The Business of Worship
It is about half-past eight, the coconut vendors are just beginning to set up shop, the women in their bright sarees are starting to heap pink roses and yellow-white garlands on rickety wooden stalls. The sun is making its way up from the east, slowly but surely gaining ground, promising a day of white heat. The colorful gopuram of the Balaji temple peeps out through the branches of the trees that grow in front of it, in this famous little village of Chilkur.
Business, as usual. The barterers are at work. Promise me what I want, and I will walk around the sanctum sanctorum 108 times. If I have nothing to ask for, if I only want to give thanks and maybe make a paltry wish or two, I will make 11 rounds of your shrine.
Faith does strange things. And so you see this stream of humanity- the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the agnostics-turned-believers- circumambulating within the old walls of the temple, prayer and chanting filling the air, mingling with the clink of anklets and snatches of gossip. They rush in confused, shoving masses, borne along by a spiritual strength that supersedes physical discomfort. A bell tolls by the pipal tree where Shiva, anointed with turmeric, is being worshipped. Urchins sell unsealed bottles of ‘mineral’ water to tired and spent devotees. The business of worship is never effortless. People come from afar to have their wishes granted; more often than not, they are satisfied. Faith, hope, gratitude.
The whitewashed walls are cobwebbed, heaps of dust lie in a few corners, a large goat trundles in and munches on garlands discarded in a blue plastic bin; the premises are not scrupulously clean, but pretty decent for a place that sees thousands of visitors everyday and charges them nothing. Hidden away from the heat of the open roads, the stone floor chills your bare feet and corrugated sheets hide the sun.
Exit the temple premises, and you are confronted by rows of stalls under a large canopy. Colours abound; sacred threads, metal rings, key chains, bangles, beads- souvenir shops of the kind. The dusty road to the temple is lined with tea stalls, nondescript restaurants and little shops that stock colourful balloons and toys. Old, bent men and women walk around, leaning on their sticks, asking for alms. A narrow building calls itself a police outpost.
This is a village straight out of a time-warp. Ask them for a place where you can find a taxi, and they laugh out loud. Machines noisily churn out sugarcane juice. A man puts on sparkly purple headgear and piles more on a wooden table- where are the children? The pleasures here are simple and rustic- time doesn’t speed by like it had a job to finish, you savour every minute as you take in the delightfully relaxed surroundings.
And yet, at the end of it all, as noon approaches and you are on your way home, you are glad. You leave the barren earth behind, the hillocks of large brown boulders piled anyhow one over another; civilisation approaches in the form of spaceship-shaped buildings and residential complexes of tall buildings. You want your lunch, the comforts of your existence, and the lovely, unhurried hours of the morning are just an illusion to be talked about some distant day.