Hindu Worship: The Smoke Above the Fire

Due to a recent trip to India, this blog has taken on a subcontinental flavour for the time being.

Painting at temple of Kali and Durga, Golconda

India is a country of many religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism all grew from Indian soil, and Islam has a long history there, having been brought in by traders not long after it was established and again by conquerors in medieval times. But everybody seems, for the most part, to get along. I admit I’m glossing over the tragedies of Partition and other sectarian violence, but there does seem to be a greater degree of religious tolerance here and even a blending of the thought and figures of major religions here in ways I’ve never seen anywhere else.

The population is overwhelmingly Hindu with Muslims as the largest minority. Tot up all the statistics, and you find that almost 100 per cent of the people claim one religion or another, while in the UK just over three quarters of the population report a religious affiliation. One of the guidebooks suggested that no one you meet in India will hold your religion against you, whatever it is, but what will shock them is saying you have no religion at all.

Snake god shrine, Golconda

I saw temples and shrines pretty much everywhere I looked. After passing any number along the road, the first—and smallest, and most informal—one we encountered up close consisted of a hole in the ground surrounded by paint and powders in auspicious colors, plus flowers left there by those devoted to a snake god. (Snake gods belong to a class called naga, with snake goddesses called nagi or nagini—so J. K. Rowling gets points for another clever allusion, having named Voldemort’s giant magical serpent Nagini).

That shrine was within Golconda Fort, a medieval castle of city size built up and over the crest of either a very big hill or a small mountain. But it was not the only religious site within those grounds. There’s a mosque at the summit; I can testify to that, because I walked up and down all 300 steps to see it. And there’s also a Hindu temple for the worship of the goddesses Kali and Durga. They can be thought of roughly—very roughly, everything I write about Hinduism here is only a rough approximation—as having to do with destruction and creation, respectively. If you think worshipping destruction is strange, it may help to consider the Hindu belief that destruction is required before there can be creation, so destruction is part of creation.

Temple of Kali and Durga, Golconda

We stopped at the bottom of the stone steps to leave our shoes under the trees—temples usually have on their grounds somewhere a neem tree and peepal tree, growing together, intertwined—before we walked up to the temple. It was small, set into the rocks of the mountain, and had only a little platform for the priest to sit on, a table for offerings, and the inner sanctum (garbha griha, or womb-chamber) housing the images of the goddesses, a room so cluttered with decorations and gilt and offerings and sacred items that I couldn’t have identified it all even if I’d been able to stand and gawp. Alas, photos of the garbha griha weren’t appropriate, so I have memories, but no images I can show you.

Following our guide—a manager from a company my husband had gone to India to visit—we climbed the stairs, made a small donation, and put out our cupped hands so the priest could ladle into them a little coconut water. We drank the water and exited, stage right, not entirely understanding what we had done, but struck by the simplicity of the ritual, the brilliance of the paintings on the rocks jutting out of the mountain, and the realization we had just scratched the surface of something truly ancient, almost timeless. (Timeless, that is, despite the large, industrial-style clock at the temple, which you can just see in the photo.)

Painting of Kali, Golconda

At the other end of the architectural scale, the Birla Temple in Jaipur is stream-lined and modern, symmetrically and pristinely beautiful, built entirely from white marble in 1988 by a prominent family of industrialists. The presiding deity is Lakshmi Narayan, that is, a particular pair of gods: Vishnu and Lakshmi, his consort. Vishnu is the preserver (a power in equilibrium with Shiva, the destroyer, and Brahma, the creator) while Lakshmi or Laxmi is the goddess of wealth. Non-Hindu figures such as Socrates and Jesus are said to be among the carvings there, but we couldn’t find them.

The worshippers seemed to be Indian tourists, or perhaps some of them were pilgrims. How do I know they were tourists? Well, they looked like tourists, most of them had cameras, and the only one to whom we spoke was an Indian now living in New York. Back here after the trip, I found that my neighbor’s parents, who live near Mumbai, visited Birla Temple on their vacation/holiday at the same time we did. And a security guard shouted at a young Indian tourist that she must stop taking photos inside the temple; she was standing in front of me, and people turned around and glared at me, assuming I was the guilty one. (Being new to India, I found the security guards, all done up in military-like uniforms with stars and braided cords and caps but completely barefoot, to look a bit silly—not that I’d want them to hear me say that.)

Birla Temple, Jaipur, unfortunately under scaffolding

In any case, Birla Temple seemed sterile. The life-sized images of the god and goddess were flawlessly handsome, their red and gold trappings ornate, and the rituals at times mesmerizing—as when a priest made passes through the air, around first the gods and then over the crowd, with an oil lamp in the shape of a peacock feather, set with flaming wicks all around the edge—but on the whole the worship seemed dull, done by rote. Recorded hymns came from a sound system and only a handful of worshippers sang along. People went forward to receive especially blessed food, in this case sugar crystals, or to bend over a small fire and make motions above the flames with their cupped hands, as if they were bathing in the smoke, but still something seemed lacking, and when the prayers were over, the room emptied and the people became a pushing and shoving scrum trying to reclaim their shoes.

That visit came after we had attended morning prayers to Vishnu at Jagdish Temple in Udaipur, and by comparison, the devotions at Birla Temple seemed to lack emotion, to lack sincerity. Then again the comparison isn’t really fair for all kinds of reasons. The Jagdish temple is 350 years old, for starters, and the people there were not tourists, but what I suppose I’d call parishioners. And the visit to the Jagdish Temple was the highlight of the trip for me.

Statue of Shiva at Birla Temple, Jaipur

Far from the austere white of the Birla Temple, the Jagdish Temple is made of an unremarkable gray stone, but is remarkably carved, with figures virtually everywhere a carving could be squeezed in. Those figures on the outside, we were told, represented the cosmos, with a band of grotesque heads meant to be the demons in hell, followed by bands representing the earth: one of elephants, one of horses (for power), one of dancing people (for joy), and one of flowers. (I’ve forgotten the symbolism of the elephants and flowers, alas.) Everything above the earth, then, must be heaven, and there were ranks and ranks and ranks of carved gods and goddesses. For the first time, I had an inkling of what 33 million gods (that’s 3.3 crores, you know) might look like, though I’m sure there weren’t anywhere near that many actually depicted.

But all that came later, when we had leisure to stroll around. As we first walked up, a bell began to ring and our guide said that if we hurried we could attend the prayers. So we ripped off our shoes and ran at full speed up some of the steepest steps I’ve ever encountered, passing people who were stopping to kiss or touch their foreheads to the steps. And when I say a bell rang, I mean a bell probably bigger than the largest kettle I own, making a near-deafening sound as we passed near it going through the door.

Jagdish Temple bell, Udaipur

Inside we found a crowded prayer hall with the worshippers standing in front of an altar-like table behind which the garbha griha contained a statue of Vishnu, a black figure this time, flanked by smaller figures and standing amid a visual cacophony of offerings and decorations, attended by a couple of priests. Two more priests, standing at either side of the opening to the inner sanctum, shook some kind of feathered fans or pompoms with true vigor. (These turned out to be fly whisks.) Over their heads, a rope strung with coconuts decorated the opening, and just this side of them the table held a bowl for offerings, and piles of grain. Once again, an industrial-style clock held an incongruously prominent place amid the carvings and the colors.

By the time I caught my breath the hymns had started. Everyone stood facing the altar and sang except for those of us who didn’t know the words, and as far as I could tell, we were the only people there who didn’t; even our guide knew them, and he wasn’t a Hindu but a Jain. Eventually the crowd, having brought flower petals (there were flower and petal sellers at the bottom of the stairs outside) threw handfuls of yellow and orange and red petals towards the gods, most of which fell onto the shoulders of worshippers in front.

Bands of carving at Jagdish Temple, Udaipur

A priest stepped forward from the garbha griha with a vessel of water and a seashell, a cone-shaped shell that fit his hand. He used the shell to scoop up water and pour it into the hands of parishioners in front, for them to drink, and then threw his arm out several times as if he were scattering seed, spraying the crowd with droplets of water from the shell as far as he could reach. He didn’t reach us, but that’s okay, we got pretty thoroughly wetted down by the priest at the Birla Temple.

People began to leave, some of them moving to the front first to leave an offering on the table and to make symbolic patterns with their fingers in the piles of grain—suns, moons, swastikas. That Hitler used a swastika doesn’t trouble Indians; they were using it millennia before he did. He’s a minor blip in history compared to Hinduism. And besides, he made his swastikas backwards. Other people stopped by another priest on the way out to get especially blessed basil leaves, while those who stayed sat in a circle on the floor and began to sing again.

Jagdish Temple, Udaipur, including topmost flight of steps

I wish I could describe the songs, but it’s impossible. (If anybody knows who actually first said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, I’d love to know.) One of the priests had a double-sided drum and two of the parishioners had finger cymbals. The guide said it would be okay to sit with them, so I did, clapping along when they did, stopping when they stopped.

And twice during the songs, one woman felt moved to get up and dance. She danced forward and back, towards the gods and away again, moving her hands as though trying to pull the gods or their emanations closer to her. She had henna on her palms, and an expression of ecstasy on her face. She had a solid, womanly figure and didn’t wear a sari, but a full skirt in a dark red block print, a choli bodice, and a scarf tucked into her waistband, wrapped around her torso sari-style and then over her head. Occasionally she’d twirl, making her skirts rise up so that, from my seat on the floor, I could see the henna on her soles, and her ankle bracelet and toe rings.

Painting of Durga, Golconda

I could have stayed there longer, but I had my husband and the guide to think of—and the guide told me later we stayed an hour and a half. I’d sat there, spellbound by the music and the dance, for most of it. I can’t say after 10 days as a tourist that I have any inkling of what “the real India” might be, but my guess is that these prayers and songs are the closest thing to “the real India” that I saw there.

And I’ve spent too long, probably, on these descriptions. Some readers have suggested I should be shorter on words and longer on photos, which I can understand, but I can’t please everyone. Besides, how can you say anything in few words about a religion with such a long history and so many gods?

All I can do is report what I saw, events out of their contexts, rather than describing a belief system, one of the world’s major faiths. I can’t even say I’m presenting the tip of the iceberg, because what I’ve included here isn’t even as big, in relation to what there is to know about Hinduism, as the tip of an iceberg—and an iceberg is entirely the wrong image for the 90-degree days we spent in India.

So I’ll call this the smoke above the fire—the reality of Hinduism is the blaze below, but I did get a divine whiff of scented smoke.



Filed under Culture, India, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

4 responses to “Hindu Worship: The Smoke Above the Fire

  1. Bob Williams

    Photographs are pleasant enough – and I would very much enjoy one of you – but you never use too many words for me. I enjoy everything that you write and wish for more. Tell me about your critics: do their lips move when they read?

    • Very kind! But I’m not terribly photogenic. One of our guides mentioned that we didn’t take pictures of each other; we’d much rather take pictures of India!

  2. BOB hypenated M

    Dear Ed
    Having been born and brought up in the subcontinent, I find it staggering how much you saw and absorbed in such a short time. Mind blowing and more than enjoyable, your blog on is a masterclass on how to enjoy India with wide open eyes and a heart full of love.
    Did you ever take a rest, drink nimbu pani or pomegranate juice; perhaps even chew on pan?

    • We did indeed rest, but I didn’t run across nimbu pani or pan. Now pomegrante juice, yes. We had some remarkable juices, including spinach-cucumber juice. And Ernest was delighted to find buttermilk on the breakfast menu, then not so delighted to find it was spiced with cumin…

      But I’ll do a post on food probably, so I’m spoiling it! Better stop…

      (For readers who may wonder, “Ed” stands for “Editor” — I’m not changing my name!)

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