Tuesday, October 03, 2006

My Temple Priest

While we were falling asleep on our second night at the parish house, Brad asked me what my favorite thing all weekend had been. I paused for a millisecond (nanosecond, perhaps?) before answering him: the temple. A smile spread across his face and he told me that his was the same.

We went to the zoo on Sunday morning and afterwards we wandered around the shops in the area. We bought a chess set and a plate at one of the shops and asked the man where we could find dosa. He pointed at a hotel at the end of the little street and said that they had the best dosa in the area. We decided to take a short walk around the neighborhood before heading to eat.

This section of Mysore reminded me of the village in Manhattan. The houses were not very tall, five stories at the most, on crooked streets that didn’t make any sense, unless perhaps you’d lived there for decades and decades. The houses were mostly whitewashed, which made the sun seem more brilliant than even. We walked a few blocks, passing by a small park where a bunch of boys were playing cricket. Brad noticed that there were a few cows lounging in the shade of the trees there and commented that he wouldn’t want to play in that field. But when you’ve got only one choice, you’ll quickly get over any internal protests you may have.

Across the street from the park, there was a small temple. There are temples everywhere here in India, mostly because Hindus will erect a temple wherever there happens to be a natural “phenomenon”. An interesting tree or a strange rock outcropping. Maybe even a pretty, trickling stream. These are all reasons to erect a temple. This one was larger than most, although by no means enormous. There were a few buildings on the land. The largest had a tall structure on the tope of it that had been carved with many of the Hindu gods, a pantheon if you will. It was painted brilliant colors: blues and green and yellows and pinks. We walked to the gate and looked over into the yard, which was neatly kept. We saw a man coming towards us and asked if we could enter. He smiled broadly, obviously pleased that foreigners would be interested in their small temple, and invited us in. He asked our country and left us to wander on our own.

We slipped through the rotating gate and took our sandals off, leaving them there. Something I have learned about Indians is that they remove their shoes for most things. In their homes, temples, churches, microscope rooms, everywhere. We started across the grass towards the main structure. A man, wrapped in a white cloth, came running across the lawn, towards one of the smaller buildings, and stood attentively in front of it. Looking back, we were probably rude to ignore him, but I don’t think either of us understood that he was eager to bless us. So instead of going over to him, we went inside the central temple.

It was dark inside, but not in an uninviting way. There were no doors or windows in the openings, so we could still hear the world outside. In front of us, there was a smaller room, which contained the god. Sitting on the steps which led into the room were three little girls. We stood back for a moment, not wanting to intrude if we weren’t welcome. The day before, we had been scolded for taking pictures inside a different temple, and we didn’t want to offend someone else. The girls, giggling at the sight of these two white fools, motioned us forward to offer us a blessing. First, we were asked to take some water in our hands, sipping at it and spreading it over our heads. We were asked to place some red powder on our foreheads as a mark of our blessings. Then, the oldest of the girls handed each of us a little bit of banana. Finally, the smallest gave us each a bright yellow marigold. We chatted with the girls for awhile, while the priest flitted behind us, listening and obviously understanding, but not participating in the conversation. We asked each other’s names, and the girls asked what country we were from. They asked if we liked India and thought it was very funny when we asked them if they liked India. We thanked them and walked back into the sunshine.

We thought that our trip to the temple was over and headed back towards the granite bench where our shoes were. The original priest saw that we had come back out of the temple and again ran across the lawn. We followed him because this time we understood that it was our presence that was exciting him so.

The god that he was attending to was housed in a much smaller structure. Instead of being in a room within another room, this god was in a building that was the size of a small garden shed. The doorway was just large enough for the man to walk through. The god was draped with many flowers, white and pink jasmine, yellow marigolds and crimson roses, draped artfully to demonstrate the correct level of respect.

The priest picked up a brass plate that had a small bowl on it. In the bowl was oil and a wick, which was burning. He turned towards the god and passed the plate in front of her face, circling her image three times while chanting. He turned back to me and offered me the flame. I giggled and said that I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think he spoke English, but he understood my confusion and gestured to me. Understanding, I cupped my hands over the flame, capturing the heat of it. I spread the essence of the flame over my forehead. After Brad had done the same, the priest picked up a small bowl with a spoon in it. He mimicked cupped hands and dumped some of the water in when I copied his motion. I sipped at the water, which was salty, and blessed myself with it. He then offered us a bowl of white powder. We each dipped a finger in the bowl and placed some of the powder on our foreheads. He then gave us a bag of prashad, which Brad took from him. Finally, he handed us marigolds and placed his hands together, like children do in America when praying, and bowed his head at us, showing us that he was honored that we had allowed him to bless us.

We turned to leave, both feeling alive and warm. He called after me, perhaps in his only word of English. “Hello!” I turned back and he motioned that I should place the flower in my hair. I wove the stem into my braid, where it stayed throughout the day. We thanked him again and then collected our shoes from the gate.

In the time that I’ve been in India, I’ve had every type of welcome, from warm and kind to cool and disdainful. But by far, this priest, in a small village in Mysore, made me feel more welcome and more special than most people I’ve met in my life. His joy at our presence helped me feel worthy and appreciated. And I can’t wait to go into my next temple.


Brad said...


Mom (Bannon) said...

Is Dosa 'tea'?..I would have thought coffee, but Elizabeth does not drink coffee..Can a person buy coffee in India...lie, if you have to...because Dad may not come for that visit if there is NO coffee!
I am so glad that you had a good experience here and a great meal too! My kind of fun... :)