I was 8 or so, and hating it. The climb up the hill is torturous, it is designed to be so. Every year, thousands of people, even some who are not Hindu, climb the gravel mountain, bare-footed with nothing but a haversack and faith, seeking blessings, for a split-second peek at the over-crowded deity, Sri Ayyappan. And rumour has it that the devotees are not even getting that these days, with the over-crowding, with the over-proportionate flood of people from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The conditions are awful, mule excrement everywhere, toilet facilities are scarce, the food might be last week’s leftovers and it is freezing in the morning. Before the pilgrimage, you are supposed to observe thirty days of strict vegetarian diet, no shaving and visit the temple daily. But people still flock there in ever-greater numbers, because it is India.
A few days later, I find myself in a car going to Guravayoor. I resisted going to two temples in the past two days, but it seems I couldn’t escape Guruvayoor, the blackhole of Hindu piety which swallows you up into the crowds and releases you, hours later all dazed and disoriented, and you are not even sure you’ve seen the deity or whether it was an illusion created by all the smoke. Or maybe you blinked the very second you managed to get in front of the deity and then got promptly pushed away by the pious crowd and impatient priests. Guruvayoor is also one of the strictest temples – no pants, and no shirts for men. No photography. No nothing.
We got lucky today, because my uncle knew someone in the Devaswom Board [the management council of a temple. He got us in through a side-door, neatly bypassing the mile-long queue entirely, and getting us directly at the front of the line at the altar of Sri Krishna, a few minutes before the opening of the doors. The drumbeat indicated the puja was still going on. All of a sudden, the gold-plated doors opened to reveal the figurine in the altar, and I suddenly found myself being jostled and pushed in all directions by the devotees eager to pray, caught in a competition I hardly wanted to win, much less be in, where the prize was a split-second view of a decorated stone idol.
Only later did I realise the enormous favour we had gained by the way of relation, because I got a look at the queue outside the madam [the inner temple grounds], and it was longer and thicker than the queue for Singapore Idol auditions. There was a structure that looked suspiciously like the staircase used to ascend planes, placed strategically to accomodate more people in the queue. And if memory serves me right, this queue wasn’t as long as the previous times I’ve been here, and considering this is Shabarimala season.
We went for tea with our benefactor after that, and after he had pressed two special edition Shabarimala diaries with photo-murals of deities, several packets of exclusive prasadam [usually some sandalwood paste and flowers] including the one used to anoint Guruvayoor himself. We learned that apparently, it was indeed real sandalwood as opposed to other temples, and they mixed it with Kunkumam [dried turmeric powder]. To mix it with a fake would be to create poison, which was why it was not done anywhere but in Guruvayoor – according to him, anyway.
Our benefactor was an interesting man – he was a long-active member of the communist party, whose position in the Devaswom Board was more politics than piety. This, I learned was an usual tactic – Devaswom Boards, especially like those of big temples, are enormously rich [How else do you think they get real sandalwood and gold-plate every pillar?], and moderately politically influential. Think of them as the mega-churches of India, and you can get some idea. Party presence in the board is considered normal, to maintain a hold over the hearts and minds of people. And as to the obvious conflict of communism and religion, he quoted Karl Marx, in instructing to go where the masses where – and in this case, the masses were in the temple, literally. [Communism is not considered on the same level as terrorism in India, not yet anyway. And in Kerala, they actually, and quite surprisingly did some good many years ago – the reason why Kerala has near 100% literacy rates]
He also revealed some interesting tidbits about the politics of the board – apparently, some time ago, they changed the rules about women being allowed to wear salwars [they were previously not allowed because the set included pants] into the temple. Anyway, that decision created some amount of political turbulence, as they claimed God had not been consulted in the decision, and the astrologers pitched in to say that the rule had to be reversed. But a decision made, is a decision made, and the Board was holding its ground.
I wish they had done that earlier – it would have prevented the unfortunate but highly amusing incident years back, when I had sneaked into the queue wearing a salwar and didn’t bother to get a mundu to cover it up, and a young priest spotted my highly sinful pants and yelled “Panties! Panties! Take them off right now!”.
By the way, I am pretty sure that if God were to be consulted, he’s going to say something like “Dude… I don’t care if she wears a salwar or a miniskirt. Just stop spending so much money in making me and my home look prettier and give some of that to the starving children.”
Yes I know I am being sacrilegious… I can make fun of my own religion, or at least the one I was born into. [Not that the same can’t be said about every other religion in the world.]
After a break of one day, my extended family embarked on 15-hour journey to Mookambika, all the way in Karnataka, as if they didn’t have enough punyam already. But the highlight of the trip wasn’t Mookambika, ironically. Before we were due to visit the shrine in the evening, they decided to embark on a most foolhardy journey to Kudajathi nearby – only we didn’t know it was foolhardy. For 150 Rps pax, we got to sit like sardines in a jeep and travel over 40 km on a winding mountain road. For the last 10 km of the journey, the tar ran out, and it was just a narrow dirt road on a slate mountain, along for the bumpiest ride in the world. If we weren’t packed so tightly, we would have been tossed around like rag dolls. We were ready to call a helicopter back to the base, not wanting to experience that all over again on the way down. Why, just to visit the shrine that Sri Shankara Achyar meditated in.
Mookambika was just like any other major temple – except they had a side-entrance by which you could bypass the main queue by paying 15 Rps pax. Talk about God listening to only those with money. We noticed a tall blonde Caucasian lady in the queue, who was dressed in the appropriate garb, and reading a book in sanskrit and quietly chanting to herself.
And that seemed to be the theme of the major temples that we visited: always one or two Caucasians who were even more devout and knowledgable about the faith than any of us were. The next day, we visited three other temples in Karnataka, and for one of them, there was a Caucasian dude in Indian garb, playing devotional songs on a saxophone.
[You can always distinguish Karnatakan temples from Kerala temples easily. Kerala temples are sober affairs in black stone and subtle colours, while Karnatakan temples are an explosion of bright primary colours and festive decorations. It might be a reflection of the ethnic personality.]
A couple more temples, because my parents took to temples, any temple, like a duck to water, and then the nightmare was over. And here I am writing about it, because with every temple visit, I feel further, not nearer, to “God”. I couldn’t even pass for an atheist who pretended not to believe, but believed deep inside, or a freethinker who didn’t subscribe to organised religion but believed in God. I just couldn’t see how the countless rituals and pujas were supposed to demonstrate your faith and help with your problems – in my opinion, that’s not how faith works. If there exists a God [which I don’t believe it does] he is not Jesus, Shiva, Allah, Christ, Buddha, or whoever you are worshipping. He belongs to no religion, and certainly does not reside in any place of worship. He/She/It, though created in the image of humans, is probably nothing like what we imagine it to be, and is not going to be unhappy because you kneeled in the wrong direction while praying.
You would think more people realise this, but the rhythm of the ritual, the beat of the drum, the step of the march – it is hypnotic. They make people feel safe and comfortable. Because the truth is that most people can’t take the pain of everyday life without faith – in something.
And that is the one thing Karl Marx got right – religion is the opiate of the masses.