Sunday, September 9, 2007


Last night I paid my first visit to a temple. We hadn’t planned on going, but a few of the other visitors at the guest house were eager for a trip off-campus, so we all piled into an auto and went to a (terrible) Punjabi restaurant in Gachi Bowli.

Afterwards one of them wanted paan, so we began to wander around in search of a paan-wallah; we were wandering, of course, because we would stop to ask every third person where the nearest paan shop was located, and every person, naturally, would give a different answer.

And so we stumbled upon a temple. Almost literally. It was off the road, and in a bit of a ravine, so we didn’t see the lights until we were almost stumbling down a hill. But by then we had half-stumbled-down anyway, so we decided to move in for a closer look.

I’ve never been close to a Hindu temple before, so I had no basis of comparison; but my companions quickly informed me that this was a “synthetic” temple; the materials were all man-made (i.e. cement) and molded and gilded to look more expensive. It was very new; in fact, there was a man still on the scaffolding, applying lacquer to a statue.

One of the men wanted to go inside, and invited me to follow. And so we removed our shoes and entered the synthetic temple.

There were rows of people listening to a pandit, and of course they all turned to stare when we came in. My friend began to make the circle, praying before each statue and touching it, and I followed behind watching respectfully. I didn’t exactly want to copy his motions, because I didn’t know what they meant, and so I simply watched him until he was finished.

By then the owner of the temple had found us. After a few moments of bragging about his masterwork – “I had the vision for this temple in a dream! The entire design!” – he called the pandit over to us and said that he should do a special mumble-mumble-something-something for me.

The pandit led us up right onto the altar next to a large statue, just my friend and me, and then the rows of people who had been sitting and listening got up and started ringing the two large bells in front of us. The pandit had put a small oil lamp on a plate and was making small circles in front of the statue, and then he held the plate out to us and my friend put a 20-rupee bill on it. (He later complained bitterly about this “bright idea” to have the special something-something, because it meant that he had to make a donation and the 20 bill was the smallest thing he had.) I added all of the change in my pocket.

In return we both got red marks pressed onto our foreheads. And then we got coconut water poured into our palms. And then we each received half of a coconut. And then we had smaller chunks of coconut put into the coconut half. And, to finalize the ritual, the pandit removed the bananas that had been sitting at the feet of this central statue and gave them to us.

We returned to the rest of our group laden with fruit, which we quickly dispersed to begging children.

Now that I have described my adventure, would someone please tell me what this special something-something was? I could have asked afterwards, but I always feel a little awkward saying something like “what was that all about, now?” particularly to someone like my friend who was taking it very seriously, despite his disappointment at having to make the donation. (I never even found out which deity the temple was honoring, because it seemed disrespectful to stop my friend and ask “who’s that on the altar?”)

Just curious to know what kind of blessings I received. ^__^


Ashini said...

Great observations! I think you did well by removing your shoes when you enter a sacred space and just standing respectfully aside.

I think you could have asked your friends about the deity. Every temple is dedicated to one of many many deities. The coconut and fruit have been blessed. I was told recently that the Hindu prayer ceremony uses and awakens all your senses. The smell of the incense, the sight of the statues and candles, the sound of the bells, touching the heat of candles, and eating the prasad (blessed food).

I had gone to a temple with an American girl once -- a Christian, from the midwest. Afterwards, she was quite shaken up by the experience of the idolatry and the passion. She found it very disturbing and contradictory to all she understood. In her case, I'll add she probably never saw so many brown people in one place :-).

Anonymous said...

Sounds like fun, though I'm sorry the restaurant wasn't any good... did your friend ever find his paan?

Actually, I was going to ask this in relation to your touring post, but it fits here too. Have you thought of going to Tirupati on one of your excursions?