Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Temple life in Guwahati

It's easy to get "templed out" in Asia. It certainly happened to me in Korea and Thailand, where the temples are gorgeous but - let's face it - a bit samey after a while.

So far, India's proving a bit different. The temples here are as diverse as the country itself, and each one I've been to so far has had a completely different character. In Amritsar I experienced serenity in a crowd at the Golden Temple, and wacky mirror effects and crawl-through tunnels at the Mata cave temple. On my recent visit to Guwahati, in Assam, I stopped off at the Kamakhya Mandir, one of the holiest sites in the North East and, according to Lonely Planet, "important for sensual tantric worship of female spiritual power". Blimey.

Apparently, goats and pigeons are ritually beheaded in the central temple building, but I'm quite glad to say that none of that was going on while I was there. The temple was clearly well-stocked for such an occasion, though, as it was teeming with pigeons and goats who mingled quite happily with the assembled temple-goers and the occasional monkey, dropping in to pick up some free food.

Of course, it was plain that they weren't just there to enjoy themselves. Every few minutes someone would go past with a goat bundled up in their arms or objecting at the end of a rope. I wasn't witness to the ultimate fate of any of the poor things, but a petting zoo this plainly isn't.

The temple, while not quite as packed as the Golden Temple, far outdoes it in terms of hustle and bustle. While the Sikhs' holiest shrine seems strangely hushed, the Kamakhya Mandir is thronged with people going about their various activities in an oddly businesslike way, considering the spiritual nature of those activities. Whether transporting goats, reading from holy books, applying tikas to foreheads or begging for alms, purpose and practicality are evident everywhere. This felt like a working temple and an everyday part of people's lives.

As so often in India, it's the colours that really strike you. Orange and red are the order of the day, from the garlands of marigolds hanging from the stall fronts to the mounds of tika powder, spilling like blood stains across the stones of the temple (at first sight the second-to-last photo below looks like the aftermath of some strange coconut-related attack).

For those like me who understand very little of the religious significance of the surroundings, it was an amazing place just to watch people. The temple is a crossroads of Indian society, and everyone from the highest to the lowest seems to make their way up the steep lane to where it sits. Men in rags stand alongside suited businessmen, the many distinctions of Indian society momentarily lost to view. That is until you notice that one can get "priority access" to the heart of the temple upon payment of a fairly hefty fee.

Again I found myself drawing a contrast with religious life back home, where this kind of vitality seems like a relic of distant times. I myself am not religious - though my family is and many of my friends are - and while I know people whose faith has inspired them to great deeds, I have some reason to feel sceptical towards religion in general and the sometimes harmful attitudes it can sometimes support, particularly in India where religion is deeply tied up with social structures like the caste system. Yet I still find places like the Kamakhya Mandir moving in a way that's almost visceral. Even us non-believers can't help but be touched by people seeking to make contact with the world of the spirit.

I wondered again about the relationship between religion and socio-economic development, since in most cases (the USA being the obvious exception, though Korea is also interesting in this regard) growing wealth tends to accompany growing secularism. Are India's thriving temples heading for a decline as the country prospers? Or can growth and religion go together? I can't help feeling, despite my own lack of religious belief, that it would be a great shame if the second option proves impossible - though as secular democracy takes deeper root here, it's hard to imagine that the very different values and beliefs of the country's traditional religions will not come under increasing pressure. What will the temples look like in fifty years' time, I wonder?

1 comment:

Kay in India said...

Lovely pictures.

I'm used to goat sacrifices [being from Nepal where goddess temple floors are always red with fresh blood]. Definitely feed bad for the goats, some of them are really cute.