I have never been particularly religious. Brought up in an environment where rituals weren’t enforced, I am a believer but not overtly so. To date, I know only two prayers by heart. The Gayatri Mantra, taught by my grandfather when I started speaking and the Lord’s Prayer, that I learnt in my catholic grade school. And I usually recite both at one go.
My grandfather followed a ritualistic regime while allowing us to have sacred personal beliefs. His house had a prayer room on the top floor where there was space for all the 33 million Hindu Gods (exposed to non-discrimination of Gods, it still astonishes me to discover the various hindu religious sects and sub sects). The rituals were simple and non-obligatory for his family members. He read the Gita every evening wearing his un-dyed raw-silk dhoti and ‘angavastra’ after a fresh shower, sitting cross-legged on his woven prayer mat, with incense stick burning along with oil lamps. Awed by the setting as much as by him, we made it a point to be a part of the experience during vacation time. The evening prayers ended with a song praising all the Gods and distribution of ‘prasad’, which consisted of savouries prepared by my grandmother. Sitting on a jute mat, looking at the shifting shadows from the flickering flames and listening to my grandfather’s voice filling the room, was my earliest experience of wow (wonderment of world).
The other time, has been in a partially dilapidated St. Mary’s church in Bandel, West Bengal constructed by the Portugese in 1660, one evening many decades ago. In no other place of worship have I found the feeling of peace and poignancy in equal measures that will stun you to silence and urge you to scream in jubilation all at the same time. I hear they have repaired the building and even offer package tours for visitors, after being accepted by the Vatican as a Minor Basilica.
Another such experience was in a two centuries old Shiv temple in Buri Jageshwar, Kumaon, Uttaranchal. We had visited this hilly hamlet of 20 odd families for my field dissertation during my final university year. The temple is on the fir enclosed bank of a rivulet called Dudh Ganga, named so since the stream cuts through a narrow valley of quartz stones, which gives the clear water the illusion of a flowing river of milk. The first day when we entered the granite curved temple in the bone-freezing early hours of dawn, we were surprised that there were no hawkers selling the usual ‘dali’ of flowers, sweets and incense sticks offered to the Gods. Later we were told that the deity accepts no offerings. Specially flowers. The village had a complete ban on picking flowers including the ones blooming on the roadside. The puja rituals did not include any offering of flowers. The only expectation was that one sits through the prayers. Sitting in silence on the lonely, cold stone outside the sanctum sanctorum, I have never felt so connected to the world.
But all the Diwali hoopla on media and in my present surrounding, leaves me rather cold and distant.