Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Accidental Pilgrim

The map of India is a lesson in sacred geography. Point a pilgrim, whether Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain in almost any direction, and she will have no trouble finding a holy site. However, I did not come to India with a spiritual agenda, but with a curiosity about my new family’s country. A few days after my husband, Adeet, and I arrived in Mumbai, we visited a Jain temple in Malabar Hill. We took pictures, carefully following the posted rule requesting that we not turn our back to any of the idols. Later, we visited a Hare Krishna temple in suburban Juhu and watched as people prostrated themselves before the deities. Worshipers swooned at the sight of an ornate Krishna and reminded me of devout Spanish Catholics I had seen weeping before bejeweled saints. I took off my shoes and joined the others who processed before Krishna and the other idols, but I was an outsider. Adeet and I visited these temples the way tourists to Europe wander through cathedrals, admiring the artwork and the architecture, but having no intention to enter the confession booth or attend services.

In late December, Adeet and I traveled 180 kilometers from Mumbai to Nasik with his father, Shank, to meet his relatives. According to the epic Ramayana, Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, spent part of their exile in Nasik. Our own visit lacked mythological significance, although the number of meals we ate each day and the photos we snapped with each family reached legendary proportions. The relatives welcomed me without hesitation, smudging kumkum, turmeric powder turned red from lime, on my forehead as a blessing and smiling at my broken Marathi.

On Christmas Eve day, Shank took us to the Trimbakeshwar temple outside of Nasik. The temple is a jyotirlinga, one of twelve shrines in India devoted to worshiping Shiva as a “lingam of light.” Lingam is the phallic symbol associated with Shiva. The Trimbakeshwar temple is different from other jyotirlinga because it houses a representation of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, instead of only Shiva.

When we reached the temple, we saw hundreds of people waiting in the type of line I’d seen only at museums and amusement parks. My father-in-law did not want to wait, and soon a guru-for-hire escorted us behind the temple, away from the queue. In the temple courtyard the guru instructed us to touch a stone representation of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. It was a model of the one inside the temple, which we would see only from a distance. I touched the stone, still feeling like an observer. However, as soon as we entered the temple, I realized that my husband and I were meant to be participants. Shank had brought us here to perform a puja, or ritual, to bless our marriage. We sat with the guru on the temple floor, and he flicked water on us. He then alternately placed water and rice in the palm of Adeet’s right hand. I was instructed to place my right hand on Adeet’s right forearm. My husband had to repeat a list of gods’ names, and I listened carefully to see how many I could recognize. I caught Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, but the other names were unfamiliar to me. Soon it was time for us to approach the front of the temple, where worshipers had waited to give their offerings. A crowd of people, anxious after waiting so long in line, shoved me forward, and Adeet fell behind. When he made his way to me, we hurried to the front and quickly peered down at Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva before impatient pilgrims pushed us back toward the door.

Adeet and I were relieved to be outside, away from the fervent crowds. The guru led us to his home, a clean, quiet flat with a plant-lined terrace and open windows overlooking the dusty village streets. My husband and I sat on a wooden swing suspended from the ceiling, while the guru gave my father-in-law his business card. When we left, we headed to a bathing area where water from the Godavari River fills a shallow pool. It is said that bathing in the sacred Godavari cleanses a person from sin. Shank asked us to step into the water. I rolled up the bottom of my silk churidar to keep the purifying waters from staining my trousers and then quickly dipped my feet into the pool. Adeet was more hesitant and needed some convincing before he reluctantly stepped into the water. Once Adeet and I finished the rituals, we went back to honeymooning, taking photos and admiring the scenery.

On Christmas Day, we drove up into the mountain village of Vani with Shank and several other relatives to visit the Saptashrungi temple. The devi, or goddess, Bhagavati is said to live in Saptashrungi—“seven mountain peaks.” The temple is tucked into a mountain, at the top of 500 steps. I joined in the barefoot climb to the top, declining a lift in a long-handled doli. We entered the temple to find a number of people already waiting to see the goddess. The Christmas holiday had allowed more pilgrims than usual to visit this Hindu site, a benefit of a cross-cultural calendar. As we waited in line, two of the women in our group prepared an offering to the goddess: a green sari, a coconut, flowers, sweets, and rice, all carefully balanced on a metal plate. I watched this with interest, but then the tray was thrust into my hands. I had gone from being a spectator to suddenly taking the lead role.

When we neared the front of the temple, a guru took us to the side, away from the line of pilgrims. Adeet and I sat with him on the floor and repeated the type of ritual we had done the day before. There were several differences. This time we threw rice at the goddess, who stared wild-eyed, her 18 arms fanned out around her body. One of Adeet’s cousins told me the goddess’s image had appeared naturally in the stone. The devi no longer sported a natural look, however, since devotees had painted her body bright orange and given her black, dilated pupils. The sari we had brought was draped across her stone body, and I identified with a goddess who appreciated new clothes.

Temple workers escorted Adeet and me to a side room, where men wrapped an orange shawl around my husband’s shoulders. They led us to the goddess and instructed us to place our foreheads on her kumkum-smeared stone altar. Then we returned to the main temple area, our faces and hair streaked with vermilion powder. Shank considered this altar call auspicious and remarked that he had never been so close to the goddess. How then had I found my way to this devi?

Adeet and I stepped back, staring at the stone idol. “Ask the goddess for whatever you want, and she will grant it,” someone told me. What should I ask of a goddess I had only recently met? Should I focus on the greater good and request an end to poverty, so much of which I’d recently witnessed in Mumbai? Or could I risk impertinence and ask for personal wealth and fame? Perhaps it would be best to simply demur, “Really, I don’t need anything. Whatever you’d like to give me would be lovely.”

As we descended the 500 steps, Adeet and I both stopped to gaze at the Ghat Mountains. I understood why a goddess would want to live in these peaks, above the fields and villages, where even auto-rickshaws couldn’t reach and smog and petrol fumes didn’t choke the air.

The day after Christmas we traveled to Maral, the rural village where my father-in-law lived as a young boy. There is a small, brightly painted temple on his brother’s farm. Statues of the elephant god Ganesha and a small cow flank a figure of a family ancestor. We had come to ask the patriarch’s blessing. The guru obtained for this ceremony was annoyed because we had arrived late, and he grew impatient when I forgot to keep my right hand on Adeet’s right forearm. I felt emotionally exhausted from the previous pujas and wanted time to process the experiences of the past few days. As we sat on the temple floor, I fixated on a small black bug inching toward us and hoped it would find its way outside. During the puja, Adeet and I had to walk clockwise three times around the temple. As we turned a corner and faced a wheat field, I lingered before returning inside. I would have preferred watching the sun glance off the grain, but we had to go back, where the black bug still crept across the temple floor and Shank insisted it was safe for Adeet to drink the milky liquid the guru poured into his cupped palm. When we finished the rituals, the guru blessed us, but not without scolding Adeet for our late arrival. He then sped off on his motorbike, the wind catching his white khurta.

I had started the trip as a tourist but ended it as a pilgrim. I did not know the significance behind all the rituals or the list of gods’ names my husband recited, but I had caught glimpses of the divine—in the mountains, in the wheat fields, and in many of the people who welcomed me into their homes. And after climbing 500 temple steps, I did know what to ask the devi. But that’s between the two of us.

photos by Adeet Deshmukh
(except photo of Godavari River bathing area, by Kate Deshmukh)

No comments: