Sunday, 21 July 2013

Experience in Hinduism

On Saturday the 6th I woke up, aware that I was late waking up. We had a field trip planned for the day, to a temple called Belur Math, a good deal north in the city. I was up and showered immediately and out the door for a taxi. For a few reasons, we decided a taxi all the way there would not be the best mode of transport, so we had opted to get a boat down the Ganges from one dock to another. Our taxi took us as far as a dock at Babu Gath, a route that took us throw a wealthy district of the city. Despite knowing and seeing the type of wealth that exists in Kolkata, it is still bizarre to notice the change in environment from different levels of affluence. While the area we are living in is definitely not lower class, there is still a strong juxtaposition between it and the area we drove through today, which would have only been upper middle class. Even here the contrast between rich and poor is visually present, beside beautifully cared for parks and grand buildings, men sit and scavenge on the streets, cutting trees and chopping wood; a dismal reality of the discriminatory roll of fate for a person born in Kolkata.

When our taxi left us off on the side of the Ganges, between us and the dock lay a small thrown up market, customary of India. Temporary wooden shacks selling hot foot, drinks and cigarettes. The boats on the river are a commonly used, and cheap, mode of transport, so it makes sense that shops would spring up around the docks. Wandering through the stalls, a bigger one stands at the back where we buy our tickets up river for five rupees. We are told there is no boat that will take us all the way to Belur from here, but we can get a train from Haora, and a boat to Haora. We strolled down a wooden gangplank onto a large metal block sitting in the water, which served as a dock. When the boat rolled in, people clambered on and off; in true Indian style there was absolutely no concept of a queue, those who climbed first alighted first.All aboard, we were a smaller crowd than had gotten off, Haora was a central point of transport so I imagine it exports more than it takes in from these smaller stations. Haora bridge loomed out in front of us, a huge white metal structure stretching from bank to bank, and the boat rolled into the station. Getting off the boat was less of a struggle than getting on. We walked back up a very similar gang plank, had our tickets checked, and out an archway to be faced with a impressive red brick structure, dotted with fine arches and white stone columns. Haora train station surpassed Heuston in architecture and size. Between us and the station stormed no less than a hundred yellow taxis. We made the venture across and bought our tickets. With some time to spare, we bought some food and wandered towards our platform. Often when I am here, I am struck by the beauty of the small things in Indian culture. In most train stations I have seen there is an abundance of seats, nearly always entirely occupied. While there were seats available here, whole families sat on the floor together, a blank strewn beneath them. The simplicity of sitting on the ground is a very standard practice in India, and I find it a soothing image, complacency in simplicity, that is lacking in my home life.

Our train journey was about twenty minutes long in a very empty train, I still feel cheated out of of my genuine, manic, Indian train journey, but I'm sure I'll experience one before I leave. Getting off the train, the ground of the station was fine marble, the walls were a clean white paint. A tall archway and porch led us out to a similarly fine courtyard, which led to the street. One thing about India remains consistent 90% of the time, the streets are mayhem. Taxi drivers attempt to reel in your custom by flattering you or starting conversation, fruit stalls try to call you, rickshaw's only kind of try to dodge you. Walking in Kolkata is not meant to be a complacent experience. Down the street and across the road a much grander arch way led us into a wide avenue. Tall walls flanked a cobbled road. Here, at least, road traffic didn't bother you. On the right hand side, trees and stalls stood. A couple hundred meters saw us into the main temple complex. The ground was a smooth paved stone. Small and large gardens stood behind low fences, well kept from care and respect, they were totally untrodden. All the buildings seemed to be made out of the same pale pale yellow, almost white. To our left, its porch canopied by tree branches, stood the museum. To the right stood toilet facilities and a place to leave your shoes. We headed straight for the main temple as, unfortunately, beyond 6pm, visitors were only allowed here. Thankfully, it was the main reason we were here, although it would have been nice to wander down the steps at which the river lapped, or to view some of the other temples.. Looming tall on our left was the main temple. An impressive structure, the roof was arrayed with squared domes and spires. Below them stood decorative balconies in arches. The main door was close to 20 foot high, above which a finely carved circular design, similar to that often seen on the Indian flag, dominated.

Inside we took seats on the black and white marble floor, cross legged. We were in a long hall, revered in atmosphere and grand in design. Silence hung powerfully in the air, condemning inconsiderate noise. Above and around us a stone balcony shaped a rectangular viewing space over the prayer area. To our left and right columns, stretching at intervals the length of the hall, rose to support the ornately carved balcony. Beyond the pillars finely carved double doors, at separated from each other by about 8 foot, stood opened up onto the raised dais surrounding the temple, looking out to the gardens that bordered the area. I took a moment in my seat to breath deeply and appreciate to peace of the place. Soon, a bustling began, and the crowd sitting at the back of the temple began to move up, so we followed. Men in white kurtas and trousers had begun to arrive in the temple space, they were monks we thought, to prepare for the service. They rolled out mats between the rows of pillars; one for men, one for women and, later, a number closer up for the monks. From midway up the hall, on the men's mat, I could see the idol in the box at the centre focal point of the hall. I had, mistakenly, thought the statue for that of a man in remarkable stillness. The statue attracted specific worship over the course of us awaiting the prayers. People lay down in front of him and chanted before returning to their seats. These people were an inconsistent ebb and flow that continued almost until the beginning of the prayers, it included a number of the monks. For a time now, I closed my eyes. Light was beginning to fade and I thought the prayers must begin soon. A good time, I thought, to attempt to meditate.

For close to half an hour I had my eyes closed. It takes about half an hour for my knees to ache from sitting cross legged, a time I have actually been trying to improve on. Anyway, the ache tends to run away with my serenity and I opened my eyes. The sun had set more, but light still clung to the atmosphere. My eyes took time to adjust to the artificial dim from above us. The monks had grown in number, they were now dotted with orange amongst the white kurtas. Still, pilgrims lined up the pray before the idol until the sound of melodic drumming and strumming accompanied total darkness outside and the chanting began. At irregular intervals a ringing punctuated through the chants. The unified voices from around me washed over and, closing my eyes again, briefly, goosebumps rose on my arms. While not everyone in the room was chanting, the hairs on my arms said the sound came from everywhere. Male voices, presumably due to the dominance of the monks, seemed to make up the majority of the sound. The sonorous ascension and decension was repetitive and moving, sufficiently so to ignore the discomfort in my legs, which had spread to my hips. The chant continued for about 20 minutes, at intervals I observed and closed my eyes to let it wash over me. At the far end of the hall, in the idol's chamber, a monk led the procession. He waved a clutch of candles rhythmical and synchronized with the chants bowing before it.

At the end of the first chant I climbed to my feet and left the temple. Despite the peace I had felt during the chants, a semblance of intrusion remained, and our group felt it was time to leave. The peaceful air hung on the darkness outside, and we climbed back down the steps to leave.

On a highly contrasting point with the sentiment of the evening, alighting from the steps, one of our group discovered his shoes had been stolen from outside the temple while we sat in prayers, a real kill to the sanctity we had felt that evening.  

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