Patterns and Rice: Jainism in Queens

Entering the shrine room of the Jain temple at 11 Ithaca Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, is to walk into a cave of white marble. The room is bright, lit by two windows and a chandelier, and the sunlight reflects with a bluish tint off the cool white stone of the walls, pillars, and the shrine set in the middle of the room. Everything in this room, aside from the ceiling mural and the air vents, is carved from stone that came from deep within Gujarat, brought to light in Queens.

The exits at the left and right, through the aqua-colored wooden doors, are so incongruous with the marble hall that they seem like portals to another world. Occasionally, a man will step in through a door, in jeans and a fleece vest, seeming as if he came from much farther away than just the neighboring Ithaca Street. Looking back at someone in the stairwell, he nods his head in the Indian way, a few quick pivots on a sideways hinge, before entering into the beautiful, fragrant room.

The smell of incense is strong and welcoming in the second floor sanctum, and the marble floor is cool on bare feet. There is something very intimate about watching strangers walk barefoot, so rare a sight in New York. People’s heels are flattened out and pressed against the floor as they stand and pray, fully supporting their weight. Everyone walks into the room with such purpose, and though many of them touch the ground and their heart before entering and turn towards the gods in the center, others go about their own practice in a different way.

There are about 15 people in the sanctum, a few older men in glasses and identical tunics with their bare backs visible through the thin cotton. A young boy in red frames and a bright yellow t-shirt bows and prays earnestly to each of the eight gods along the wall in succession, the male gods stare straight ahead over cheery mustaches, the goddesses with small red smiles set in their round faces and elaborate capes turned forwards, covering their modesty.

A young woman, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, enters the shrine room. In an embroidered white blouse and black skirt, she sinks to her knees behind a low wooden bench. A patla or bajoth, it’s the simplest item of furniture in the room by far, hidden behind an engraved silver chest upon which rests a lantern for incense and a small offering. With her black stocking feet tucked underneath her, she pulls a Ziploc bag out of her rattan purse. She reaches in to grab a few handfuls of dry rice, each time letting it run through a hole in her fist until there is a small pile on the patla. With manicured nails, she starts to pat out the small pile and then draw a design in the rice with her ring finger.

After she’s made a small rectangular, geometric pattern, she turns and takes two more ziploc bags from the  purse, one containing a few large crystals of sugar, and the other two raw almonds. She then makes a small mound of rice at the top of her design, like a kalasha on the top of a temple, arranges the sugar crystals and sets the two almonds on top. From another purse pocket, she produces a small brown envelope with a crisp $2 bill, which she folds lengthwise twice and puts on top of her rice pattern. A young man in a blue sweatshirt sits next to her, and she passes him the tools to start his own design, called gahuli in Jainism.

The gahuli is a kind of mandala, what scholar John Cort refers to as “a depiction of the ultimate order of the cosmos in an abstract form.” One worshipper, Dilip Doshi, says that the woman is worshipping to God with the rice, and asking the gods to “help liberate her from the four birth/death cycles, to attain free status.”

Cort points out that mandalas such as these are a shared characteristic of Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism, and often have ties to hopes and prayers in spirit and architecture in form. Often, the making and shaping of the symbols in rice, sand, or cloth is a meditative practice unto itself. He speculates whether the mandalas represented in Jain temples are a visual reminder of prayer, or the Gods themselves.

In the temple, the practice continues as an older woman in a bright yellow sari with pink flowers enters the room and sits on the young woman’s left. As the family completes their devotions, they sit and chat with each other, and are soon joined by a young girl of about 13 in blue, who has just finished pathshala upstairs. At her arrival, the older woman in the sari drops a few stray grains of rice on the table, and then stands. The family rises to pray, following the woman in the sari who reads quickly and at length from a small, yellow volume. On the table, the gahuli each represent the individual who made them. The man places an apple and a folded $10 bill on top of his design. The mother’s has a few wobbly lines and stray grains around a small temple design, like errant birds or falling leaves, and a single dollar. The young woman’s is perfect.
When the family has finished praying and singing, they hold their hands down by their sides with their thumb and forefinger touching, the other three fingers pointing towards the ground, before bringing their palms back together in front of their chests. The money is collected from their rice and brought to the chest in front of the three gods, and the rice is scooped into a small metal bowl called vataka underneath the wooden patla. As the mother rings a hanging bell and turns to leave the room, the young woman looks back and folds her hands one last time before following her family out through the blue door.