- Posted July 10, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
We are a typical family that visits India on a whirlwind trip. We try to squeeze visits to the temples and relatives in the short period of our visit.
With our elderly grandmother chastising us as we delay visiting the required temples and our agnostic cousin ridiculing our faith as superstition, we head out on a south Indian temple tour.
Thus began our day and half on the clock tour of temples in Kumbakonam of Tamilnadu, India.
We had a list of temples handed to us by the revered one of the family. Armed with the list and goodies for the trip, we embark on this adventure. An air conditioned car with a bi-lingual driver were provided to us. The arrangements as such for our boarding and lodging were taken care of and we just had to appear at each of the temples on our list. This is where it is appropriate to point out that while we made all the plans and back up plans, God smirks.
Our departure time was set at 4 am to beat the traffic and make it to the temple first on our list by opening time. With a fifteen year old and a ten year old, my husband and I drive off before the sun dares to rise.
After the orderly driving in New York, we were shocked at the moves our driver made to transport us to our destinations. We felt like we were stuck in a video game with the stop button missing. We were driving in a one way lane with traffic coming at us illegally. As if that is not bad enough, the traffic heading into us does not turn on the headlights until it is literally upon us.
If we had any lingering sleep, it made a hasty retreat at the adventurous driving we were experiencing. Our teenager like an average everyday teenager was glued to a music player and a book to read at the start of the trip. The acrobatic driving dodging oncoming traffic of course made it as interesting or exciting as a roller coaster ride instead. The kids were wired and forgot about their music players and video games. Instead, a game of predicting whether a goat, sheep or a cow would dare cross our path was afoot. The wagers ranged from oreos, laddoos to pieces of candy.
By 9 a.m we reached the first temple on our list. Our driver dropped us off at the entrance and went for a cup of kapi (coffee). We entered the aged temple our emotions ranging from awe at the ancient structure to disgust at having to step over dirt dotted with spittle, goat droppings and other stuff better not mentioned. We proceed carrying the requisite offerings for the Almighty. Due to the instructions being in a regional language and the ones in English hardly legible, we found ourselves without the proper tickets. While we were trying to resolve this situation we were approached by a busy looking gentleman who seems to have known our predicament and said he would take us in for the darshan (viewing of the Gods). We thankfully followed him like the sheep we saw on the way. He opened doors for us and we arrived close to the sanctum. After the priest performs all the rituals and we turn back to exit, our benefactor smiles. We gratefully thank him for his help. That was not enough. My savvy husband realizes and pays him a few hundred rupees. At the askance look of our helper, my husband adds a few more bills. All smiles all around, we leave a bit bewildered.
The car drive begins again for the second temple on our list. We are now driving through rustic roads with paddy fields on either side. A very calm and picturesque sight. Our drive is a stop and go ride as we encounter herds of goats or cows. Our little one wanting to take a goat kid for a ride or play with the calf did not hasten our drive. We finally make it to the second venue on our list. We quickly rush in giving our driver the time to stretch his legs. Armed with the knowledge that we need tickets, we purchase them and proceed. Exhilarated at how quickly we learnt, we go into yet another ancient but beautiful temple. At this temple due to the crush of devotees at the early hour, it was a bit difficult to navigate the throngs of people in the line.
As we were trying to pacify our children to please bear the constant push and pull of people, we were approached by yet another do-gooder. He asks us if we have tickets or he would procure them for us. My husband triumphantly shows him the yellow pieces of paper we paid for. We were told that we did not have to stand in the snaking line but were allowed to proceed to the front.
With a sigh of relief we proceed into the belly of the temple with no modern air circulation devices present. The kids and I are completely drenched in sweat, our youngest is wilting with cheeks turning pinker by the minute. As we were waiting for our turn to proceed, a quick call to elder in the family to ask if we can cut short our temple trip was replete with dire threats from the heavens if we do not complete our pre-planned trip. On a wing and a prayer, we complete this part of the temple ritual with our do-gooder monitoring our progress and opening the rope at the sanctum to let us in for a quick prayer.
The song and dance of thanking and exchanging a few bills occurs. Our teenager points out that it seems to be part of the ritual of offering prayers and called it “pay to pray”. It was as much a part of the prayer ritual, this money exchanging hands between us and a third party or the temple procedure which allows you to buy your way into the grace of God.
At this point it was past 3 p.m. and looking at our children’s faces it was time to pack it in for the day.
Our driver who was entrusted with our itinerary, drove us through muddy, rustic roads to our resting place for the afternoon.
We were pleasantly shocked to see a modern structure in the middle of nowhere. Not only did this hotel have an automatic shoe polisher, it was fully air conditioned and had bidets to tickle our little one.
After a meal and a much needed rest, we embarked on our visit to the third temple on our list, in the evening.
As usual, this being one of the oldest temples, it was simply beautiful and in a great condition for its age.
We finished our ritual from a distance. We noticed that a few were getting a closer view bypassing a rope and going closer to the sanctum. When my husband asked for a closer view, the priest had us wait until he dealt with the coconuts and offerings of the other devotees next to us. He then opened the roped enclosure and let us in for a closer view. At this point we were approached by a younger priest who gave us a description of the services offered in the temple and to donate to the just cause. My husband again goes through the process of paying and we exit and call it a day. The next day held a grueling schedule and we needed to get ready for it physically and mentally.
We were up bright and early the next morning for our fourth visit on our temple visiting list.
We reach our destination through meandering rustic roads. This temple is very important as per our grandparent. This temple is very dear to snakes who visit and offer their prayers just like man. A few lucky persons were witnesses to this event. With great piety we enter the temple, our kids eagerly on the lookout for the slithery devotees. We offer prayers and perform the rituals specified by our aged mater. By the time we completed all the required steps it was pretty late in the day. We still had to visit one final temple closer to Pondicherry. Our driver knew the location but the roads or the lack thereof controlled his ability to get us there any faster. We reached our final destination temple but we had to first go dip in the temple pond before entering the temple.
The driver gets us to the pond and gives us instructions to get moving as the temple closes at 1 p.m. It was now 12:50 p.m. we had a solid ten minutes to spare. We get out of the car unsuspectingly and step barefoot on to the path and take a few steps before we are all doing a jig on the hot burning stones. The most sensible thing to do at this point was to run towards the water. This decision was almost taken out of our hands as the stones were slick with oil and we sailed into the water’s edge and had to apply imaginary brakes to halt our slide into the water filled with people’s clothing. We read a fading sign which instructs people to have an oil bath and leave their clothing in the water.
I always travel armed with a can of Lysol and numerous antibacterial hand wash containers dangling from my various bags and pockets. For me it was simply unthinkable to take a dip in such waters. The fear of untold miseries for not doing it took me to the edge of the water. I could mentally picture the aged parent giving me a dress down for not doing it. Leaving consequences to the wind, I gingerly stepped into the water and with a finger sprinkled a few drops of the holy water on my head. My family followed my moves. We ran back to the car for two reasons. One, the stones were burning hot like coals in the heat of the day. Second, the clock was against us. We reached the temple with four minutes to spare. The security booth was unmanned, the ticket counter was empty, and we tried to rush in. My little one could not keep up with this hectic rushing schedule. The last straw was the burning stones. The poor child was almost in tears with burning feet. My husband was taking care of the situation and asked us to go in and at least make it to the last glimpse.
I gripped my older one’s hand and ran ahead grabbing a bag of coconut and flowers from the seller paying him and not waiting for him to return the change. By now I am pretty good at finding the “do-gooder”. I see him and he sees me and he knows why I am there. I tell him that there are two more people in my party and I need help getting in. He assures me that he is the right person to come to. My husband reaches us cajoling our little one.
I introduced my husband to the man dressed in white. He takes us to one entrance as we are the only four left to enter and the rest of the devotees are exiting from the other door and there is no way we could possibly even try to enter through that throng of exiting people. At this point the security guard at that door locks it in our faces. Our do-gooder yells at him and the guard moves over to the other side. The priests instructing him to open the door and do-gooder is yelling at him to no avail. At this point a priest asks us our names and the names of our stars and takes our offerings through the bars of the gate. I am a bit desolate as this was a huge wrinkle in our visit. At this point, the priest comes to the gate and opens it and lets us in. We were the last of the devotees as the temple was pretty much empty by now. We get to offer our prayers and wonderful view of the deity. We thank the priest for allowing us the opportunity. We find our do-gooder outside and had to pay him a hefty fee for the hair raising run. He lets us out of the temple through an authentic ancient four foot door which was carved out of a massive door. This was one temple we really could not enjoy the architecture as we arrived late and were unceremoniously rushed out.
The common thread in all our visits was the appearance of a go to guy in all temples at the right moment. It seems like it is an age old practice. I do not condone the practice of paying some one for a glimpse of the deity, I find it pathetic that the temple would allow such a practice.
Even though we had to pay a hefty fee at our last temple, I am not guilty as we did not usurp anyone’s spot. Still the practice of paying someone to get a closer, longer glimpse of the same God is just not right. It is contemptible that one would take advantage of vulnerable devotees for a quick profit.
The skeptics will laugh at us and belittle our faith as blind faith in a rock. Faith is something that is based on experience and it is what gives us hope and keeps us going. Whereas blind faith is something that is based on no experience.
Some people are desperate to preserve their faith and are prepared to pay to pray. However, are we doing something wrong or are the do-gooders taking advantage of our faith?