Thursday, March 26, 2009

India 2009 Report III - Shave and a haircut

Well, haircut anyway. I know that they say that puberty is coming earlier and earlier, but six months would be ridiculous. On Sunday, we spent the day travelling between religious sites for my nephew's Mundan (pronounced moon-an). This is the baby's first haircut and is accompanied by a religious ceremony. Since this was a pretty big thing, a lot of people had been invited and at about 7am about thirty clanspeople and hangers on (and one rather grumpy Raj) boarded a privately hired bus and set off. It was pretty early, and the sun hadn't yet burned through the high cloud. As we left the town behind, a mist rose above the fields creating an eeriely beautiful scene. Or it would have been if it weren't for the more elderly ladies at the front of the bus starting the religious chanting that they would keep up until we reached our first destination, about two hours later.

The plan was to first visit the town of Chintpurni for a blessing before moving on to Jawala Ji where the Mundan itself would take place. The two towns are in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh and nestle in the foothills of the Himalayas, something that I didn't know and was delighted by. I could drown out the sound of the singing and that of people being sick out the window of the bus by staring out at the wonderful scenery as the bus navigated hairpin bend after hairpin bend as it worked its way up the mountains. The icing on the cake was the sight of the snow-capped Himalayas themselves rising up out of the mist, looming above the lower mountains. Quite stunning, and, so I thought, making the trip worthwhile.

Chintpurni is a small town with narrow, and very steep streets. Here, there was a decent amount of order: when entering the path that leads to the temple proper, you're given a ticket by an official, without which you won't be allowed in. Security guards also keep people in the queue and stop queue-jumping. It was slow going, but orderly. You have to take off your shoes before going into the temple, so when we judged that we were far enough along, we stopped in one of the many shops lining the route, removed our shoes and bought the appropriate offerings before rejoining our place. There were also a small number of people making the journey in a more remarkable fashion. Right from down by the street, they would lie down, at full stretch, someone with them would mark the extent of their outstretched hands, they would get up, move to the marked spot and lie down again, thus effectively prostrating themselves at each step. I never did entirely find out if these people were supplicants, wanting something, very religious or just plain nuts. The line wound its way on into the temple where before I could blink, my offering was taken and blessed, my donation shoved into the box and I was out the other side. Once we were all through, we sat for a couple of minutes and then started our way back down the other side. Rather than being by road, here we had to follow steps down, and then back up again to where it rejoined the path up. I was quickly outpaced by most of the family as I helped my elderly uncle over the steps, but found them again when I stopped to get my shoes and socks (and walking back without them was not fun – there was goat dirt strewn around, as well as litter and what I could only hope was water). We eventually made it back to the bus, marvelling at how long the queue for the temple had grown, and continued on our way.

I was assured that Jawala Ji would be easier and faster, since it was a smaller temple, but it proved to be anything but. At Chintpurni, there were security guards who ensured that there was some sort of order at all points. When we reached the temple (after taking off our shoes again, and climbing up to base of the temple itself) we found that the main staircase was closed, so we had to go round a back way. But we eventually discovered that this was closed as well! We had to wait in a growing press of bodies until they opened the gate at the front, upon which there was practically a stampede to try and get in before the gate was closed again. We all managed to make it in but it's a miracle that nobody was injured. The line for the main temple was now enormous, but thankfully we weren't going there (just yet). The mundan was done in a separate area but that too displayed the same lack of any sort of order that characterised this place. There didn't seem to be any queue, just two blokes shaving babies' hair with their families crowding round with cameras, mobile phones and camcorders. Our turn came quickly enough, but with the press of people, I couldn't actually see anything. I did stick my camera into the press though and think I got some shots of the baby, rather than random limbs. After this, the parents took the baby to be washed (possibly another ceremony, I'm not entirely sure) before he was brought to another priest to be ceremonially dressed. I got some good shots of this, although I don't actually understand what the ceremony itself was for, unless it was a general blessing.

I thought that we were done now and could go home, but apparently not. Not until we went through the main temple itself. Thankfully, the line was now much shorter than it was when we first went in, but there was nobody there to keep order, and as we approached the entrance, I could see people shoving and pushing to get through it. This didn't exactly inspire confidence and by the time I got there it was worse. There was a pit in the centre of the room, where two or three priests were taking offerings, blessing them and handing them back. The press was unbelievable, and without my dad providing a barrier behind us, both my mum and myself would probably have fallen, and goodness knows how we'd have been able to get up again. I don't like crowds, but this was worse than a normal crowd. There was a sense of manic urgency, of needing to get round to where the offerings would be blessed, and nothing would get in the way. It was all I could do to get round. I just threw my offering at the pit and shoved my way out, where I had to stand for two or three minutes before I could stop shaking. It was an experience I never want to repeat. And it was only later that I was told that a small, mostly ignored shrine at the side of the temple was the original holy site. It seems that the reason for the temple's existence has now been mostly forgotten.

I'm not religious, but I fail to see how anybody could get any sort of spiritual experience out of that at all. The queues are enormous, the order non-existent, and the blessing over in seconds. All in all, it was something that I'd never do again, although, to be fair, I was told that we had it bad both because it was a Sunday and it was the run-up to a religious festival (although with the number of those in India, the chances of not being on or near one seems slim).

Getting home was a real relief after such a long and arduous day, with the drive down from the mountains equally breathtaking, and terrifying, as Indian driving always is. The last straw of the day came after we got back on the bus after having stopped for dinner. In the morning, it had been the elders of the party singing religious songs, and now the youngsters decided to start on non-religious stuff. Right by my ear, so I got an earful for the next two hours.

Saturday night is a "jagratha", or night of religious music and dancing. It starts at about 10pm and ends at about 5am. I am looking forward to this exactly as much as you would expect.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thought for the World

Like many people, I have a problem with the fact that BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day excludes secular contributors. This was most recently addressed by the Corporation on the iPM programme earlier this year with a response from the controller of Radio 4 that was, frankly, weak.

Now it seems that a group has stopped complaining and taken the matter into their own hands with Thought for the World, a short daily podcast to rival Thought for the Day but which includes secular thinkers and philosophers as well as religious points of view. About the same length as TFTD, it uses the same format but has the broader framework of contributors that I would expect from the BBC's offering. Religion doesn't, after all, have a monopoly on morality.

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