Saturday, February 27, 2010
We slip our sandals off outside the entrance to a Hindu temple in the city of Trichy. This particular temple doesn't compare in size to the gargantuan temples in Tanjore. But it's huge compared to the tiny, street-side shrines where miniature idols sit with a few candles burning at their feet, or flowers strewn at their base.
The stone floors feel cool to the soles of our feet. These stones have been smoothed to a patina by centuries of people walking over them. The walls and floors of this particular temple are a dull charcoal colored stonework, not the lighter sandstone of more elaborate temples. Intricate markings are engraved on the walls, a Hindu script we can't understand. Wide, round pillars hold up the roof that covers the outer area where Hindu devotees congregate. The day's fading sunlight doesn't penetrate into the corridors. The dark walls soak up the light, making everything dim.
In the outer area an elderly woman lies on the floor. This isn't strange. People sleep outside on the ground all over India. Then her strange position catches my attention. She's old. Has her family just left her here? At first I thought she had just raised her head from her almost fetal-like position to stare at us. Then we realize that her awkward and painful position--of holding up her head and shoulders---hasn't changed the entire time we've been viewing this outer room. Is this suffering of her painful position supposed to appease an inanimate god?
At the threshold of the inner temple we're stopped by a notice painted on the floor, "Only Hindus Past This Point." Without stepping on the threshold, we dart quick glances inside and move on. From deep inside, the flash of gold gleams in the midst of flames. But it happens so fast I have no idea what god I've just glimpsed in mystic splendor.
An incensed Hindu priest wearing only a cotton lungi that covers him from his waist to his ankles, and a stream of marigolds across his bare chest, rushes over to us. He's worried we'll enter into the place where his god sits. Moses, one of our guides, assures the agitated priest that we will not intrude.
As we stroll through the temple I'm struck again by the contradiction of what I've seen in so many movies. So often Hinduism is held up in North American media as such a joyful religion. Yet as I look around this temple--and others in the days to come---I'm not seeing any joy. The woman lying on the floor in a travesty of worship has no smile on her face. Her features writhe with pain. The Hindu priest is angry and resentful, and yet we have done nothing to insult him or his place of worship. There is no sound of laughing children. The children wait silently with their parents to walk into the temple. I can't help but compare this to the singing and riotous laughter I'd heard only the night before at the children's Bible Camp program.
Moses and a number of other India Bible Camp staff take us out to the sprawling grounds of the temple, to a large area surrounded by high stone walls. Our bare feet sink into deep, course sand. I expected to smell flowers or even incense in a Hindu temple. Instead I'm suddenly shrinking back from a rank stench.
Moses tells me that we are close to a spout where from inside the temple, ghee is poured out. Ghee, an expensive milk product like clarified butter, runs along a narrow canal inside the temple and out. Wealthy Hindus---even poor ones who sell all they have---sacrifice this expensive food product to the gods. Each year, for centuries, millions and millions of gallons are sacrificed. And for centuries the gritty sand along these temple walls has soaked up the smell of this ghee as it has soured.
This particular temple may be physically darker than others. But the only light I see is in the faces of the men who act as our guides---Pastor Antony Muthu, Pastor Hendry, Moses,and Thomas. Christians of Tamil Nadu.