Monday, July 21, 2008

Temples and Shrines

For some pictures related to this post please click here.

Monday, July 21 aboard the 5:00 a.m. train from Dehradun to Delhi. We all got up at 3:00 a.m. today to pack and head off to the train station for our 6 hour return trip to Delhi. Tomorrow we have an early flight to Nagpur, and then we head by coach to the Sevagram Ashram, established by Gandhi during the last decade of his life, where we will stay for three days.

Since some of our lecturers at Navdanya unexpectedly cancelled over the course of the week we had enough free time yesterday to explore some sites in and around the small city of Dehradun, which is a kind of gateway to the hill towns that eventually take people up into the Himalayas. We’d all had a very relaxing and intellectually stimulating time at Navdanya, but there seemed a collective sense of excitement too about getting away for an afternoon and diving back into the maelstrom which is India. We weren’t disappointed. Our first stop was a huge Buddhist temple or “stupa” outside of Dehradun in an area that was predominantly Tibetan. It was striking how quickly the look and feel of people and things changed as we made our way into this district. The temple itself (called “The Great Stupa” at the “Mindrolling Monastery,” at 60 m. high it claims to be the world’s tallest stupa) is immense, a full three floors that constitute areas of worship and meditation, each of which are filled themselves with smaller shrines. The walls on each floor are painted with fantastically intricate scenes from the life of the Buddha. Here and there young monks sat under windows where the sunlight flooded in, deep in study. Others worked to guide tourists through the temple. One was so young I saw him playing with a small green plastic car or toy of some kind while standing watch. A stairway on the top floor leads to a small terrace that rings the top of the temple and provides spectacular views of the outlying buildings, the town, and the countryside beyond. Faded, weathered prayer flags hung in small clusters in the trees, and in the far distance a large swath of prayer flags at least a dozen rows high and 25 yards across flickered in the light breeze. In the farther distances you could see the mountains below the Himalayas, but we weren’t really high enough to be able to see the Himalayas themselves. This was a spectacular place and full of an interesting mix of people, some whom were clearly on a pilgrimage but others, mostly tourists like us, were just curious to visit the carefully tended temple and finely manicured lawns that surrounded it.

After our visit to the temple we made our way back into Dehradun so that some of us could get on the internet and do a little shopping. A chain of clothing stores called “Fab India” has become a favorite destination for a lot of us (women’s blouses, men’s kurtas, pants and scarves), and a few of us spent some time there. They’ve got a big website so just google the place if you want a vicarious shopping experience. At 4:30 we piled back into our convoy of jeeps and headed for what we were vaguely told was some kind of Hindu shrine or monument just outside of Dehradun. We threaded our way through town, then past a forested area where some military training camp was located (a number of security checks here since Muslim/Hindu tensions are high and there have been occasional bombings throughout India), then through a smaller residential area until the road narrowed into a dead end where carts selling colorful devotional items ringed a huge tree wrapped in layers of rope and fabric, at the base of which were a number of small shrines. Vendors cooked food or sold candies and snacks, and the atmosphere was relaxed and festive. At the end of this area was a large gate and beyond that a wide stairway that spilled in a curve to the left down to the rain swollen Tons Nodi river and the Tapkeshwar Temple.

Descending this stairway took me, stunned and literally open mouthed, into another world. On each side of the stairway were small, open-air rooms inhabited by “sadhus,” holy men who wander through throughout India but often reside at the entrances to temples, setting up small but elaborate shrines and asking for money. Some were simply dressed, others were more elaborately clothed in flowing robes and bright turbans. One had his face painted orange and wore a kind of crown, mimicking the monkey god, Hanuman. Scruffy children and old women begged for coins on the steps among the sadhus, and Hindu families taking the day off (it was Sunday) threaded their way down to the shrine or back up to the parking area. Descending the stairway I could see the river and, on the other side, a strip of small structures running from right to left that eventually met a stairway that led to a large shop and restaurant with a broad terrace looking back across the river and up the stairway where I stood. At the base of the stairway and above the river there is a small shrine and a lookout, providing views up and down the river. From here I could see the entire area was comprised of natural caves, one on each side of the river, caves that had been carved out by the flow of the river over the centuries. To my left steps led down to the main temple area, housed completely inside a cave the outer walls of which are painted a light blue. To my right, upriver, a wide walkway led to a narrow set of stairs that took me up to a shrine, and then to the left there is a bride over the river. Reaching the other side I turned left and walked through a kind of grotto, moss covered overhanging rocks dripping streams of cooling water that eventually opened into a vast open-air cave filled with shrines and statues (each of the major shrines has an attendant, and Hindus leave small offerings they have brought with them, or coins and bills). I explored each of these, then made my way down to the river and then up the stairway to the restaurant and terrace. From here I saw that all my friends were on the other side, having gone the other way at the base of the stairs for a visit to the main temple in the largest cave. So after a few minutes taking all of this in I backtracked over the bridge and entered the temple, which consists of a small labyrinth of brightly lit shines (all housed deep in a cave) leading into a much larger interior space where a sadhu waits to bless you and mark your forehead in red. Behind him another man sat in the lotus position on an elevated stand with a bed behind him, incense burning in the shrine beside him. Beyond this man’s platform, inexplicably, was a large, wide office space, which seemed to be the administrative center of the complex. This also housed small sleeping areas. Moving past this space took me back to a narrower path through the cave, filled on each side with shrines and burning incense. Eventually I spilled out again into the light of day above the river and made my way back up the stairway filled with sadhus, beggars, and families leaving the shrine area.

It is difficult to describe without clichÈs the sense of wonder I felt here, especially as I first began to descend the stairway, saw the sadhus on either side of me, and the then the roaring river below and the colorful buildings and shrines in the far distances across the river. I’d seen photos of sadhus before, and the iconography of Hinduism is somewhat familiar to me, as are the small shrines and the imagery you see in them of various Hindu deities. But the collective effect of what I saw, the reality of the teeming panorama before me, the smells, the sounds, the hubbub of movement, the fact of actually being in this place which was real but felt in part hallucinated, theatrical, unreal, was finally a kind of physical experience of the senses. There were moments I just stood there, my mouth slightly open in wonder and my body literally tingling at the sights and sounds. These are the kind of moments when you get jarred out of your body and your everyday, familiar self, when the world turns and resets itself and you enter another place, another dimension of experience. The only thing I can compare it to was the feeling I had marching up the side of the mountain at Delphi, in Greece (where the “Delphic oracle” resides) and spilling out into the large athletic stadium the Greeks somehow built there. At that moment my whole familiar world spun away and I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore. That’s what it was like here at this shrine. It’s a quite wondrous place, and a striking contrast with the Buddhist temple we’d visited earlier. The temple was monumental, impeccably clean and groomed, sited on manicured grounds and carefully guarded by attendants. It was a site for tourists, and we marched through in the orderly way we were supposed to. By contrast, the Hindu shrine was a place only the imagination over centuries could cobble together, built bit by bit in a river gorge, all haphazard but somehow hanging together. Worn, scruffy, well tended but gritty, and full of everyday people, families, and devotees whose experience there was inextricably connected to their daily lives. We were the only tourists there, from what I could tell, and we were about as far off of our beaten track as we could get. This was another India, at once like the India I expected from travel books, yet unimaginable until I actually found my way to this place.

A concluding note: We just pulled into the first station since leaving Dehradun. We’d had the car we’re in pretty much to ourselves, but there was a large crowd of people waiting to get on, and they poured into our car. Among them were Hijra, the name that has been historically used for transsexual males in India. I’ve read about the Hijra before but it took me a moment or two to realize who these colorfully dressed women taking seats nearby actually were. You can read more about Hijra and the communities they form online. There are lots of sites about them, some with wonderful photo galleries.

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