My earliest memory associated with a temple is keen, gnawing hunger! As a kid growing up in Delhi, and later Chennai, going to the temple meant an early morning bath (even on the coldest winter morning of Delhi) and departure, sans breakfast. The temple would be invariably crowded, as like us, others too had chosen to visit on that auspicious day. Standing in line, waiting to view the idol in the sanctum sanctorum, I would be light-headed, trying to keep a grip on reality, trying not to faint. Finally, when my turn came before the idol, my gratitude, as one can imagine, was truly heartfelt!
I especially hated the days when my mother or anyone in the extended family booked a special puja. The long wait, the intense heat from the smoking fire (really a torture on summer days, especially in Chennai), made the whole scene rather surreal. The priests chanting the mantras, would take on an other-worldly aura, and I would try not to think irreligious thoughts. The damp hair sticking to the neck and the constant flow of sweat which I would absent-mindedly wipe, only to smear the kumum across my forehead – it’s a wonder I didn’t have meltdowns. I used to wonder at the stupidity of adults who would allow themselves to be subject to this.
As a child, I had no choice. One did what was told to one. My mother was very sure that she wanted her family to visit the temple on all auspicious/sacred days. She was uncompromising about it. The only silver lining if one may call it, was the prasadam or offerings (in the form of payasam or kheer) at the end of the visit. I looked forward to it very much, the sugar rush just what I needed for my low glycemic state.
It was only much later that I understood that some of these experiences indeed help to shape one’s personality. It has to some extent honed my patience, and helped to focus when a tough task is at hand. Going hungry fosters a certain discipline and iron will. Also, but for such rituals and observances, I doubt if most Hindus would see the inside of a temple! The religion per se, doesn’t put any strictures on one, doesn’t made it mandatory to visit the temple every day or week. So, the human via media came up with the next best thing – make visiting temples on particular days more beneficial for one’s karmic being! Lo and behold, we make a beeline.
As an adult today, I have an abhorrence for crowded temples. Most of it also has to do with the utter mismanagement of crowds in temples. Given our devout population, there is bound to be much crowding. I understand that. But I also believe that most of the jostling and pushing is due to lack of systems in place. For instance, at the Sidhivinayak Temple in Mumbai while the queues are formed with great alacrity, and are manned by volunteers with even greater vigil, everything degenerates into utter chaos once the queues merge in front of the deity. So whether a lean day or a heavy day, the chaos remains.
Corruption has made inroads into our temples too. One can grease the hands of a stall owner or someone around the temple, and be escorted right into the sanctum sanctorum, after paying a hefty fee of course. Then there are special queues. So in temples like the Siddhivinayak or the Mookambika Temple down south in Kollur, Karnataka, if you pay ₹ 100 or ₹ 200 as the case may be, you get to jettison the aam junta line and join the shorter queue. I once eavesdropped into an intense debate a family of six was having at Siddhivinayak, to decide whether they should opt for the special darshan queue. They would have been poorer by ₹ 600, not a mean sum for their straitened circumstances, I surmised from their conversation. They joined the general queue, which was particularly long that day.
Yet, to me, a temple is not just for communing with the Gods. Hindu temples, especially in South India, are splendidly entertaining. There are elephants to be seen and marvelled at from rather close quarters, green ponds with steps leading into them where one can sit and contemplate about life, and regular dance and music performances, which are often a treat to watch. The colourful hues of flowers mingle with the jewellery and resplendent saris of the female devotees, making the temple a bright, happy place.
Once you reach the sanctum, the deity seems to be imbued with a radiance which is but all the devotees’ hopes, wishes and desires reflected back in a divine glow. I have always felt the most oneness with God in that nanosecond of looking at the deity without any hinderance. The direct communion with the idol, the sacred tone of the temple, or I guess any place of worship, is balm to the soul.
But make it mandatory to visit a temple on a certain day, at a certain time, and the entire charm fades away. There are many lesser known temples, which are never crowded, haven’t yet been accorded an exalted status. Where the Gods seem to be waiting for their devotees. Just look at the photo below, where the Nandi bull seems to be waiting for people to come visit him, doesn’t he have a stillness borne of extreme patience about him? Such temples are a treat to visit. One comes back in peace with oneself and the world.
I do not believe that visiting a temple on certain days, or offering puja at a certain time is going to lead to my moksha or salvation. I know there are any number of arguments in favour of auspicious days and why it is beneficial to conduct a ritual at the propitious time when certain planets and stars are in agreement….but then I tell myself, if there is only limited or even no salvation to be achieved, so be it. I am happy with the solace I get by being in a quieter place of worship.
Hinduism is easy going. Or at least it is supposed to. It really isn’t concerned about what the person next to you thinks or your neighbour’s beliefs and religion, much less what he’s eating – a cow, a buffalo, a pig, or plain grass. It just doesn’t matter. Everything is left to you, what you want to eat, when you want to fast, and when you will visit the temple. But when we make it matter, or we become fanatical about rituals and observances and others’ diets, we willy-nilly unleash forces of fanaticism and disruption. Hinduism is more a way of life for Hindus, and I wish it is left to be so.
So, in Mumbai, how do you find these ‘near empty’ places of worship? Just ensure that you avoid the days that are considered particularly blessed. So avoid Tuesdays at Siddhivinayak, Thursdays at Matunga’s Kochuguruvayoor, Fridays at Mahalakshmi…you get the drift? If you are willing to forego the ‘special’ benevolence, you will come back soothed, satiated, and raring to visit the temple again!