Sunday, July 26, 2015

India travelogue 8 - Temples, money & anger

After some criss-crossing inside the temple, we reached the area of the priests. Again we showed the pass and they took a count. About 5 priests were sitting together chit chatting on a bench. Beside them on the right was a small lingam of Shiva and the cow Nandi. People made some offerings there, prayed and moved along. Beside that was a small room inside which was the idol of a God; not everyone gets to enter the room but since we had a pass we could. I now knew the significance of the pass.
I pretty much followed by friend; he was a young priest in a temple in Tamil Nadu and he seemed to know what had to be done where.

Within the temple there were many small shrines. There were a few cops concentrated around one enclosure doing crowd control (that appeared to be the main place in this temple). They were shouting, "Move, move. If you take so much time do you expect others to wait the whole night?”

When we stepped out of the first shrine, we saw a priest carrying some large object in his hand - it seemed to be made of stainless steel with a lengthy handle on the centre surrounded by four small open vessels on the base. He came close to my friend; when we peered inside the container we saw a lamp and some vibhuti (sacred ash). It also had a couple of Rs.10 notes near the lamp. By default when you have a lamp in the hands of a priest in a temple, you put your hands together near the flame and keep it on your eyes - like taking blessings. We did the same. And my friend took a Rs.10 note and placed it inside.

Blessing for money!

The priest started saying something in Hindi but I couldn’t hear him. My friend had a blank face. He took another Rs.10 note but the priest still kept saying something. I moved closer. "What is this? Ten rupees only for the blessings. Be gracious. Put hundred or two hundred at least. What is this ten rupees,” the priest said in Hindi.
I translated to my friend and when the priest heard me say 100 he repeated, "Yes, 100." But my friend didn't have 100; he asked me and I gave it to the priest. The priest blessed us. So far so good.
The pass got us an entry to the main shrine as well; over here you have Siva's lingam. No time given to pause inside; you just keep walking along. When we came out we were mobbed by 4 more priests; each of them having a similar stainless steel container in hand with the same contents. Wow; and they had now cornered my friend. I was also caught but fortunately found a gap through which I could escape this mob. My friend kept refusing while they kept giving their lecture in Hindi; he of course didn't know Hindi. When he agreed to put Rs.10, they refused; they didn't even let him put his hand in the container. Minimum was a Rs.100 note. We didn't know if this was the convention or what; it certainly didn't seem like practice with the way they mobbed him. He told me in Tamil to put my wallet inside; I did so and moved away from the mob. Finally he escaped as well. I wasn't keen on listening to the lecture they were giving about making whole hearted monetary offerings. Sometimes it is good not to understand what others are saying!

When we escaped and came to the area where the 5 priests were chatting, one of the seniors called my friend and advised him, "You don't need to give them anything. They are local priests."
At least now I knew the convention! They told us to sit nearby and said they'll call us when the main event starts. I was angry; I had never seen folks within a temple force people to give money - they seemed to be taking advantage of the fact that people didn't know whether to give or not; people would fear not giving because they wouldn't want to be cursed by these people in a temple; what if the curse became true?

I observed the priests with the stainless steel containers - when the local public came they weren't mobbing them. They waited but didn't force for a payment.

We were called to the main place when the main event was about to start; it was the abhishekam. That's the process in which the idol of the God is bathed with different things and then decorated. Common things used are water, yogurt, milk ghee etc. Before the ceremony started, one of the staff put cleaning powder on the floor near the entrance to the shrine where we were seated on a bench.
"First we will clean the area and then you can sit down," he said in Hindi.
My friend didn't understand but he did see the gesture of the staff pointing down; before I could interpret for him, he got up from the bench to sit on the floor. The staff shouted, "Are you mad or what? Wait."
I interpreted for my friend. Sometimes it is good to understand others!

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

India travelogue 7 - The precious pass

I had heard that people stand in queue for hours to enter the temple. As I walked for more than 5 minutes along the long stretch, I still didn't sight any queue and I didn't spot the actual entrance to the temple either! With the pressure from shopkeepers increasing I turned back; the tactic they use is to get you to leave your stuff with them for free (that's what they say) but they will force you to buy something from them (maybe a darshan plate or a garland of flowers as offering in the temple etc.)

I was back in my lodging place at 8:15pm and the manager asked me, "Do you want to go for the darshan?"
"Yes. But I got late in the Ganga aarti."
"Here is the pass. Eat quickly and go; 4 others will follow you; all of you can use the pass."
The pass had our community name on it and on the backside mentioned 4 + 1; the pass was valid for 5 people; 1 was me and 4 others from another room.
I had no clue what access the pass would give me; but there was no time for questions as I dumped all my stuff in my room, emptied my pockets except for my wallet (that was a mistake - should have dumped the wallet as well), ate idli and upma quickly in the mess and then ran with the other 3 folks. The 4th member didn't come since he was very old. The other 3 were in different age groups; 1 in his late 20s or early 30s; one in in his 40s and the other in 50s. The youngest one was my companion; he said he knew the way to the temple. He suddenly started running and told us all to run. "They've gone out already. We have to catch them. No need of slippers.”
I had no clue who we had to catch; I thought it was only the 4 of us. Did he mean it was late for the darshan and we'd miss it?

Barefoot walking is soothing on the feet; and since there were no glass pieces on the ground I felt fine running barefoot. You had to dodge the dung and watery mess on the ground but otherwise there was no problem. Maybe that was one reason why I didn't see anyone barefoot; if you did have even the slightest of cuts on your foot, you could easily get the wound infected. Maybe… but I was to discover more about this later.

"Come here. This is shortcut," he said and took a side street. Varanasi is famous for the network of narrow side streets; you keep thinking it will be a dead end but lo behold you will hit a main road somewhere! This shortcut probably saved us 2 minutes.
"There they are," he shouted.
"Oh there. Where?" I asked because all I could see were numerous heads and nothing distinct. I simply followed him. We ran like we were possessed - the last such run I did was in New York where I was the one possessed and another friend was following me; my role had reversed here.
"They're almost in the entrance. Run."

Finally I discovered that he was trying to merge with another group that came from our trust a few minutes earlier; they consisted of a group of people going one behind another carrying some items on their shoulders - items for decoration in the temple, somethings for the Gods and some Aluminium box; we stayed behind the Aluminium box. We could finally just walk; we went down the same narrow congested alley I had gone by 30 minutes earlier. But this time no one stopped me - I didn't have slippers and no watch. And as the entourage passed by, people shopping stood to the side and let us pass like VIPs! Even shopkeepers kept looking at us though they would have seen this sight daily. The elderly men in our group of 4 caught up with us.
"Do you have the pass?"
I checked again. "Yes." What an anti-climax it would have been if I had lost it in the running!

We reached a point where I could see people waiting in a queue - this was the queue to enter the temple; at the entrance were two security guards checking people. We bypassed this group and went further ahead to another entrance. The Aluminium box bearer was let through but we were stopped by a rough North Indian policeman.
"What?" he asked with an angry questioning look on his face.
"Pass. Pass. We have pass," my new friend announced.
"What pass?" he asked again with the same grumpy look.
I gave the pass in his hand. He took a close look at it trying to identify if this were a forgery. We turned it around and showed the handwritten number of 4 + 1.
"5 people. Pass for 5."

My friend just kept walking ahead saying those words. I had one had on the pass and followed him. The policeman let go of the pass and soon there was a crowd converging behind us that the policeman had to handle.

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Friday, July 03, 2015

India travelogue 6 - 24/7 temple!

I had to rush back since I didn't want to miss the Ganga aarti (ceremony performed on the river Ganga); on the way I saw a group of guys huddled in a circle on the floor. Was it cards? I wasn't sure. I also saw some of the bearded guys now smoking something inside a thick cigar - was it just a cigar with nicotine or something else? I don't know but I could think of one friend of mine who would have known exactly what it was.
People were sitting everywhere to watch the aarti. Some with camera stands, some recording on their mobiles, some half asleep in the evening breeze. At least over here the breeze felt a bit cool; but then it was late in the evening and the sun had retreated.

The ceremony was happening in the neighbouring Ghat as well - another 6 priests were doing the same thing that was happening in the main Ghat but only difference seemed to be that there was a time lag. First there were a couple of songs, then the lighting of the lamps accompanied by background songs and then the actual aarti song (the tune in all aarti songs is the same but the lyrics are different; here the lyrics were about mother Ganga; I couldn't follow the lyrics entirely but enjoyed the tune) and then closure. The lamps used were large lamps and it is quite a sight to see the sequence of steps. I was surprised that the sound from one Ghat wasn't really audible in the neighbouring Ghat; that's why they could do it side by side. The ceremony didn't happen at the river bank; it happened midway at the Ghat. The boatmen lined up their boats with passengers to face the aarti. So there were people in front on the same level, in front down below, on the sides and behind the priests while they performed. There were plain clothe policemen walking around with security scanning devices - one of them waved his machine at my bag. There was one man who was like the conductor of an orchestra; he encouraged the crowd to clap along to the tune of the songs; he walked across the crowd and prodded them along. He also ensured that no one neared the area of the priests.

The time was 8pm; I was supposed to be back at 7:15pm because in the place I stayed they said that at 7:15 I could get a special pass to attend a function happening in a temple nearby. While walking back I saw signage with directions to that temple - it was a small signboard near a narrow opening to a side street. Out of curiosity I thought of checking out the temple before returning to my room - anyway it was really late for me to get the pass; someone else must have already gone with it by now. 

The narrow road was really not a road - it was like a footpath that was flooded with shops on either side. The width was barely the width of a rickshaw. You'd think no vehicles would ply in here but no - we had a few bikes buzzing through this lane as well. It was a winding trail that kept going on and on. The shops weren’t empty either; every shop seemed to have some customer or the other.

Some shopkeepers on the way stopped me saying, "Leave your things here. They are not allowed in the temple." And I politely replied that I wasn't going to enter the temple. You are not allowed to wear slippers (like all other temples), not allowed to take mobiles inside and I was told that not even a pen is allowed here! Seems a little extreme but such was the level of security- everyone agreed that it was better that they had such restrictions; why take a chance since Varanasi as a whole was a sensitive area and places of worship more so - this type of security screening wasn't there in all temples but this one is considered very special. They have darshans (ceremonies in the temple) even at 11pm and 3am; it's kind of like a 24/7 temple. 

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