Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mysterious, Colorful, Religious India

RELIGION was something I hadn’t expected in India.  I mean, I know every country has religion, but I wasn’t prepared for the PERVASIVENESS of it in India.  Religion is EVERYWHERE there – it is in the way people dress, the way they eat, the way they relate to one another, the way they worship, the way they celebrate, it is even in their politics.  Religion is an integral part of life there in a much more “real” sense than I see in America.

And religion in India is SO DIVERSE.  There are many, many different faiths represented throughout the country – Hindu (the majority religion of the country), Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Bahai, Christian, Catholic, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Parsi…  And it seems, at least to this outside observer, that the different religions coexist in harmony.  There do not appear to be overt attempts at convincing others that one religion is “right” and therefore “better” and others should convert to it.  It seems to be accepted that Indians have an ingrained religion, practice it faithfully, and respect other people’s right to do the same. 

I don’t normally discuss this, but I guess I need to explain here that David and I do not practice a religion.  He has never been involved with a formal religion, and I grew away from the one I was raised in.  I do consider myself a spiritual person, but I do not conform to a prescribed religious belief.  I guess these days I would say that KINDNESS is my religion.  I take time daily to pause and pray – mostly to reflect on all that I have to be THANKFUL for.  Oh sure, I throw in an “ask” every now and then, even though I am not directing the prayer to anyone in particular.  So it is from that “outside formal religion” view that we could examine the religious practices shown to us in India.  It was LOVELY.

Man dressed to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum - traditional dhoti (long) and no shirt
First, the observations here are mine alone and not meant to judge or offend.  But let me say that IF I were going to choose an Indian religion to jump into, it would hands down be Hinduism!  It is amazing in its colorfulness!!!  Not only are the TEMPLES full of bright paint and wonder, but the CHARACTERS and the TALES are soooo vibrant!!!  Oh, and the CUSTOMS!!!!  We saw our first Hindu temple on the night we arrived in Delhi and were on our own exploring.  We had wandered through a small market (wide eyed since we had just arrived in the country and everything was brand spanking new to us…) and as we walked through the market it became clear that there was a queue of people heading toward something.  Shoes were strewn in piles and people walked barefoot.  One woman repeatedly laid completely face down on the (dirty) street, placing her entire body and face on the ground, one body length at a time.  She was prostrating herself reapeatedly, heading to the temple.  When we reached the end of the queue we understood – they were all lining up to go into the temple.  We did not feel like we could join them (as total outsiders) so we did not get to see inside the temple.  I did not expect that we would be allowed in any temples – they seem so sacred.  So I was amazed, delighted, and in awe when a guide took us into our first temple.  It was wonderful!!!  The artwork was so intricate, telling the stories of some of the many gods of the religion.  And the BELL, oh the BELL is quite fabulous!!  There is a bell in the center of the space which Hindus ring as they enter.  The ringing clears the mind and brings a focus to believers.  But because there is no “set time” for services, people come and go and ring the bell at will.  This makes for a musical delight!  The BEST was watching little kids ring it!  Most were lifted up by their parents to ring the bell with huge smiles, but we particularly liked watching the chubby kid (universal, isn’t it?) jump, jump, and jump some more, trying with all his might to RING THAT BELL on his own.  We ended up seeing the inside of a few temples and they were all so colorful and celebratory.

If THIS was in your place of worship, wouldn't you just be EXCITED?  I would.
In the Varkala Temple

Most temples have flower stalls near them - people buy and bring flowers to leave at the temple. 
Lots of bright orange marigolds!

Hindus have SO MANY traditions, all of which are NEW to us.  First off, the belief in so many gods, each of which appear to have “sub-gods”…  There are some “main gods” but if you take them ALL into account, there are thousands (is what they told us J ).  Each of the gods is represented in different manners in different places, so “who is who” can be confusing to outsiders like us!  But when we asked, someone was always happy to explain, “Oh!  That is VISHNU!” or “Oh, that’s Shiva!” or, my particular favorite, “That is Hanuman, the MONKEY GOD!”.  Yes, there is a MONKEY GOD!  And, go figure, part of his trait is that he LIKES BUTTER!!!  So in one temple the carving of Hanuman was SMEARED WITH LOADS OF BUTTER, which apparently some people take a finger full of and lick as they pass by.  J  (I personally expected a Monkey God to be a fan of bananas, but I guess that is far too obvious, isn’t it?)


And another Hanuman, this time smeared with butter
Hindus have priests in the temples.  People bring things (fruit, flowers, nuts, etc) and give them to the priests, and the priests apply marks to the foreheads of followers.  Because we are so sensitive in America to not appropriating other people’s cultures, I in no way expected to get a marking.  However, Indian people do not seem to be at all offended by Westerners or other outsiders taking part, so without hesitation our guide pulled us up to the front of the temple and we were greeted by the priest and given a marking! 

David's mark

Varkala Temple - isn't it amazing??
My mark

Hindu people seem to have many, many traditions, most of which were incredibly wonderful to an outsider like me to witness!!!  Several people (Hindu themselves) told us that Hindus are “superstitious” and that does seem to be the case J.  They have these great necklaces that they give to children to keep them safe – the metal part is a locking tube that contains a little scroll that a priest writes on, which is then sealed away, the necklace is put on, and it is not taken off.  Children and some adults wear what appears to be a string around their bellies to ward off evil.  the number 9 is very revered, so important things use that number or add up to that number.  For example, if you pray and are granted what you asked for, you sometimes go to the temple and SMASH open 108 COCONUTS to give, because 1+0+8 = 9!!!  We saw a woman smashing coconuts and I was in awe!!  Let’s just say, there was nothing that dramatic in the Midwestern church that I grew up attending!

One morning in Varkala, we turned a corner and were greeted by this ELEPHANT getting her morning BATH!
She belongs to the Janardhanaswami Temple.  Yes, some temples own ELEPHANTS.

Isn't she MAJESTIC?
It seemed funny to me (again, I was a complete outsider taking a peek in, so I am not trying to be judgmental here) that there was a PRICE LIST in some temples.  Many of the rituals require a small payment – a priest feeding an infant their first solid food, a marriage, in one temple our guide paid a musician to sing us a song!!  (Side note:  the instrument the guy used had ONE STRING on it, and though the guide told him our names, we never once heard “David” or “Susan” in his melody…  Also, after the guide paid him, the guy appeared to balk and ask for more money…  We were giggling later, imaging what the conversation must have been (if we had been able to understand it): Musician: “Yo, dude, I sang them a WHOLE SONG under this Barbie tree!  I mean really, you are gonna give me 5 rupees for that???”  Guide: “I told you their NAMES, man, and you didn’t even include them.  C’mon, that instrument only has ONE STRING and you just sort of yammered on.  5 rupees is more than you deserve.  Let’s not make a scene in front of these tourists, alright???”. 

The man who serenaded us

The tree at the temple decorated in Barbies...  Lots and lots of BARBIES.
We didn't fully understand this one, it was something to do with fertility.
We also got to go inside the Lotus Bahai Temple in Delhi.  It was beautiful!!  It is a huge, open space and, though full of visitors, completely SILENT.  Well, it is supposed to be completely silent, but 2 birds had decided to come in and sing up a storm.  The acoustics in that big space were PERFECT for those bird songs – it was as if nature wrote hymns and they were belting them out.   

One of our guides, Gary (you may remember him from the BIG REVEAL at the Taj Mahal!) was Sikh.  I do not know much about that religion, but I know from what Gary told us that Sikhs are warriors.  They keep their hair and facial hair unshorn, wear a turban, and carry a kirpan – which is a small SWORD!  (Though Gary told us that, as a tour guide, he enters places where weapons are not allowed so while working does not carry his.)  One thing I loved was when Gary was having an argument with an old man at one of the forts we visited.  Gary, the Sikh, and the old man in charge of the place, a Muslim.  They were arguing over Gary being charged a fee he should not have been, and the old man was sticking to his guns.  Gary (in Hindi) fired back something like, “OK, fine then, if you want to charge me that fee, you can bloody well hand carry my receipt for it out here to me, then walk around in this scorching sun with me and these tourists!!”.  The argument continued (in Hindi), UNTIL the old man told Gary that it was his time for PRAYER, and if he indeed followed us around like Gary was requiring, he would miss his prayers.  Well, that stopped the argument right then and there.  Gary would not interfere with the old man’s religion.  It was a beautiful moment. 

There are also many Muslim people in India.  You can hear the “call to prayer” often from different mosques, and the sound is entrancing.  Muslim attire is, of course, different than that of the Hindus.  Many Muslim women keep their heads covered, and even while swimming some of the women kept their bodies covered.  We were so honored (and delighted!) when a Muslim family invited us to join them in a game of “water soccer” in the rooftop hotel pool in Mumbai.  It was a blast!  Another Muslim family swam with us in Varkala and they were adorable.  Only the daughter, around age 12, spoke English.  She was studying in an international school where her courses were all taught in English, so she was quite fluent.  The problem was, she talked very FAST, so with the speed and her accent, even though she was speaking “our language” we still had to say, “HUH?” a lot.  J

Me in my borrowed garb - had to cover up to go into a mosque. 
My outfit was a bit LARGE for me.... 

Man resting inside the Might of Islam Mosque (Delhi)

Religious sites always have piles of SHOES outside them, since
you have to take your shoes off to go inside

Woman at Might of Islam Mosque
I want to mention one more thing here about religion.  Have you heard of Amma, the “hugging saint”?  I had, and when we ended up traveling to the south of India, we knew we would be near her Ashram.  I looked online before we left for vacation and from what I saw it would take HOURS to get to actually see Amma, the site said that people wait in line ALL NIGHT LONG to get a “token” to get a hug from her.  Well, we didn’t have that much time, so I had resigned myself to a “drive by hug of David in front of Amma’s Ashram”.  However, little did I know that more was in store for me…  Remember the couple I wrote about who invited us into their home, served us tea, and gave us black pepper??  Well, they are Amma devotees and when I was shown their prayer room, I saw a huge portrait of Amma.  They were so pleased that I knew of her and set about making plans with our driver for us to work actual, real life AMMA HUGS into our schedule!  And wouldn’t you know it, everything worked out.  It is amazing really – Amma is frequently on tour in other countries, and even when she is in town she does not see the public and have a “darshan” (meeting of the people and hugging) every day.  But the ONE DAY we were in town near her ashram, she was holding a darshan, so off we went!!  I mean, how often does the timing work out that well, right??

Shhhh!  No photos are allowed in Amma's Ashram.  This is our only one, and it was
taken with our camera IN OUR BACKPACK.  We did not mean to be sacrilegious,
but we NEEDED a photo of this occasion. This was during our long wait.
Our driver, Prabeesh, was so thrilled to be able to take us to Amma’s.  He had been to see her one other time and is a believer.  So the three of us journeyed to the ashram, got ourselves a token, and waited around 3 hours to get our HUGS!  During the wait, we watched other people line up and get their hugs and listened to chanted songs (one of which had 1,008 verses extolling Amma’s virtues, because, again, 1+0+0+8 = 9, the revered number!!).  I won’t go into detail here (this entry is long enough!) but we left with our hugs, little bags of scented material (some of which Amma applied to our foreheads), Amma candies, and a tiny Amma token and plastic red Amma ring I bought at the gift shop.  J

Our stuff from Amma's.  I WISH you could smell the little tan colored
packet - it contains what she put on our forehead and smells wonderful.
The thing about religion in India is – the different religions seem to GET ALONG.  They seem to coexist peacefully.  Yes, I know that is not always the case, but from what I experienced, individual religions were very RESPECTED.  Indians can tell at a glance what someone else’s religion is.  The way the person is dressed, how their forehead markings are, etc are all signs to which religion they practice.  Religion is not something kept quiet in India – it is pervasive in the entire culture.  The majority of the country does not eat beef (save for Kerala, the state in the south we visited).  The “no beef” is because some of the religions, but not ALL, believe that cows are sacred.  Even POLITICS in India is religious.  I asked about some of the logos used by the parties in the recent elections, and at least 2 of them were related to religion (though the guide told us that “technically” religion and politics are separate, in actuality they are very much combined)! 

We thought we were heading to India to see the sights – the Taj Mahal, the tigers, etc.  We hadn’t foreseen we would also see the RELIGIONS – the gods, the coconuts, the chants, the incense…  I am grateful for the opportunity to peek into another world.  I never imagined that this “girl” from the heartland of America would land smack dab in the middle of an ashram being hugged, or gazing in awe at devoted men dressed in dhotis and no shirts entering the sacred part of a temple.  Color me happy.  I have an extra thing to say “thanks” for in my daily prayers now. 

More amazing art from the Varkala Temple

Look!!  3 heads, and he/she is doing the ASL sign for the number 3!
 For more about Amma, see this site:  http://amma.org/

BONUS photo!  Here is a little friend I met at the Sivagiri Mutt in Varkala.  You can tell we
are at a religious place because we are barefoot (which is rare for me if I am not on a beach).
His mom wanted him to get his photo with the "exotic white woman".  :)

No comments: