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Thirty Million Indian Gods vs. MacDonalds

February 24, 2011

by Batul Raaj Mehta

Sabarimala worshippers. Photo: www.thehindu.com

India as a country is fast changing. Urban India is growing rapidly, quickly moving towards a singular identity, with malls showcasing the same clothes and brands, fast food franchises transforming taste buds across India to the same palate, and English as the lingua franca. Till around the turn of the 21st century wall paintings, religious festivals, beliefs, rituals, myths, languages, dialects, dance, poetry, local music, instruments, spices, cuisines, clothes, weaves, styles; each spoke volumes about the region or the area one was in. Today, globalization and screen time similar to every other urban lifestyle across the world have melted these differences into sameness.

Is anybody able to resist the ‘culture-washing’ of modern day India?  My recent visit to the Balaji temple in Tirupati, Tamilnadu provided the counterpoint. One of the highest tax paying entities in India, it showed me the resilience and power of temples and pilgrimage sites to hang on to their long-standing cultural presence. In a country where more than 30 million gods are worshipped, the basic flavours of these places as unique crucibles of living heritage remain as strong even as modern elaborate systems and infrastructure are being put in place to manage crowds, hygiene, security and for information access.

At the Tirupati temple, devout followers of Hindu God Lord Balaji from all over India shave their hair just before entering the main temple complex – as an offering.  Their bald heads fast track them to a shorter queue (the typical wait can be up to 24 hours!) in order to experience a brief moment in front of the deity, circumbulation of the main temple followed by servings of a variety of sweet and spicy rice dishes of the temple and then sweets to carry home. The temple, in a definite nod to the times, has patented the distinctive traditional sweet that acts as a remembrance of the visit. But, the essential experience has persisted over generations: sculptures on the temple walls and the festivals tell stories of traditions, kings, devotions and frailties of the gods. It would not be unusual to spot many of the visitors wearing similar clothing as those depicted in the sculptures or conversing in some of the languages of the inscriptions.

An unfortunate accident at another important pilgrim site brought home how unique all gods can be even when the worship is diverted.

Balaji devotees. Photo: www.hindu-blog.com

Sabarimala, in Kerala, is a pilgrimage site where only men, pre-pubescent girls and post menopausal women, of all religions are allowed to visit. In a practice that is completely opposite to the followers of Lord Balaji of Tirupati, devout followers of God Ayyapan of Sabarimala do NOT shave or cut their hair for weeks before the visit, and wear black unstitched garments.  Recently, there was a tragic stampede here and more than 100 people died. Large crowds which were already on their way to the temple to celebrate the important Makaravilakku festival had to recede. Rather than forego their pilgrimage, many people decided to change directions and immediately headed to Tirupati which is a 12 hour drive from Sabarimala. So, in an unusual demonstration of both cultural change, and cultural persistence, this year one could spot the bald Balaji devotees gathering along with the long haired Ayyapan worshipper during the Makaravilakku (celebrated as Makarsankranti in Tirupati) festival.

While the two diverse and historically conflicting sects, the Shaivaites (Ayyapan followers) and the Vaishanavaites (Balaji followers) congregated at the same temple, a group of black clothed, long haired Ayyapan worshipers caught my eye. The cloth draping their shoulders slipped in the jostle of the crowd, exposing tattoos of peace signs, barbed wires, dragons, etc, which seemed rather incongruous with the image of devout worshippers. They were probably an urban Indian biker gang or a heavy metal rock band which had conformed to the codes of an ancient cultural phenomenon for a few days!

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