A Familiar Stranger

“What am I doing here?”, I wonder, standing awkwardly amongst a crowd full of devotees, being elbowed and cornered, with hands joined in prayer and in gentle deference to my upbringing. I take off my shoes, let the priest color my forehead red and stick rice seeds on it; I look around, not knowing where to begin and how and then, get a little embarrassed at walking into a place of worship like a sight-seer. Bizarre as it is, my hands impulsively join and my head does a slight bow down, my brain gets conscious of my limbs (which gives me a funny walk) and my heart beats gratefulness to everything around, living or dead. There is a desperate and preconscious need (of the ego, Freud might say) that arises to imitate fellowmen which would’ve never been acknowledged or felt outside such premises, being the eccentric person that I am.

I’ve been elbowed and cornered and confused and colored and embarrassed at these events, since I was a toddler. Wow. That’s long. Almost like a tradition that’s followed. I preach rationality but I see no trace of it here, which makes me kind of a hypocrite. But I’ll come to a resolve on it later. So, then I climb up the cold marble stairs and stop myself at touching the last one because well, why? My brain doesn’t process that why. It just shrugs. So I move on to the next habituated and trained action that I’d later regret , even though it’s quite fun, if you ask me. I ring the big iron bell hanging above my head, and so loudly does it toll, I feel the vibrations pass through my body in short shuddery fits. The hectoring verses of the prayer soon begin with the relentless chanting of the mantras that defy every speech sound, and not very pleasing at that. The drums beat in a fashion music might never have known. The tiny little hand cymbals add to the monotonous noise, seeming a bit much for their size.

Not soon, but the mind-numbing sound does fade out eventually with a screech from the speakers and the fervent piety of the visitors slowly quiets down once their, what only seems like, head-banging is done. I have my ears open for a hard rock alert, which I never hear, except in my head. They disperse, with overwhelmed sniffles, in different directions and the big iron bell sounds are heard again as other people feel the shudders through them. It turns from day to late evening, and the place gets scarce of life in and around it, except for mine. Above, I see the painted, carved ceiling;  around, the ornate columns; no seats, just a carpet; deity shrines and the sculpted figures of gods and demigods probably, on the walls, whom I fail to recall. Someone would know. I don’t. I admire the exquisite architecture that speaks to me in ways that art does. Pleasant. Silent. They say it is sacred, unassailable. I wonder what that means.

A day is what it took from me. This building where I’m at. The focus of people’s faith. A symbol of hope. Of unanswered and irrefutable questions. I have a feeling of intellectual falseness as I step out. Of verbal imposing, pronouncements and compulsions . Of feckless monotony. Of unilateral orders. What would happen when these temples become obsolete? Would anyone visit these places again then? I wonder if anyone would take care of the building that once stood tall and confident in belief and holiness. What would happen to the big iron bell, the exotic oil lamps, the stone idols, the decorous altars? Would anyone come to change the flowers, brownish then? What shall people turn to; live by? The experience was, let’s just say, satisfactory. The place was not worth stopping for, but I did stop there, all the same. In fact, I often do.

The weeds have covered the pathway now. Dead leaves, barely trampled on, cover the earth, as if hiding something underneath. Standing by the porch, I see a shape, a structure, less recognizable with every visit. There stands the building, once full of visitors, yellowish, dusty, in the want of color. I hear no tolling of bells, no blaring of speakers, chanting of prayers or beating of drums. Not even the tiny hand cymbals are heard. I strain my ears. No, certainly not. Not a sound. I step inside, in awkward reverence. The bell that gave me shudders is gone. If I had to, I would have struck it again. The stone idols have barely survived in bits. Rest, broken to pieces, then maybe turned to dust and blown away. The columns and altars do stand though, but not decorously. No oil lamps burn. I wonder who would’ve been the last one to see this place for what it was. Maybe some lost soul may have hiked here to find its way. Or some dubious adult would have brought his children here to touch a stone or two. Or someone akin to me, uninformed, tired, yet aware, may have set foot here to see the place he heard, made people wise.

Despite everything, it pleases me to stand here. Ill-chosen, the experience makes me reflect on that which was considered wise and holy. The silence still reverberates though no sound is heard. That never goes away, I think. I’m still a familiar stranger to this place. That won’t too.

5 thoughts on “A Familiar Stranger

  1. Spirituality shuddering in the words so placating, so mystifying that it renders a sense of neutral belief. Neither extremes cover the paragraphs nor any fantasy rhyme the faith. Blunt, sharp and filled with untamed myth of word called religion. Astoundingly familiar, yet, a stranger !

    PS: Nice introductory pic :-)

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  2. Good one! Sometimes we actually believe in something without really being rational about it. And sometimes, we don’t want to be rational about it, it just feels better the way we’ve looked at it so far.

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