This Monday was a Hindu holiday – mahashivaratri – the great night of Lord Shiva.
There seem to be several legends behind the origin of this celebration and reading about it on Wikipedia did not help much…..
However, I was told by a local girl that celebrations include fasting, performing puja and offering prashad of bel patri leaves, potato, datura (a poisonous fruit), milk and bhang, a fermented drink.
I do not know anything about Hinduism, but something tells me it israther complicated.
I had some quite colourful experiences at the beginning of my stay here in Gujarat, when I still was with ‘the group’.
First of all, I assisted to a fully-fledged Hindu wedding, a rather light-weight manifestation of religious customs.
Lord Ganesha was of course there, as the remover of obstacles and lord of beginnings, one of the most revered deities of the Hindu pantheon.
Some days after the wedding, we were the guests of honour at a ceremony of appeasement of the nine planets, especially organised for us.
Several Brahmins were there, chanting specific mantras for each celestial body.
I had been feeling bad since the morning of the same day, my whole body was sore and I was extremely tired. Then, when we arrived at the small temple I felt sick and had to run to the bathroom… I was encouraged to take part. A mattress was laid down for me just in case I would need it.
For every planet the Brahmins chanted and prayed. For every planet we offered a different cereal, or staple, to the holy fire – agni.
Sesame seeds for Saturn (they pop!), kidney beans for Venus, wheat for the Sun, etc.
We took a pause somewhere down the Milky Way and together with another girl from the group, also sickish, I could get some well-needed rest. Despite my aching limbs and my heavy eye-lids I endured.
The next day we were taken on a three-hour bus ride across the country-side to visit a Hanuman – deity with face of a monkey – temple where a local healer was giving his blessings to the devotees.
On our way there, we realised the need for a pause-pipi. There would be no such facilities at the temple. Our efficient hosts improvised and managed to find a decent place, which actually turned out to be an ashram…
This meant that while queuing for the loo, we had a chat with pilgrims on a 400 km walk from their town to a Maa-Kali festival. More mantras…
Back on the bus, and just a bit further down the road, we saw a group of Jain nuns in their typical white apparel walking and carrying an overweight fellow-nun. In no time, an other act of improvisation took place and we were ushered out of the bus to have a quick meeting with them.
Our local host, who did his best to give us a taste of India, translated for us.
A very young and pretty girl who was accompanying the nuns was soon going to take her diksha – monastic vows. I don’t want to go into details, but for what I know, the process is a rather grim affair…
The nuns voiced a simple request to us: to eat vegetarian food as often as possible. We promised and carried on.
Finally, we arrived at the Hanuman temple when it was already dark. The whole setting looked like that of a local, rural fair. The temple, a characterless, shabby building, was full of people. Incense smoke was thick in the air.
We had to take off our shoes and walk on the grotty floors.
Musicians were playing loud, celebratory music.
The healer led us along one side of the building and down a narrow staircase to a claustrophobic, small room with a Hanuman statue, drenched in dripping coconut oil. The healer took our index and middle fingers, and placed them on the coco-nutty chest of the god.
We were all relieved to climb the stairs back up. We were taken to the main hall where we all sat down on mattresses around the ‘healer’. People would come, kneel in front of him, bow their heads and touch his feet. He would touch them softly on the head and then tie a ribbon around their wrist.
In the background I could see parents with infants in their arms, pausing in front of a Hanuman idol and showing them how to pay their respects. Just like parents do in a church, in front of an icon.
When that day was over, I had had an overload of spirituality and religious symbolism. I was relieved to wash my feet clean and do something more mundane.
Interestingly enough, just a day after the ambivalent experience of the Hanuman temple, we visited a temple dedicated to Jalaram on our way to Jamnagar, a city in west Gujarat.
A beautiful temple, totally new, made out of stone in a pinkish hue, with shiny marble floors and doors to the four cardinal directions.
The serene beauty of the place was just what I needed to wash off the sticky oiliness of the Hanuman temple.
Overall, I cannot help being impressed by the human need of performing rituals. How we meticulously intertwine religious feelings and faith with symbolism.
Does the divine really care about our fetisch for symbols, though ? Aren’t symbols mainly a token of a superstitious perception of the world? An expression of our need to understand a sometimes unfriendly universe? And can’t too many symbols and rituals just kill the spirit?
Just my personal thoughts….
‘Nine lives’by William Dalrymple.
Dalrymple has compiled 9 independent stories, 9 tales that make up a mosaic of spiritualism in modern India. It is really worth reading. Having read the book, the above all made more sense.