Monday, July 31, 2006

The Holy Trail

It was the morning of the wedding of my close friend. To be celebrated in the temple town of Trichy or Tiruchirapalli, it would've been a sin to not visit the temple. So that's quite precisely what we ventured out to do at 6 am. A middle aged brahmin couple cheerfully volunteered to accompany us and guide us through the labyrinth of the ancient temple. We didn't have the heart to tell then that all we needed was a hi-bye flying visit that can be declared to the outside world as an extremely devoted trip to the Sri Ranganathar Temple.

After forty minutes of waiting in the queue that led to the sanctum sanctorum, we reached the entrance to it. The ancient carvings on the stones had lost much of its beauty since someone had decided cement and paint would be nice to adorn the upper end of it. That the waiting area made me claustrophobic and I was squashed between two aged grannies was of not much importance. We finally reached God. Or so we thought.

The priest near the gold-covered stone idol was hurrying everybody who had waited long for the moment. He would let you a super short glimpse of the deity and barely enough time for you to clasp your hands together before showing you the way out. Just as we were about to step in, we were blocked to let in a family of 6- they had paid Rs 20 for a shorter wait and a smarter detour. We waited and looked at each other wondering if we should've paid too, for a second happy of the existence of the hurrying priest.

We slowly inched our way into the tiny area, stole a quick glance at the idol and hiked up our skirts to hurry out when the inviting voice of the priest caught us by surprise. He not only gave us welcome smiles but also a patient explanation of the God there , his wives and the temple's history. He went on in sudden fervor as we exchanged bewildered looks among us- wondering what could've brought out this surprising change. And then we got our answer.

Clasped in my friend's hand was a 500 Rupee note. The priest finished his talk, looked at her hand and said ' Pray and keep what's in your hand as an offering to God'. She didn't. As we came out we were stopped by another priest-like man with a receipt book asking us to make donations. We hurried out in silence, disgusted with the experience.

My relationship with God. It's a task to describe it.

My earliest memories of praying include learning shlokas or hymns from my grandmother- not knowing the meaning or even the right words. To this day that's how I recite them- like Udit Narayan sings in Tamil. No feeling, no emotions, nothing. But if a God does exist, I'm sure he'll know me by name.

As a school going kid, I used to visit the nearby temple every single school morning, discussing with Her ( no, not a feminist, just that it was a Goddess) my daily worries and little triumphs. As was the norm there were tiny bribes involved - like the deal to walk around the temple three times every Friday in exchange for a full score in Math. I have been to Sabarimala four times- the last two of which I had to be carried part of the way since I ran a temperature- now I'm officially banned to enter there till I'm 50. I have distinct memories of regular visits to the school chapel, kneeling down closing my eyes and feeling the space around, the sheer silence of which still enchants me. And the cool white marble of the Saraswathi temple at Pilani, reminiscences of sitting on those steps and waiting, waiting for I-don't-know-what. To this day, most of my visits to Kerala involve a trip to Guruvayur where I would not just encounter another hurrying priest, but also be forcibly dressed in skirts/ sarees and accept my untouchable status. A couple of months back, when I felt a burning desire to go to a temple, I took a 9 hour journey to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The simple 'langar' food was the tastiest I had had in a long time.

Somewhere in the transition between a girl to the half girl- half woman I am now, I may have lost some faith. I stopped believing in the numerous rituals that did not make sense the thousand Gods of the Hindu faith and their few thousand wives. I stopped praying everyday, those hymns were now reserved for rare temple visits and disturbed nights. Maybe it was science, maybe it was sheer arrogance -but I didn't believe in paying thousands to astrologers who claim to be able to appease the Gods. It was not just about God, suddenly it was about astrology, about religion, about customs- anything that could be held at ransom by my logical self. If I was born equal to the holy priest, why would he have to perform a purifying ceremony if I touch him? Why does he drop the Blessed offering into my hand from atleast half a feet above? It was perhaps the blurred line between God's so called agents and God himself that now became clearer.

I could be talking for many people in my generation and the one after. For us, God is a possibility. There could be a supreme power - but the power certainly has no name, no form, no gender and definitely no agents. Your life is what you make it to be and your peace is when you think it to be. The simple calm of a church and the power from the holy fire is what emanates from us and what we attribute to it. Not the other way around. We honestly don't care if our soul goes to heaven or hell- or even if there is such a thing as a soul at all. What would perhaps make perfect sense is a silent conversation with God, on all things bright and beautiful, stupid and silly, frivulous and inane. For us, God is in ourselves, in our family and in our loved ones. We look into ourselves to find courage- and in those unimaginable times, hestitatingly seek the unknown God. Other than that, the supreme power would only be a faithful companion, that voice in the head which silently listens when you want it to. And shuts up when you want it to.

I would probably teach my kids about the big power up there and the thousand gods and goddesses that go with it. The hymns and the idols and the holy priests. Not to mention heaven and hell and their admission criteria. I would give them the peaceful secure childhood I had with God to lean on and then slowly let them figure it out on their own. Maybe its unfair of me to latch on to God for so long and now lessen the faith. Whatever it is, God, I think you might owe me a blessing.