What am I doing here? I wonder, standing amongst a crowd full of devotees, being elbowed and cornered, with hands joined in prayer and in gentle deference to my upbringing. My shoes are off and my feet burn on the heated marble. A priest’s wet finger appears out of nowhere and aims for my forehead. He marks a giant red dot between my eyes and sticks rice seeds on it, which fall off and poke my left eye. I see a lot of red and orange. I look around, not knowing what to do, walking about in a place of worship like a sight-seer. My 12 years of life have taught me obedience. A preconscious need arises in me to imitate those around me.
I’ve been elbowed and cornered and confused at these events since I was a toddler. That’s a different kind of tradition. I climb up the cold marble stairs and stop myself from touching the last one. Then I move on to the next habituated action – I ring the big iron bell hanging over my head, and its loud toll passes through my tiny body in short, shuddery fits. Soon enough, the hectoring verses of the prayer begin with the rhythmic chanting of mantras that defy every speech sound known to me. The drums beat in sync with the tiny hand cymbals that are too loud for their size. Someone swings a thali with oil lamps in it from side to side. A little girl sits on her father’s shoulders, ringing a hand bell with utter delight.
Eventually, the aarti fades out with a screech from the speakers and the fervent piety of the visitors slowly quiets down. They scuttle in different directions with overwhelmed sniffles, prasaad and petals in their sweaty palms. The big iron bell tolls 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. I see the golden, carved ceiling above me, supported by large, ornate columns that pull the eye down to the white marble floor. No chairs or benches, just red carpets. Shrines and the sculptures of gods and demigods adorn the walls. The architecture speaks to me in ways that art does. Pleasant. Silent. They say that this art 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. I have a feeling of imposition and compulsion as I step out. Of ritualistic monotony and 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 would people turn to, live by? The experience was significant for it probably put down roots of atheism in my young mind. The place was strange but I did stop by here 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 gory underneath. Standing by the porch, I see a shape, a structure, less recognisable with every visit. There stands the building – once full of visitors – yellowed, dusty, in want of colour. I hear no tolling of bells, blaring of speakers, chanting of prayers, or beating of drums. I strain my ears. Not a sound. I step inside, in awkward reverence. The bell that gave me shudders is gone. The stone idols have barely survived in bits. 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. A lost somebody may have hiked here to find their way. Or some dubious adult would have brought their children here to touch a stone or two. Or someone like me might’ve set foot here to see the place she heard, made people wise.
It pleases me to stand here. The silence still reverberates. That never goes away, I think. I’m still a familiar stranger to this place. That won’t too.