Tag Archives: gods

Prophet’s Tooth and Sarasvati’s Lute: Chasing Calendar Icons

I visit mosques of the world and unearth relics of Mohammed; I collect a pantheon of cartoon gods and choose a winning goddess.

In between my encounters with fruits, flowers, and primal colours that make even Disney look tame (see previous post here), I found a vendor of Muslim devotional items.  When I asked if he had calendars, he strode off.  I almost lost him around a maze of corners, before reaching the Naaz Book Depot.  It had racks of calendars, many designed by the owner on his PC.  He bemoaned the decline in Arabic calligraphy.  Few people have the patience to spend hours or months doing by hand what computers can print in minutes.  When I said I was teaching English, he asked whether I taught calligraphy: he’d be my student.  I admitted my ignorance of the art – Dad once compared my writing to a drunken spider staggering across the page – and asked which of his calendars sold the best.

muslim-calendar-2012-meccaI bought two, both arranged by Western dates with the Muslim lunar days in small letters.  My birthday this year was Rabi-ul-Awwal 30.  Hindu, Christian and Muslim festivals are marked in Hindi, English and Urdu scripts.  One calendar shows mosques on each page.  January has an aerial night-time photo of Mecca.  The concentric white rings of praying figures reminded me of raked sand in a Zen garden.  Other months show an old khaki façade in East Turkistan, a bland concrete box in Canada, a mosque in Jakarta with blue batik patterns, and the “floating” mosque in Borneo.  December gleamed with the Crystal Masjid in Malaysia, a fantasy of metallic domes and spires.  The collection of shots gave me a sense of the worldwide community of Islam.  On the rear of each page are the five daily prayer times in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore.

The second calendar has quarterly pages and is less orthodox.  Instead of mosques it has pictures of relics: a rough-edged parchment letter written by Muhammad, the Holy Mantle of the Prophet Mohammed, the “protective case of the leather sandal of the Prophet Hazrat Mohammed”, and, in a lump of black granite, the footprint of Mohammed.  The sword of Mohammed lies alongside its jewel encrusted sheath; jewelled reliquaries contain the tooth of Mohammed and soil from Mohammed’s grave.  Something like black wool in a glass cylinder with golden caps is labelled hair from the beard of Mohammed.  (Will anyone care to save my whiskers?)   By way of variety, one page had a box and blouse from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, with two items of clothing from the Shiite martyr Imam Hussain.

muslim-calendar-muhammad-relicsEach page has a saying of Mohammed from the Hadith.  “One should be scared of death, so stand up when you notice a funeral”.  “That nation will never be benefited which is owned and governed by a woman”.  I didn’t ask my new acquaintance what he thought of Prime Minister Indira or Sonia Gandhi.  But I shouldn’t mock, for “Backbiters will not enter Paradise”, and “those who do not show Mercy to others, Allah will never be Merciful to them.”

The centre of each page is a circular swirl of colour and calligraphy.  I suspect one page is the 99 names of God; page 4 resembled a Tibetan Buddhist Mandela.  I was intrigued by the promises appended to Arabic invocations, which struck me as more superstitious than Islamic.  “Whoever recites this Darood 80 times after Asar prayer on Friday his 80 years of sins are forgiven by the grace of Allah.”  Christ said he could call on 12 legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) or 72,000 in Roman military terms.  With a few repetitions you too can engage a similar count of heavenly aides.  “Reciting this Darood Shareef prompts seventy thousand angels to register virtues for the person who recites it up to one thousand day.”

7-secrets-from-hindu-calendar-artEquipped with Muslim calendars, I went in search of the Hindu equivalent. I’d seen garish calendars of gods hanging in shops, offices, hotels, and houses and had just bought a book that explains their meanings: Seven Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.  I drew a blank on calendars, but around another corner two men were mounting pictures of gods in gold-painted frames.  Larger reproductions were embossed with glitter.  I asked to buy one of each smaller, non-sparkling print, which gave me 18 vivid icons of the most common gods, as bright as Walt Disney cartoons and spunkier than American superheroes.

hanuman-posterMonkey-god Hanuman, green as the Incredible Hulk, strides across a mountain meadow.  One hand wields a golden mace studded with rubies and emeralds; the other holds a forested hill aloft like a waiter carrying a plate.  (He had been dispatched to get a certain healing herb that grows on this sacred hill.  His botanical knowledge falls short of his strength so he brings the whole mountain instead.)

Elephant-headed Ganesh sits on a yellow lotus, belly bulging beneath his trunk.  His right tusk is broken off.  He was the scribe of the epic Mahabharata and his nib broke as he was writing it down.  Dictation continued so fast he had to grab this tusk for a pen.  His mouse crouches at his feet and nibbles on a sweet.  Ganesh is the son of blue-skinned Shiva, who sits on a Himalayan glacier with a trident, a cobra coiled around his neck and the river Ganges cascading from his knotted hair (see my post on Shiva here).  The god Vishnu reclines on the multi-hooded cosmic serpent, or poses in his incarnation with a lion’s head (see my post on Vishnu’s avatars here).

Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, sits in the lotus position on a pink lotus and pours out a shower of gold coins – businessmen love her.  My set lacked the gory gals who are favourites with feminists: Durga riding a tiger with abundant arms waving fearsome weapons, or black-skinned Kali with a necklace of skulls, tearing out a man’s intestines.

ganesh-lakshmi-postersOf all the female deities, whether sexy or scary, my babe would have to be Saraswati.  She’s the goddess of learning and the arts and I did get a picture of her.  She wears a red blouse and modest white sari.  One hand holds a book, a second fingers meditation beads, while her other two arms play the stringed veena, a sort of long bulbous lute.  For a portrait of Saraswati that’s less garish and Mickey Mouse, I bought a card at a Bangalore art gallery.  Ravi Varma was influenced by European painting, and he seats Saraswati in an impressionist scene of lotus blossoms on a pastel lake (1896).ravi-varma-1896-Saraswati


High Security Easter: Hanuman, Cops and Christ

I remember the death of Christ and encounter the birth of a monkey god, cross barbed wire beset with flags and escape the clash of orange and green.

On Wednesday evening, sudden gusts whipped dust into my eyes and gloom descended over the Charminar, before the first rain I’d seen in weeks.  I took shelter in a second-floor air-con café, grabbed an ice coffee and an easy chair overlooking the square, and enjoyed the show for an hour.  As twilight deepened and the floodlights came on, the Charminar glowed purple, then rose, then yellow.  Lightning flashed behind it, though I heard no thunder.  The wind whipped flags.  Pyramids of fruit gleamed under bare bulbs.  Stall holders pulled tarpaulins over their carts and bag-sellers hurried off between showers.  Looking at headlights to see whether rain was still falling, I noticed how few vehicles had their lights on.

The weather seemed to herald the gloom of Good Friday, when darkness fell over Jerusalem as Jesus was crucified.  On Google I found Baptist Church Hyderabad was 10 minutes’ walk from my hotel, with a service at 11 am.  It sounded ideal.  Four policemen sat at the gate in front of rows of overflow seating under an awning.  There was an English bulletin and worship songs from Hillsong Australia were playing as I entered.  I also heard them in Korea and Kyoto years ago: the popular Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic mass in Latin.  The familiar tunes warm the heart of the homesick traveller and I hummed along with almost a tear, but it’s a shame more peoples aren’t praising God in their own style and tongue.

And, in fact, they were here.  The service turned out to be hours of incomprehensible Telegu.  For each of Christ’s seven last words from the cross there was a full sermon, prayers and bracket of songs.  Although I’d grabbed a pew under a fan, by 12:30 I’d emptied both my water bottles.  I slipped outside, heard shouting at the end of the street, and found out why the police were there.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-motorbikesYoung men zoomed past on motorbikes or an occasional truck.  I switched my camera speed to ISO High.  They waved bright orange or red pennants.  The cloth triangles showed a black silhouette of a jumping monkey wielding a mace.  The Christian Good Friday was also the Hindu Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of the monkey god.  In the Ramayana epic, Hanuman and his simian hordes helped the divine Lord Ram recover his kidnapped wife (see my post here).  From a lamp post hung a political banner, showing party members alongside the blue-skinned Ram embracing Hanuman.  When motorcyclists shouted “Jai Shri Ram”, or “Hail Lord Rama”, the crowd responded with the same words, especially to the mighty hollering of a zealot standing on a motorbike.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-political-posterI remembered the headline in The Times of India at breakfast: “Blanket of Security for Rally Today”.  “Heavy bandobust arrangements are in place” and “10K Cops Deployed”, including 32 battalions of Special Police and four companies of Rapid Action Force, with peace committee volunteers also on vigil.  In British times the ruling Nizams were marked by religious tolerance, but Hyderabad has since become known as a riot-prone city.  In 2010, Hindu flags in Muslim areas sparked stone pelting and communal clashes at the Hanuman rally, leading to several days of curfew.  This year an inflammatory leader of a fundamentalist Hindu party was allowed to speak publicly.

“Police is geared up to handle any situation proactively” assured the commissioner, with police pickets near mosques and churches “to prevent any untoward incident.”  One building the size of a shed was encircled by coiled razor wire and covered in a tarpaulin.  Through a crack I glimpsed green, the colour of Islam: it was a Muslim shrine.

Ebbing and flowing, the stream of flags on wheels seemed endless.  Organisers had expected the bike rally to attract over 200,000 participants.  They were officially requested “not to cover their faces and not to hide the vehicle registration numbers with stickers”.  Many shops were keeping security roller doors down until after the Muslim Friday afternoon prayers.  Further along the street, youths danced to pumping Hindu music.  A lad waved a banner far longer than himself.  Small plastic pockets of water were distributed to sweating devotees.  No doubt many had downloaded the Hanuman ringtones advertised in the paper.

hyderabad-hanuman-jayanti-flagsTraffic piled up behind police barricades on side streets and to get back to my hotel, I had to climb through barbed wire strands and weave through the gridlock.  I recalled the Passover festival in Jerusalem two millennia ago, when the presence of Roman troops was pumped up to make sure religious excitement didn’t turn to revolution.  The tensions between idol-worshipping Romans and monotheistic Jews were not unlike those between Hindus and Muslims here today.

I read of the aftermath a few days later, once I was safely in Bangalore.  There were a few jitters as the procession passed a mosque and a few Muslims with slogans, but no real trouble and the cops were relaxed.  Later on, however, riots broke out.  People were stabbed.  Dead animals and dog parts were thrown into places of worship.  For much of the week the old city around the Charminar where I’d been in the previous days was completely closed.  Tourists were frustrated.  Shops lost revenue.  Residents were running out of medicine and milk.

O come the day when the Prince of Peace, killed in darkness at Easter and risen in new life, will complete his work and break down every wall of resentment, religion and race.

From Sanctum to Summit: Circling Shiva’s Holy Hill

Racing bullocks and raiding temples with the god of Himalayan meditation and paradoxical percussion, the dancer of life and death, cemeteries and sex.

Yesterday we rose at 4am to beat the traffic jams for a three-day excursion south-east to the state of Tamil Nadu (see photos here).  A surprisingly well sealed highway, lanes separated by pink and yellow flower bushes.  Biblical-looking flat roofs with external stairs; corrugated iron, red-tiled, or thatched roofs above white-washed mud walls and dirt floors.  A glimpse of road-side monkeys.  A barber in a shed.  Freshly moulded bricks laid out to dry, then stacked in a grid with air holes.  Women weaving twine, washing clothes in buckets, hanging them on the line, boiling pots over open fires.  Bright saris bending in emerald-green fields.  Level crossing barriers raised by a manual crank handle.  Small wayside shrines with a few flowers or a candle.  Towering outdoor statues of the gods.  When we stopped at toll booths, sellers lifted baskets of fresh vegetables or peanut snacks to the bus windows.  We passed the turnoff to a missionary hospital town I’d heard of, Vellore.

Our destination was the small town of Tiruvannamalai, meaning “red mountain” (population 130,000).  Every full moon, thousands of pilgrims come here to circle the holy Mt Arunachaleswar.  Most are on foot, but we rode bullock carts around the 14 km circumference.  Our singing and clapping attracting friendly attention, the drivers periodically geeing up their plodding steeds (with painted blue, ballooned or streamered horns) to race and overtake the other carts.  Sadhus or holy men were asleep on benches, sitting in meditation or walking barefoot, in orange robes or bare-chested.  Many wore the Hindu sacred thread, a cord hanging for life from one shoulder to the waist.  On top of a gateway, monkeys chased each other around stone carvings of gods.  One beggar had fingerless, leprous hands.  To ward off evil spirits, rooftop corners often display a carved monster mask, and building scaffoldings have scarecrows with fierce painted faces.

At 10 hectares, the Tiruvannamalai temple is one of India’s largest.  It dates from the 11th century though was mostly built around the 18th.  We entered through a gate beneath the 66m high gopuram, a 13-storey pyramid covered in hundreds of carved stone deities.  The local Lutheran pastor is friends with the temple’s high priest.  He alone may enter the inner sanctum, an enclosed cubicle representing God’s unknowable darkness, much as only the Jewish high priest could enter the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple.

We crammed into an airless chamber, sweltering even now in “winter” – you’d need no mystic gift to enter a dazed visionary trance in summer.  The priest saluted the idol and dabbed our foreheads with sandalwood paste in a blessedly brief ceremony, before leading us into a cooler, roomier area and giving us floral garlands and bags of pastries.  A relief to escape the gloomy, wet-floored, black-idoled interior for the temple courtyards outside.  Monkeys ate bananas by a large water tank.  An elephant took coins from tourists’ hands.  Stalls sold trinkets like beads or god statues, flowers for offerings, food offered to the deity. Holy men and beggars sought alms at the entrance.

This morning we slept in until 5:30am.  We stepped outside past shaggy bearded Sadhus, just waking at our gate.  Women splashed water to settle the dust on their thresholds before drawing geometric floral patterns with coloured sand (known as kolam or rangoli).  People were sleeping on the street; wrapped head to toe in blankets, they looked like corpses.  We climbed part-way up the 800m hill to watch the sunrise.  The temple hovered below, shrouded in haze, and the sound of traffic horns, bells and gongs, chanting and drumming floated up.  A holy man, Ramana Maharishi, meditated in a cave up here for 20 years until 1922, then built a peaceful ashram (spiritual retreat centre) in the town below.  Somerset Maugham met him here in 1938, inspiring the holy man in his novel The Razor’s Edge (see Maugham’s account of the encounter here).  We descended past hawkers setting out the day’s trade of black and white stone souvenirs: statues of Shiva, his bull Nandi and elephant-headed son Ganesh, or the holy sound of OM chiselled like a cursive “30” on profiles of the holy hill.

Mt Arunachaleswar is devoted to the god Shiva, who is said to have manifested himself on the summit long ago as a blazing pillar of flame.  Ever since he’s been worshipped as the lingam, an upright phallic cylinder signifying virility and fertility.  Shiva’s temples contain black stone pillars, their rounded tops peeking out from chains of blossoms heaped like colored quoits around a pole.  In Kashmir, pilgrims hike for three days to a mountain cave to worship an ice lingam, a stalagmite that melts and re-forms every year.

Of India’s many gods, Shiva may be the most strange.  He’s the destroyer and re-creator, ascetic and erotic, lord of life, death, time, and sex.  He is the great yogi who meditates in the Himalayas with a tiger skin, a necklace of skulls, and live serpents as belts and bracelets.  He holds a trident and in his hair rests the crescent moon, sign of passing time.  From his matted locks tumbles the holy river Ganges.  His skin is smeared with cremated ashes and three horizontal white lines cross his forehead – and that of his devotees.

Between Shiva’s eyebrows is a vertical third eye that pierces spiritual reality.  The gods once sought to rouse him from meditation by sending the beautiful love god Kama to seduce him from his chaste austerity.  Like Cupid, he drew his sugarcane bow and fired a flower arrow.  Shiva merely opened his third eye and its fire reduced Kama to ashes.  Here he is with his wife Parvati and elephantine son Ganesh:

shiva-parvati-ganeshShiva is the divine paradox, the reconciler of opposites, and  Shaivite Hindus reflect their god’s bipolar nature.  Some are fiercely ascetic.  They live naked in cemeteries, smeared with ashes and eating from skulls.  A few embrace his other extreme, seeking seek enlightenment through hallucinogenic intoxicants and sexual intercourse.

Shiva is often shown as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, dancing on the dwarf of ignorance within a ring of flames, the circle of cosmic unity and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.  One of his four arms grasps a small drum, sounding the rhythm of creation, and a second arm wields the fire of destruction.  Occasional depictions show the right side of his body as an athletic male, the left half as a voluptuous female.  He gains spiritual power from both austere self-denial and union with his female counterpart.  Reflecting Shiva’s duality, his consort may be the peaceful Parvati, model wife and mother, or the less demure Kali, who tears out of the entrails of mortal men and drinks their blood like all-devouring time.

Spiritual Sponge: Styles and Stages of Hinduism

The most flavours of faith, the most meanings on the menu, the biggest smorgasbord of divinity in the cosmic kitchen – a platter of entrees to India’s top religion.

Today a speaker introduced Hinduism.  Technically, she said, there is no such religion.  The term was coined by foreigners to describe those who dwelled beyond the Indus River, now in Pakistan.  There is no founder, no single definitive Scripture, no official hierarchy or leader, like the Catholic Church has the Pope.  Most Hindus believe in karma (“As you sow, so you reap, sums up the karma theory in a nutshell.”), reincarnation, and the final goal of moksha or liberation, but there is no fixed creed.  A “Hindu” may be pantheist, atheist, polytheist, monotheist – that is, believing that all is God, there is no God, there are many, or just one.

It’s all very hard to get a handle on, like a jungle, some have said, with all manner of intertwined vegetation.  Hinduism seems to be an amorphous sponge, soaking up all influences, with “not just doors and windows, but no walls” – for our lecturer, receptivity and all-comprehensiveness are its central characteristics.  Writer Shashi Tharoor described Hinduism as:

the sole major religion that doesn’t claim to be the only true religion, and the only religious tradition which allows for such eclecticism of doctrine that there is no such thing as a Hindu heresy…  Hinduism is uniquely a faith without fundamentals… a civilisation, not a dogma.

Hinduism has been called a museum.  Newer rivals, like Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, are neutralised: Buddha and Mohammed and Christ are assimilated to Hinduism’s ancient pantheon of deities.  “Hinduism has a way of pacifying and accommodating its challengers.  It is simultaneously rigid and inflexible.”  (Luce 2006 108)

There are said to be 300 million gods and goddesses in India, each with “different portfolios”, making one for every family!  The big three that stand behind the others, the trimurty or Trinity, are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer.  In a cute Sunday School-type acronym: Generator + Organiser + Destroyer = GOD.  I’ll introduce these guys in more depth later.

Some Hindus believe that reality is ultimately one, that all surface appearances of creatures or deities simply mask the impersonal Brahman.  Salvation from the cycle of death and rebirth comes in merging with Brahman like a river in the sea.  Others believe our souls are independent, so we can have a personal relationship with God.  Many movements worship one particular god as supreme, most often some form of Vishnu, Shiva, or Shakti, the female force of the goddess.  Brahma is rarely directly venerated, and the poor fellow has only a handful of temples (some say merely one, others three) in India out of, plausibly estimates this site, over 600,000.

Intersecting with the four or so different types of yoga or spiritual paths (see my last post), Hinduism specifies four ideal stages of life.  In youth, one is a celibate student, devoted to learning the Scriptures.  Then one should marry, have a family, and contribute to society as a householder.  About the time that grandchildren are born, it is appropriate to retire from society and contemplate spiritual things as a forest dweller.  The ultimate ideal, attained only by a few, is to become a full renunciate or sanyasin.  These leave their spouse and all property, perform their own funeral rites, and wander forth with nothing as a holy beggar.

This country is 82% Hindu and we will be having more lectures on Hindu customs and culture, so I’ll leave it there for now.