Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The scent of sandalwood, the sound of bells

Next stop on the Mumbai city tour was the Jain Temple, situated in an old building on Ridge Road ascending Malabar Hill. We crossed the road, dodging traffic, and entered this sacred place.

When we came in, we slipped off our shoes on the porch and put them on shelves to the right. Many simply step out of their sandals and leave them lying right there on the floor.

Worshippers and pilgrims come from all over, and go about anointing the colorful statues with sandalwood paste, ringing the bells, and circumnavigating the premises in a clockwise fashion. The atmosphere is reverent and serene, yet sings with energy.

Every sense is a delight. Monks crush sandalwood into a paste on a small balcony that looks out over the sea. The scent is divine. Visitors carry little pots of this paste around the temple in small trays also filled with flowers, and using the middle finger of the right hand, dab the paste on designated spots on various icons. As they move from room to room, worshippers reach up and give hanging bells a sharp pull. The chimes and gongs reverberate continually through the ornate marble rooms.

And every surface is painted or carved or engraved or inlaid. Polychromatic marble inlay on the floors, brilliant colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings. Even the blackboard schedule of events is exquisitely written.

Here's our guide, Freni, showing us the view of the sea from the upper balcony.

She pointed out that one thing that is special about the place is how many young worshippers are there, just stopping in. Because there is no organized worship service, people are there "just because they want to be"... Families, small children, older folks, white-robed monks and sisters -- the place is buzzing.

In this photo, you can see small low red tables placed about the floor. Visitors pour out a tiny cupful of rice on the surface, and trace symbols into the rice grains, as a kind of prayerful meditation. It's really lovely.

Years ago, when I was about 10 years old, I spent hours poring over The World Book encyclopaedia, choosing my religion. I figured that since my parents weren't churchgoers at the time, I was pretty much free to choose my own faith based on my personal beliefs. Oddly, I remember that at that time the religion that stood out was Jainism. The vegetarian diet would be a trial to my mother, certainly, but the rest of the principles made perfect sense to a pacifistic kid who was into enlightenment, and right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct.

Strangely, when I presented my findings to my mother, she was unconvinced.

"I don't think you'll find many Jains around here. It might be kind of lonely for you."

A few weeks later, we were off to the Unitarian Fellowship. Oddly enough, lessons from Sunday school concentrated much more on eastern religions than on Unitarianism's Judeo-Christian heritage, so by high school I found myself profoundly ignorant of expressions like "pearls before swine" and "the prodigal son" but satisfyingly up-to-speed on Native American smudge sticks and Hinduism's karmic fulfillment.

You have to take what you can get when your mom's still driving you places.