Daily Dispatch 4: A Day of Color in the City of a Thousand Temples

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

VRINDAVAN -- The Covering Religion team arrived in this “city of a thousand temples” on the banks of the Yamuna River today after an early morning drive from New Delhi. We came to observe Holi celebrations in the city where it all began. Over the course of the day we experienced both the ancient Hindu holiday and one of the enduring symbols of Muslim Moghul rule in India, the Taj Mahal.

Vrindavan's narrow roads were closed to tour buses for the holiday, but we got special permission to enter and had the benefit of a scooter-riding police escort as we entered the city. With his guidance, the bus bumped along dirt roads crammed with locals, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and ever-watchful monkeys.

Holi technically began the next day, but that didn’t stop people from celebrating raucously on the street. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were showered with colored powders, paint, and water. Cries of “Happy Holi!” and “Holi mubarak!” were interspersed with shrieks and laughter as unsuspecting passers-by—including the CJS team—were caught up in the festival of colors. Our clothes and faces smeared with multicolored powder, we began to embrace the anything-goes spirit of Holi.

By contrast, the quiet, orderly pace of life inside Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram seemed a world away. We set our bags down and took off our shoes to enjoy a few minutes of sun—and to dry our clothes—in the jasmine-scented courtyard.

We were delighted that Alice Guilhamon, CJS ’15, joined us on this leg of the trip. Alice first traveled to India with the Covering Religion class in 2015, and now works for a French film company in Delhi. She fit right in with the group as we eagerly awaited the next element of the Holi celebration.

Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. She sat triumphantly on Krishna’s throne, enjoying her victory as the musicians

The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile. Petals flew everywhere in spirals of gold and red, catching the light before floating down to the stage. The actors playing Krishna and Radha then jumped offstage and into the audience. They scooped more petals into the air, which swooped down to land on the audience’s clothes and hair. The hall filled with the scent of crushed marigold as the performance ended with a joyous flower petal fights.

Shaking flowers out of our hair, we adjourned to the tiled dining hall for a delicious vegetarian meal served on banana-leaf placemats. Monkeys scurried overhead, fruitlessly searching for a chance to snatch our leftover chapatis.

After our late lunch, we hopped on the bus bound for Agra. We arrived at the Taj Mahal just as the sun was setting; the white marble was luminous in the fading light. The nearer we drew to the mausoleum, the more impressed we were by its sheer scale and symmetry. Families in bright holiday clothes strolled along the periphery of the building, small as ants. Looking beyond the monument, a lone boatman punted his colorful rowboat along the river, back toward Vrindavan.


Daily Dispatch: Day 4
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Daily Dispatch 2: A Day for the Senses

NEW DELHI – Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations.

We did all this while navigating the narrow alleyways of Delhi where we dodged cars, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, dogs, cows and even a monkey or two.

Professor Trivedi had warned us that it would be the most demanding and in many ways the most memorable day of the trip. He assembled a great cast of characters to make it all come alive. These included Dalai Lama’s personal interpreter, Prime Minister Modi’s minister of Information, the leader of Delhi’s main mosque and a celebrity author, William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal.

We started the day at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the religious epicenter for most of the city’s Sunni Muslim population since the 17th century. The pink sandstone mosque waited solidly and silently for the thousands of Muslims who would come to for the Friday jummah, or noon prayer. Dalrymple and several of his colleagues walked us through the mosque before we headed to the old city’s religious landscape.

He took us back to the 17th century and described for us a shining city on the beautiful Yamuna River, the second holiest river after the Ganges. The Delhi of the 1600s had the largest economy in the world, based on its famed textiles. The masjid, built by emperor Shah Jahan, sits at the top of a hill and was once surrounded by lush gardens and elegant mansions.

Now, one can still feel the cool breeze that made Shah Jahan choose the location in the first place, and imagine what the mosque must have been like in its heyday. Dalrymple and his friend Bruce Warnell helped us imagine the courtyard as it once was: shaded in royal gold and scarlet covers with cooling fountains and pools, making it an ideal place for gathering with friends.

We followed Dalrymple through the side streets of Old Delhi, through the courtesan’s bazaar and the bridal bazaar, where one can purchase bright, festive decorations, saris and perfumes.

Sis Ganj Gurudwara. By Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
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Dalrymple was at home in the Old City. We stopped at a small family-owned perfume shop, where he described India’s rich ittar, or scent, tradition, which goes back to the first millennium. Of course, Indian plants like holy basil, tuberose and jasmine are some of the most sought-after scents in the world, but the perfume tradition has diminished over the centuries. Luckily, we were able to take a bit of the history home with us. The favorite? Oud rose, a deep, moody floral scent.

Next on our walk was the Jain Shwetambara temple, its splendor unassuming behind a plain lavender exterior. We removed our shoes and headed inside to the lower level, where there were devotees ringing silver bells that were hanging overhead. I walked under and clanged the bell as loudly as I could, then headed upstairs to the third floor. There, we sat among murals of the life of Mahavira, the man who revealed Jainism to the world, and other Jain saints. Jains believe in reincarnation, which the murals depict, and which Dalrymple described as “the conveyor belt of life.”

At our next stop, the Sikh Gurudwara, a lovely older gentleman brought us sweet limes as we stood in line to remove our shoes. I accepted the fruit and said, “Shukria,” or “thank you” in Hindi, to which he replied, “Good girl!” After washing our feet, we headed inside, where devotees were listening to three musicians--a singer, and a tabla and harmonium player--performed a song about a lonesome bride, perhaps an allegory for the soul. The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners.

We rushed to reach the Jama Masjid; we were late for an interview with Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam. The leadership of the masjid has been in his family for over 300 years. It’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. But, he said, “I’m Indian by choice not by chance,” affirming his commitment to his community.

Bukhari answered our questions about politics, practice, and the history of the masjid, and gave us valuable insight about how others in the world see American politics and policies under Trump. He struck most of us as rather moderate until Emily asked him about the Islamic State. “ISIS is a creation of Israel to defame Islam,” he answered.

After a brief pit stop for lunch (paneer paratha and sweet lassi at a stall six generations old), we headed to the Tibet House for the only Buddhist experience we will have on the trip. There, we met Geshe Dorji Damdul, the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe Damdul is the Dalai Lama’s official translator and granted us an interview. He spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,” he said.

Our trip took a sharp turn, from a community in exile to the seat of government power, where we met Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting. Several cameras and videographers were present to capture the moment, briefly making us the subjects instead of the observers.

A retired Army colonel and former Olympic athlete, Rathore greeted us with a curious question given that he is an official of the BJP: “I thought religion was a private affair; why write about it so much?” Despite having no background in journalism or media, Rathore has certainly developed a strong idea of what he considers newsworthy. He spoke to us about the decline in the quality of journalism, stating that journalists need better training and to keep emotions out of their reporting—”less views and more news,” he said.

Our last stop was a visit to India TV, a 600-plus-person, 24-hour newsroom situated on three acres of land. There, we got to walk onto the set of one of India’s most popular programs, Aap Ki Adalat, or The People’s Court. On each episode, a celebrity or politician is grilled by host Rajat Sharma in front of a studio audience. Narendra Modi came on before he was elected Prime Minister, and recently a Digambara Jain monk was the guest. It was a challenge for the production team to facilitate the interview of the naked monk in an appropriate manner, but they pulled it off.

After our visit to the TV station, we headed back to the hotel--or so we thought. After a brief detour going the wrong way on a one-way street, we got stuck in that infamous Delhi traffic, for which every hour seems to be rush hour. Eager to send my dispatch out into the world, I joined our fixer, Paresh-ji, and three of my classmates in a mad dash through the streets and to the peace and quiet of the Holiday Inn.


Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Aarti Acceptance: Family Moments in a Hindu Temple

His eyes closed, a Hindu priest sings Sanskrit mantras praising Ganesh, the elephant-headed god that The Hindu Temple Society of North America worships above all others. Through the approximately hour-long service at the Temple, at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York, the chanting never ends and only the occasional verse is repeated.

In the crowd of approximately 50 devotees, several sing along, rhythmically matching the rising and soaring melodies that accompany the hymns. Many, however, simply watch and listen as the priests conduct the rituals.

Two small children run back and forth outside of the tight crowd of worshippers, dashing in front of the many smaller statues lining the temple. These statues represent gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, resplendent in their tiny gowns and garlands. The children stand out in the temple, not only because of their lack of concentration on the service, but also due to their age. Most present for the Ganesh puja are middle aged or elderly. The children laugh and play tag until their father – who has been sitting silently through the puja – rises from the crowd and corrals them back to the group as the service begins to reach a conclusion. The smaller child, a boy, drapes himself limply across his father’s lap, protesting his boredom at the proceedings.

Then, a small silver bell in the hand of the main priest begins to ring. The priest holds aloft a silver lamp, burning with a tiny flame started with sesame oil, and passes it in front of Ganesh three times. The priest then turns and holds up the flame to the congregation. As one, the group holds their open palms to the flame and ceremoniously touches their eyelids, ritually symbolizing receiving a blessing from the god. As one, that is, except the small boy.

As the devotees reached for their blessing, the father held his son’s tiny hands in his own, raising them up for him. “Now touch your eyes,” the man instructed. The boy looked to his sister for guidance. Clearly a practiced worshipper, she demonstrated by rubbing her small fists to her face. The boy carefully copied the gesture. “Is that right?” his high voice asked, rising above the muted intonations of the crowd. His sister and father both nodded.

When the time comes again, the entire family is ready. This time, the receiving of the smoke is preempted by the worshippers tapping their temples or foreheads – an action thought to awaken the mind to the god’s presence. The children are clearly both familiar with this ritual action: both rap on their heads, out of sync with the congregation, and laugh at each other. The lamp is then raised aloft, and as the congregation’s hands rise to the altar, the boy’s hands are among them, unaided by anyone. His eyes, however, are on his sister. As her hands travel back to her eyes, receiving the blessing, so do his.

A triumphant grin covers the boy’s face at the correct, individual completion of this ritual portion. The father, his lap long since vacated, squeezes the boy’s shoulders with both hands, gently shaking the small body. The siblings touch their shoulders together and the girl pets her brother lightly on the head. Though the service only lasts for a few more minutes, the aarti ritual – where the lamp is waved first to the deity then the congregation – is repeated several more times. The boy’s gestures become more confident each time; it isn’t long before he doesn’t look at his sister at all when the bell begins to ring. His eyes are soon firmly fixed on the priest in front of the altar and the statue of Ganesh. His smile, though, continues to grow.



From the Conch Shell to the Saxophone, ISKCON Worship Thrives on Music

Subway trains rumbled underfoot and cars honked outside the ISKCON Center on Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, but inside the dimly lit hall, all attention was focused on the man with the conch shell. A priest, draped in simple white cloth with a red border, blew the conch to signal the start of the evening’s gaura arati ceremony.

The conch sound is an essential aspect of the ritual; the sound is said to purify the air of evil spirits, and its high-pitched timbre creates high-energy vibrations that are thought to encourage a more enlightened state of mind. The shell’s trumpet-like buzz drew participants closer to the pitha platform even as the priest himself withdrew behind a gilded curtain to make his preparations.

The crowd clustered around the assistant priest, a tall man who wore a wool sweater and socks in addition to his thin white robes. With a mridangam (a wooden double-headed drum) slung on his shoulder, he began a slow a capella chant. The he began to beat a simple rhythm on one end of the drum, while complicating it with tonal pitch variation on the other drumhead. Participants joined in the song, picking up finger cymbals and raising their voices in the call-and-response pattern.

The music swelled, and the peacock-feather-patterned curtain was pulled back to reveal statues of the deities in elaborately decorated robes. Krishna, flautist and lord of the dance, is the supreme god of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) followers. He and his consort Radha represent the unity of male and female energy, and offer unconditional love to their devotees.

As the mridangam continued its syncopated patterns, the deities were offered incense, fire, water, cloth, and a pink rose. Once all offerings had been made, the assistant priest laid down his drum and settled himself in front of a small harmonium. A relative newcomer to Indian classical music, the harmonium, a small pipe organ, is now used in bhajans around the world. One hand played the melody, while the other worked the bellows to produce a constant reedy drone. Hari das began singing a plaintive tune, and participants quickly picked up the melody. A chorus of voices crooned, “Namaste narasingaya,” before everyone sank to the floor in a yogic child’s pose.

For the Zopey family, visiting from Los Angeles, the evening gaura arati ceremony was a chance to connect to the oldest ISKCON community in the US. While the first ISKCON temple was established in the East Village in 1966, the Brooklyn location opened in 1968 and has remained the heart of the New York ISKCON movement.

“We wanted to be here, at this temple,” said Lena Zopey. “It’s like a pilgrimage.”

During the ceremony, Lena, still dressed in her peacoat, raised her arms, and swayed as she sang. Her husband Ashok clinked small metal cymbals between his thumb and forefinger, as did several other participants.

“It kind of resonates in your soul, because you become part of the Lord as you chant,” said Lena. “I love the whole process, the process of devotion.”

Ashok especially loved the evening’s music, a Bengali song performed only at the penultimate arati of the night. “Namaste narasingaya” is a song about the half-man, half-lion form that Vishnu once assumed to vanquish a demon, a rakshasa.

The Zopeys’ son Mohan was preparing for a medical school interview the next morning. Visiting the temple to sing “clears my head and makes me feel less stressed,” he said. Though he admits he hasn’t always been observant, the music has drawn him back in. “I’m starting to see that good things happen from this singing.”

Hari das, the evening’s musician, encouraged Mohan to continue his practice. A Nigerian-born saxophone player, Hari das is now content to use his musical talent in his role as assistant temple president.

“It’s like another wind instrument,” he said of his resonant singing voice. He converted in the 1970s after hearing a devotee named Agni dev singing for two hours at a stretch. “I was transfixed,” he recalled.

As Hari das related this story, Lena started in recognition. She, too, converted after hearing Agni dev sing. Both said they were delighted to find that the devotional music is what had brought them to their ISKCON practice.

“There must be something in that, that attracts people,” Lena said.




Pleasing the Gods: The Washing of Lord Ganesh

From a back room, a priest emerges. He is wrapped fully in a white robe with red lines around the linen edges. Across his forehead can faintly be seen three white lines; this religious forehead mark delineates his adherence to the Śaiva sect of Hinduism. The priest walks with a bit of a hunch, arms straining at his load. His hands carry a large silver bucket with a long handle; a piece of crinkled aluminum foil loosely covers the top. In the crowd of worshippers sitting in front of the statue, a father prods his inattentive son, gesturing to the bucket excitedly. The boy immediately perks up.

A second priest emerges from the sheltered altar place to receive the bucket, nodding his thanks before pulling off the foil. With the practiced ease of one who has done something thousands of times, he pours the liquid into the smaller, slightly dented vessel. The substance is thick and white and pours out unevenly – some large chunks are mixed inside of the liquid. It is thinned yogurt – a particularly auspicious gift to the gods.

The priest lifts the vessel, and its contents begin to dribble over the elephant head of Lord Ganesha. The process is repeated on the left side, where the deity’s hand clutches a large conch shell, and then on the right, where a stylized axe rests partially across Ganesh’s massive knee. Slowly, the large black granite statue becomes entirely covered, turning Ganesh pure white as the yogurt oozes down him. At this, the devotees gasp and press their palms together. In this moment, Hindus believe the deity is transformed. Suddenly, Ganesh’s features seem more expressive, the objects in his hands pop, and the whole of his being stands out against the matte gray backdrop of the altar.

This ritual is part of The Hindu Temple Society of North America’s weekly service at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York. This service is in honor of Lord Ganesha, who Hindus believe is the son of two other gods, Shiva and Parvati. At 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, devotees, some wearing traditional saris and dhotis, others wearing Western fashion – though all with bare feet – stream into the temple’s large center room and prostrate themselves in front of the center altar. The puja is about to begin, in which Ganesh, the temple’s patron deity, will be worshipped for nearly an hour in a number of rituals, including the washing of the deity with a series of liquids.

  1. Padmanabhan, the temple’s public relations officer, says the purpose of the washing is not only to clean the deity, but also to present it with substances that are particularly sacred in order that the devotees present will receive the pleased god’s blessing.

“Milk, yogurt, honey, fruit juice, coconut water…” Padmanabhan recites reverentially, ticking them off on his fingers, “these are holy things. We give them to the gods because they like it.” He goes on to describe the blessings that each of the gods and goddesses would bestow upon the devotee once they are presented with these gifts. When Ganesh is worshipped, for instance, Hindus believe that he removes the obstacles standing in the devotee’s way – whatever they may be.

Following the washing of the deity with yogurt, the priest leading the service begins running his palm over the deity, rubbing away the whiteness from Ganesha’s trunk, from the crevices of his knees and arms, from his objects and toes, from the scrolled levels of statuary that he sits upon. With quick flicks of the priest’s wrist, the yogurt falls away to the floor. This step has not been undertaken with the other sacred liquids used, and is perhaps done because this will be the thickest substance used to wash Ganesh during the service.

Once a satisfactory amount of the yogurt has been whisked away, the priest once again grasps the smaller silver vessel. This time, it will be used for water instead of yogurt. Quick, expert scooping motions rinse the vessel of the remaining liquid, and then quickly fill it with clean water from a huge tub near the altar. As with the yogurt, the water is poured first over the deity’s head, then his sides. The yogurt hides in some places, but soon Ganesh sits clean and listening and, in the eyes of the devotees, newly consecrated.