There’s an elephant in the High Street!

Last week I took some of the guests to visit our local town of Dindigul, a great place to see life as it is for millions of Indian people today.  Whilst there we were lucky enough to witness the Masi festival of the local Kottai Mariamman Temple.

The streets were crowded with people there for the opening ceremony of the month long festival.  First of all we came across stalls which were giving away free food – sponsored by local temples or businesses.

Free food!

We then moved into the Palani road.  This is where we usually buy electronic goods, computer equipment, building supplies etc. yet on this day we found it to be a swirling riot of colours, incredible noise and subtle scents.  For me it felt very strange to see the road thronged with people carrying their temple gifts on their heads…

Celebrating the goddess

…or playing their drums for the deity.

Temple drummers

 An incredible mixture of the ancient and modern.  But that was just the beginning!  To our surprise we saw a temple elephant leading the procession.

elephant in the High Street

A beautiful creature decked out in its festival finery and decorative paint.

temple elephant in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu

Three men accompanied the elephant – two on foot and one riding – to ensure that she remained calm and played her role to perfection.

Palani Road, Dindigul with elephantt

As with all temple elephants, this one could be persuaded to pass on her blessing.  All that our guest was required to do was to place 10 rupees in her trunk (which she passed to her mahout) and then bow his head for her to place her trunk on him in blessing.

Blessing from temple elephant

Many people handed their children up to sit on the elephant – either to take a photo or as a blessing – but many of the children were not impressed!

riding the temple elephant, Dindigul

we are not amused!

The amount of time that goes into preparing the elephants robes is impressive.

temple elephants robes, India

We thought we had seen everything and were just about to move on when the car carrying the goddess approached.

Temple car, Palani Road, Dindigul

This was a huge trailer covered in flowers, the bright patters which adorned it were also flowers attached to the superstructure.  The worshippers pushed and jostled and crowded around to get as close as they could to hand over gifts of flowers either at this car or one of the ones following.

Temple car, Tamil Nadu, India

There were thousands of people, each with their small bag of flowers, and the scent was overpowering.  The flowers were to be used by the priests during the day as they offered unbroken puja (worship) to the goddess  for 24 hours, so everyone knew that their flowers would be placed on the shrine at some point during the day.

Goddess of the Kottai Mariamman Temple, Dindigul Tamil Nadu

HIndu priest collecting the flowers

The festival will continue for the rest of this month although the remaining processions will take place at night so that more people can attend – and stop further disruption to one of the busiest streets in Dindigul.

Flowers placed before the Hindu goddess

We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon such an act of worship in the middle of a bustling town, and to have been treated with such kindness and generosity by all whom we met –both man and beast!

Hindu priest, South India

Hindu temple elephant, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, South India

For the local newspaper article please see The Hindu

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Ganesh shrine – puja for the elephant headed god

Ganesh is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, god worshipeDedicating the shrined by Hindus here in Tamil Nadu. At Lakeside we have provided a shrine to Ganesh, and this is frequently used by drivers, Indian guests and, of course, our staff.

The statue was made by a local potter and consecrated by a local priest. The puja (worship) for the consecration was attended by ourselves, our staff, and some of the guests who were staying at Lakeside as part of one of our tours.

At the start of the ceremony for the consecration of the statue incense sticks were lit and waved in front of Ganesh before being placed on the altar. A bell was rung which signified the presence of the god then a cockerel was sacrificed (later to be taken and eaten by the priest). It was killed quickly by cutting its throat which is the same way that chickens are killed here for food. Some of the blood from the cockerel was placed on each corner of the shrine.

A coconut was broken and the milk sprinkled onto the statue by the priest, Pete and myself. Then everyone present had a tilaka (spot made with yellow and red paste) put on their forehead and were given coconut, banana and sweet pongal rice to eat from a banana leaf.

So who is Ganesh and why is he so special?

In Hindu mythology Ganesh is the son of the gods Shiva and Parvati with a human body (symbolising Maya, or the earthly existence of humans) and an elephant head (symbolising the Atma or soul). The elephants head shows wisdom and the trunk symbolises the sacred sound Om which is used during meditation and is believed to be the sound heard at the creation of the universe and so symbolises cosmic reality.

Ganesh has four hands: in the upper right he carries a goad to help him encourage people forward on the eternal path of life and to remove obstacles from their way; his upper left hand holds a noose to capture and remove all difficulties from the path. His lower right hand holds his broken tusk which he used as a pen to write the Mahabharata, and his final hand holds a rosary to remind worshipers that they should be continually pursuing knowledge. He holds a laddoo (sweet) in his trunk to remind people to seek the sweetness of the Atma.

The elephant ears show that Ganesh is always willing to listen to any petition, the snake around his waist represents energy in all its forms.

Ganesh is the bringer of success and the destroyer of evil and obstacles as well as being worshipped as the god of wisdom, education, knowledge and wealth. He is seen riding a mouse which shows his humility.

There are almost as many views of the Hindu belief in a pantheon of gods as there are gods themselves. Some westerners find it hard to reconcile a religion with so many different deities, all with human characteristics, with their own monotheistic faiths and so discount Hinduism as primitive idol worship. However, you can talk with many Hindus who explain their belief in a transcendent power beyond the universe called Brahman. Brahman is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is impossible for mere humans to understand him/it and so all of the Hindu gods are just aspects of this Brahman to help us understand. A Hindu can worship a particular god when they wish to approach a particular aspect of the supreme being – maybe seeing Brahman as a father figure, or a mother, or a king.

One could argue that this is similar to monotheistic faiths who describe their God in many different ways such as Compassionate, King etc – both aspects of one god but helping us to understand him more deeply. It could also be argued that the Christian Trinity has similarities to the Hindu belief as it is a belief in one true god but showing his different characteristics – creator, saviour, guide and comforter.

Whatever your view of Hinduism and its many gods I know that, for me personally, living here amongst the people of Tamil Nadu has been a real eye-opener.

Indian village wedding

The ceremony took place at a very small temple just a few yards from the brides home.  The building was so small that the wedding took place outside.  It all began with the gifts to the gods being blessed during puja (worship).  Coconuts and bananas feature heavily in the ceremony.  The priest rings a bell and carries a flame to signify the presence of the gods while the couple exchange beautiful garlands of flowers.

The father of the bride placing a tilaka on her forehead.Everyone present places a tilaka, a mark of ‘good luck’ on the foreheads of the couple.  This represents the ‘third eye’ or minds eye’ which is associated with the gods and is a sign of meditation and spirituality.  A photo is taken of each one – and no-one smiles except us westerners!

 

The bowl on the right contains coloured rice which is thrown over the couple – a sign of luck and fertility – and all share in the items blessed during puja.

 

This old man is the village drummer who was beating his drum throughout the ceremony.  A village wedding is a noisy affair with loud music and with everyone telling the bride and groom where to stand and what to do.  It is difficult to equate this noise and movement with the weddings we are used to in the west; there doesn’t appear to be any reverence but that is the same with much Hindu worship.  This is just a difference of custom however, there is a deep spirituality which runs through life in Tamil Nadu and respect for the gods is not lost just because there is movement and noise, after all a wedding is supposed to be a joyous occasion and so  there is a great deal of excitement and happiness!

The bride and groom process through the village behind the drummer with all their friends and family following behind.

 

 

 

 

 

The entrance to the ‘marriage hall’ where the reception takes place is always flanked by banana trees with great bunches of bananas hanging below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Once inside the bride and groom receive their wedding gifts.  Some are actual gifts but the majority of the guests give money which is recorded in a little book.

Then on to the reception.  This is the same for most weddings with people sitting at long trestle tables.  They don’t all eat at the same time, as soon as they have eaten they get up and someone else takes their place.  The only difference between weddings of the rich and poor is quality of the venue and food.

Here the meal is a very simple one consisting of idli (a steamed rice cake), rice and samba (a sort of vegetable stew) with payasam (a sort of sweet rice pudding).  All of the food is served on the banana leaf at the same time by the catering staff who are constantly moving round serving, clearing and setting new places.

 

 

It is still the custom for the family to give the bride a lot of gold on her wedding day, and weddings are as extravagant as they can afford (usually more than they can afford).  This was a relatively inexpensive wedding but with the gold given and the food for the reception it still cost about the equivalent of around 16 years wages for the father.  For someone in the UK on a minimum wage that would be roughly equivalent to a wedding costing over £177,000.  And if the family have more than one daughter then they have to spend the same on them all.  This is not a problem for the rich, but poverty is still a huge problem in India with the poor having to get into debt in order to do the right thing for their daughter.  I believe that there is little hope of many of the poorest of the poor ever improving their lives until this custom changes.

P.S. Please excuse the standard of the photos, they are really just ‘snaps’ as I didn’t want people to feel that I was treating the wedding like a ‘tourist photo opportunity’!