India is a land of beauty, contradiction, and spirit. At least that’s my impression after a mere 4? days in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. About 82% of the people are Hindu; another 12% are Muslim; 3% Christian, and 3% “everything else.” A small cohort of Unitarian Universalists have been on a spiritual pilgrimage to a variety of fantastic temples and churches.
The Rev. Abhi Janamanchi (UU minister in Clearwater, FL) is the leader in a group of fourteen. His wife Lalitha, tour guide Radha Krishnan (“RK”), and others have done an terrific job of planning, logistics, coordination, etc. They are often on the phone to make sure the next place is ready, the next tickets are confirmed, or a particular person will be present upon our arrival. For the first couple of days we were not allowed into the interior sanctuary. Frustrated by this, Abhi began explaining the nature of this pilgrimage—that we are not run-of-the-mill tourists but are there for our own religious reasons.
Sunday night at a Shiva Temple evening pujas (blessings) took place in an amazing multi-sensory fashion. They make Catholics look like pikers and they make my words totally inadequate to convey the experience.. Immediately upon entering the Temple our ears were assaulted with the clanging of bells, large and small, filling the granite space with deafening sound. Our group joined a throng of people watching as the priests performed the nightly blessings and rituals to prepare the dancing Shiva for the night. (Do deities sleep?)
Symbolic objects were displayed, fire blazed from multiple containers, chants and prayers were said, flowers and herbs were offered. There were several moments of silence then the bells would resume. As a non-Hindu I was both fascinated and mystified. Toward the end, a group of monks pressed into the crowd and we were gently pressed on all sides, adding additional tactile and olfactory sensations. That part ended and the bells were silenced.
After animated conversations between our leaders and temple “gatekeepers,” for lack of a proper term, permission was gained for us to enter the inner sanctum to receive special blessings. Men had to take off their shirts; one of the tour guides and two of our group did so. It is obvious who are the Hindus, with their sacred threads around their left shoulders. Women were allowed (fully clothed, of course.)
We got a closer look at the dancing Shiva and the priestly rituals using symbolic objects like a flag, a sword, and a mirror, and fire. I estimated at least 50 flames—tiers of 15-20 oil lamps hung on each side; larger fires closer to Shiva and the priests. Need I mention it was hot? Sweat was pouring down our bodies. (Taking my shirt off would have been lovely if rather ineffective!)
Several of our group left and I was on my way out when RK brought me back because the priests were about to do a special puja for our group. My colleague Justin Osterman (minister in Devon, PA) also came back. He and I stood by a railing on one side of the aisle.
Trays of offerings like coconut and flowers were brought by, along with trays of fire. We had learned enough to hold our hands over the flame then draw our cupped hands toward ourselves 3 times. Prayers were offered for the group. A priest came to us individually, asked our name, and recited a blessing for each of us. Then we made our way back to the main temple. Again Justin and I were called around to the front where the priest marked our foreheads with red powder and gave us a packet of the powder and a sprig of herb for longevity. Justin was especially urged to stay or to come back and look for this priest. We felt very blessed; we made a special donation (that’s how they survive) and went back to the group.
Our attention was gained once more as the priest came to us with long garlands taken from the neck of dancing Shiva. He ceremoniously placed them over our heads with more blessings. It was like an ordination. What an extraordinary moment! Before we left the Temple altogether, Abhi took a picture of the two of us in front of a statue of Durga. I’ll post it when he sends it to us.
[Note: the whole evening can be interpreted as an elaborate shill—we look intrigued, we receive special attention, we give donation, we get even greater blessings. What an effective stewardship program, with plenty of follow-through!]
But the blessings were real; the feelings were overwhelming; I am still taking it in some ten hours later, after a 2-hour bumpy bus ride and some sleep and a new day dawning. Outside the temple, Abhi negotiated for a small dancing Shiva for me (and others in the group) for just 200 rupees (about $4). He is no ordinary souvenir. He is a reminder of an amazing sensory immersion.