Janna White
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Is it God, or is it a rock?

April 22, 2010 @ 9:21 AM | Permalink

"I didn't come to India to follow a bunch of rules. I came to experience the culture." -Geoff, fed-up study abroad student




Jagdish and Naveen, locals we‘d become friendly with, offered to take us to their favorite temple a short distance outside of town. Though the temple was only a thirty minute drive away and a few kilometer hike into the hills, that was just far enough, and the path just steep enough, for it to be considered remote. When we arrived, we discovered we had the temple to ourselves. The resident baba wasn’t home; only the groundskeeper was present, and he kept to his hut.


Inside the temple, Neel and I chimed bells while Jagdish and Naveen offered incense and small discs of sugar to the shiv ling (an aniconic representation of the Hindu god Shiva). We passed around a silver plate that held sandalwood powder and rose petals, applying yellow tilaks to our foreheads and tucking the petals behind our ears as prasad. Afterwards Jagdish told us stories of the history of the temple, of various gods and goddesses, and then of his family’s traditions of worship. Before we’d arrived, he had told us that this temple was a peaceful place, where our minds would become relaxed, clean, and free. He invited us to stay inside, sure that we would see for ourselves that what he said was true. “But it all depends on what you believe. If you believe, then this is God. Otherwise, it’s just a rock.”


After a few minutes of sitting in silence, Neel and I emerged to find Jagdish and Naveen wading in a still pool beneath the waterfall next to the temple. At Jagdish’s prompting, we took turns posing for a variety of photos, sitting on the steps of the temple, splashing in the pool, everyone laughing and joking around. After a few minutes Jagdish went back into the temple and we followed. Grinning, he suggested we capture each other pretending to meditate. I looked skeptically towards Neel. In all my time in India, I had never once taken a photo inside a temple. As far as I knew, it was strictly forbidden. But I saw no hesitation in the faces of Jagdish or Naveen, so I shrugged my shoulders and sat down.


As I folded my legs into a half-lotus pose and did my best to look sublime, Jagdish appeared in front of me wielding a rudraksh mala (meditation chain) which he had removed from the gate that separated the inner and outer rooms of the temple. The string was too short for him to retie, so he removed a few of the rudraksh seeds, twisted the ends into a knot, and draped it over my head. After a few photos, encouraged by our laughter, he disappeared again, this time reappearing with the plate that held the sandalwood powder. He dipped his fingers into the powder and overwhelmed my tiny tilak with three wide swipes of yellow across my forehead and a perpendicular streak of red. When I took the camera from Neel so he could have his turn, Jagdish cried, “Wait! First let me apply your makeup.” We grew bolder with every pose. By the end of our photo shoot, the mala and makeup had been joined by Shiv’s trident and the copper snake that encircled the ling. My hair, which had been in a ponytail, had been let down and tussled, to mimic Shiv’s unruly mane. Somehow, this temple of peace had turned into our temple of play.


I have spent a huge amount of my time in India trying to learn what people are doing, why they’re doing it, and how I can behave accordingly. I cannot imagine a circumstance in which I would have dismantled part of a temple to use in a game of dress-up on my own; but I also can’t imagine Jagdish or Naveen doing it without Neel and I there to join them. They had opened up a space for us to play in, and we had done the same for them. Everyone knew the day was an exception, an anomaly that was no more and no less than a chance to have fun. Jagdish had established himself with his stories, as we all had through our prayer. None of us doubted the others’ faith. Perhaps it wasn’t the case that sandalwood powder was either tilak or makeup, that the ling was either God or a rock. Maybe they could be both. 


After the camera had been put away, Jagdish returned all the accoutrements to their rightful place. Without speaking we each went back into the inner sanctum to offer one last prayer before we left in a seamless reprisal of the way we’d always done things before. I can‘t speak for the others, but as I took Shiv’s darshan and tugged on my ears in apology for any sins or wrongdoings, I had the feeling we hadn’t erred at all.


As we walked back down to the Jeep, I realized how different my perspective was from Geoff’s. Wasn’t it the very fact that we’d followed the rules that had allowed us this brief lapse? (Indeed, hadn‘t we “experienced Indian culture“?) I guess sometimes playing by the rules means playing with them.


Posted on 4/26/2010 by

Rohan Radhakrishna

Rohan Radhakrishna

Your last line is great. I hope you keep writing about all the rules you play with while in India. - Rohan

Posted on 5/03/2010 by

Janna White

Janna White

Rohan: It's a dilemma I seem to negotiate and renegotiate every day. More stories are sure to come! Thanks for reading.

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Congratulations Janna on turning the corner with your Hindi! My Hindi is suffering in Tamil Nadu, where in Chennai you can see the trilingual road signs with Tamil, English, and ...

Your last line is great. I hope you keep writing about all the rules you play with while in India. - Rohan

Rohan Radhakrishna on Is it God, or is it a rock? 2010-04-26

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