I had been enlisted as the man guide for a day of adventuring with Marie and Michelle. We planned to brave danger, chart new territories, and go where no tourist has ever gone before. So I call up my rickshaw walla friend, Jonti. He and I go way back. I met him about three weeks ago, and this long history has earned me the title of “brother” in his eyes. He picks me up at quarter past eleven, embraces me in a hug, and we take off to Raja park, where we park and wait for the ladies. Two cups of tea, a cigarette, and half an hour later, they show up and we are off and rolling again. The day is still young, the sun is hot, and we are ready to see the unseen. We are young, fearless, and looking to fill in the blanks left behind by the authors of Lonely Planet. So naturally, we head for the monkey temple.
We cruise ten kilometers down dusty highways, past camels and elephants, busses full of pilgrims (they probably weren’t, but it sounds cool), motorbikes transporting as many as four souls, and many stray dogs. Traffic thins; we roll of the road onto unpaved ground. The rickshaw put, put, putters as we struggle up an incline. Ah! This is what I was looking for! We’re off the beaten path now! An orange (not pink!) sandstone gate rises above the earth in the distance. Still the machine struggles for altitude. Jonti, works his way through the gears, easing on and off of the clutch. The man is a genius, if anyone can make that old metal girl move he can. And he does, for soon enough I see the monumentous rock of human creation standing over me like a giant doorway through which we cross into the Planet of the Apes. As we do so, I stare up at the mountainous pile of land which we must ascend to reach the noble temple. It stares back down at me, as I bake in the mid noon sun, a dust covered man surrounded by the nothingness of the desert, with sweat in his eyes and the fear of god in his heart.
But I must be strong, for I am the protector of the women on this journey into the wild. So I step out of the rickshaw, and greet the challenge. I give Jonti some cash and ask him to wait for us. It is agreed. Men call to me from the steps of the concrete shacks which line the dirt road, right up to the base of the mountain. They try to sell me water, trinkets, and monkey food. They are trying to capitalize on my impending doom. This is the dog eat dog world we live in, and though principles beg for me to discourage this behavior, the harshness of our voyage does not allow for principles. So I exchange thirty rupees for a bottle of water and a package of peanuts. If we get lost, we can eat the nuts. If lower primates try to eat our faces off, we will distract them with food. It is fail proof.
So we begin the ascent. As we do, a young Indian man, about my age tags along. “The monkeys are dangerous” he tells me as if I needed to be informed. “I will show you how to feed them”. Not a bad idea. So I allow his company. We are walking up a poorly cobbled road which ascends into the wildness. As we are about to round the first switchback, a herd of monkeys surrounds us. Our companion tells us to remain calm, as he takes a peanuts in his fingers and reaches out to the nearest red faced, furry, humanoid beast. The monkey hurriedly grabs the protein pack and cracks the shell in his hands. Our friend tells us not to put the nuns in the palm of our hands, since the monkeys will scratch us in an attempt to snatch the stash. I obey his command, since rabies is not on my “must experience in India” list. After snapping a few photos, and feeding the vermin, we are ready to move on to the next daring feat.
Our guide points to the temple on the hill, which we understand to be the famed “monkey temple”. He asks us, do we want to take the easy route or the difficult route. I tell him that we come from the land of the free where the motto of the young is “YOLO”, so naturally we want to push the limits of mankind’s ability and cheat death in the most daring of directions imaginable. So, we leave the cobbled path, and begin down a barely blazed trail through the bush. The way is steep, the vegetation is thick and prickly, tugging at our loose clothing and the long hair of the ladies. Our friend casually tells us to watch for snakes, and I flash back to a fun fact that there are over 100 species of poisonous reptiles in India. Michelle is not pleased by this trivia. “Never fear” I tell her, “the value is found in the survival of hardship”. Onward and upward we climb, until after a grueling seven minutes, we reach the humble summit.
We step back onto the cobblestone path which leads up to the iron gate. The temple is surrounded by a sandstone wall, on which hangs a blue and white sign, decorated with bird droppings. The sign lets usknow that this is a protected monument Built by an envoy to the Mhugal court and any attempt to alter, destroy, deface, remove, or otherwise screw with said monument is a punishable offense. Why I wonder, was a temple to an embodied deity built by the Mhugals, who were known for their destruction of such Hindu temples? Regardless, my devious intentions are checked at the gate where I leave my trusty Tevas, and as we enter, I wonder if it will be the wrath of man or god that would reprimand such blasphemy. The temple is not too remarkable; it is smaller than others that I have seen. But the location gives it character and authority. It has the classic shape of a Hindu temple, with a single marble tower of four steep rising sides rising about ten meters into the sky. The base is ornately carved, with two tiger shaped creatures guarding the entrance. It is less than average in size, compared with all other temples more formidable than a roadside shrine. But the contrast of the rising spire against a backdrop of the buzzing, beeping city in the not so distant valley gives a sense of importance to this place.
Two girls come out of the doorway of the temple to greet us. One looks to be about seven years old, and she is slim and smiling. The other looks to be about thirteen or so. She is plump and wears thick rimmed “hipster” glasses. Both are barefoot, but the latter appears to be wearing cleaner clothes than the former. They greet us with a “Namaste” and a bow of the head, which we return, and they beckon us into the temple. We follow their lead. There are metal doors on the far wall, and the inner left wall of the temple. Both sets of doors are rusty and dented. The girls hurriedly split up to each unlock one set of squeaky doors which they theatrically throw open before jumping out of the way to reveal the contents. Where I expect to see the orange figure of Hanuman, god of monkeys and strength, I instead see the above image facing me. The older girl sees a pensive look on my face, and explains “the doors keep the monkeys out”, though I was less confused about that aspect. `
I ask the younger girl who the god is that was looking back at me on the far side of the temple. She smiles, and turns her head away from me. The older girl explains that her sister does not speak English, and then begins introducing me to the deities in residence. The one on the far wall and the two occupying the nook to the left are the Sung god yet again, and his wife by his side. She then tells us to sit down on the mat in front of the nook to the left, and so we obey. She takes a brass bowl of sandalwood paste and gives each of us a small bindi between the eyebrows. Then she whips out a ball of red and yellow string, and begins cutting off short pieces. This is good luck she explains as she wraps one around Marie’s left wrist and ties it off, and then Michelle’s, and then she comes to me. She wraps the string not once, but twice around my right wrist. The girls are upset. “Why does he get two wraps rather than one? Why does he get more luck than us?” Because I’m a dude I think to myself… No, it’s not patriarchy, its just that girls like boys… Duh, health class 101. But I am smart enough not to allow these mental utterances to become anything more than that.
I ask our guide, who sits next to us, if he prays to the Sun God. He says that he does, every day. I ask why, and he says that the sun allows him to see, it keeps him warm and allows plants to grow so that he can eat. I agree on this point, but I have never prayed to a sun god, and so I ask him if he believes that the sun would fail to rise if he did not pray. He looks confused. “I pray every day, and the sun rises”. I am still not sure if this reflects a causal belief, or if it simply reflects reverence for a natural and independent phenomenon. But when I pus further, he says that “the sun gives us gifts, so we pray”. There seems to be a switch in meaning if one over analyzes this statement when compared to the former. But It seems that I am not going to get any further with this conversation, so I drop it.
As we are about to stand up, older girl asks for a donation. Marie and Michelle think that is unnecessary and exit the temple. I pull out a fifty (the smallest bill I have) and give a donation on behalf of the group. The girl scrunches up her nose in disapproval. I apologies, say “this is what I have for you”. She decides to take it rather than leave it. As we exit, I ring the bell which hangs in the doorway sending my prayer to the sun god.
Later that day, when I am sweating buckets and the sun is hotter than H, E, double toothpicks, I am wishing that I had given a larger donation.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
…”Continued” from Peepal Gods Journal
The traffic of people, circling around the tree eventually slowed and was replaced by about twenty men, all holding drums, from which hung two balls attached to strings. Two men, around the age of thirty, dressed in formal attire, with “Brahmin rat tails” hanging from the back of their heads, were moving quickly back and forth, putting the drummers in position. They met in the corner of the temple to prepare a couple of lamps and offerings. The temple was humming with conversation. One of the Brahmin’s hollered to a young boy, who had the same dress and hairstyle as they did. Upon command, the boy began rapidly ringing a bell that hung from the ceiling. The three of them then yelled in unison “Hanuman AYYY!” to which the entire community within the temple replied the same. The drummers immediately began twisting their drums back and forth so that the balls swung and hit the skins on either side. The temple was filled with the erratic banging of drums and the ringing of the bell. For the next twenty minutes, the drummers kept drumming, their muscles bulging and faces sweating, my ears ringing, while the Brahmans performed puja; lighting incense sticks stuck into bananas, offering coconuts, fruits, nuts, and flowers to the large image of the Hanuman; the main deity of the temple, and waving camphor and incense before the countless other photos and sculpture of various deities that were scattered about the entire temple.
When they were finished with the camphor lamps, the drumming increased in pace and the drummers arched their backs, faces twisted, the veins bulging from their necks, and the Brahmins yell “HANUMAN AYYYY!” To which they replied with a deafening scream which drained the air and energy from their bodies and the temple slowly fell silent. People rushed to wipe camphor smoke over their bodies, as the drummers ringed their hands, some taking cloths from their pockets to clean the blood from newly formed blisters.
As people slowly left the temple to join the live concert of Bhakti music that had began outside, I turned to my new friend, still standing next to me and asked him to tell me something about Hanumn. “Hanuman is the god of strength and power” he began. “In the Ramayana, he is a devotee and aid to Rama. He helps Ram to defeat Ravana. He is a great warrior. There is one story in which Rama writes his name on giant boulders and Hanuman lifts and throws each of them into the Ganga. Ram’s name on the rocks allows them to float, and it creates a bridge that the army crosses on their way to Lanka.” I asked him why there were some many drummers at this puja, and he responded that “this type of drumming is very exhausting and requires a lot of strength to do for a long time, and it is believed that Hanuman must aid the drummers, and so this brings his presence here”
~ ~ ~
On another occasion, Abbie and I wandered by the akara. I stared into the window for a couple of moments, not sure how to approach the situation, watching five young men swing big rocks on sticks around their shoulders, or lifting weights on the two pieces of real gym equipment that occupied the dirt floor room. One of them saw me, and he walked up to the window and said hello. I asked him if this was a gym, and he said “yes. Indian gym”. I asked him if I could come in. He smiled and pointed me toward the door. When I got inside he instructed me to remove my shoes, and began to show me how they swing the bats and rocks around their heads. The rock that he was swinging was between the size of a basketball and a beach volleyball (like the two foot round, pool play things.. the big one). After he showed me this, he removed a smaller one (maybe the size of a small cantaloupe) from the row of bats that lined the wall. He handed it to me and smiled. So I took my position, in front of the mirror like the others were doing, and I swung the bat down over my back, and up over my right shoulder, back over my back, and up over the left shoulder, as I had been instructed, though with much more difficulty and far less grace. All five of the guys in the room smiled and talked to each other in Hindi in a way that suggested that they were holding back laughter. I get uncomfortable in American gyms where I recognize all the equipment, simply because my insecurity is on display for all those who choose to show up for the pissing contest that is body building. So, I decided to put down the bat.
On the wall there were photos of hanuman, holding his club, much like the ones that we were swinging around our heads. I asked my lifting partner “Do you lift for the ladies, or for Hanuman?” He laughed and said, “No! This is not for ladies, this is for Hanuman Ji.” Then he put his arm on my shoulder and walked me to the far wall of the akara and showed me a small, orange painted sculpture of Hanuman, covered in flowers. He bowed to the image at his waist, and then stood and said, “He is our Baba. Very strong. So, he makes us strong, and we become strong for him.” “I see”.
I decided to see if I could lift the bat again. It was just as silly as the first time, so I put it back. Abbie, who had been standing in the doorway, asked if she could try, and three of the men quickly said that this was not an activity that was appropriate for women. To which she tried to explain that she had spent the summer carrying over one hundred pounds up and down a mountain. They neither seemed to care or act impressed. We shared a couple more words, as they tried to figure out what this scrawny white kid was doing here, and then I thanked them and went to leave. As I did, my lifting partner said “you can come back tomorrow if you like. Maybe every day I am here at 5 O’clock. It makes you very strong. I thanked him, and said that maybe I would come back. But I never gathered the nerve to do so.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
This is the image of Krishna that sat on my host family’s home shrine. One day, I was sitting on the floor of this room, having tea with my host mother who was laying on a futon mattress, recovering from a long day of work. When I had finished my tea I asked her if I should leave to let her get some rest and she said that it was ok, and she didn’t mind talking. So, after a lull in conversation, which would tend to happen when I lacked the questions to facilitate cultural exchange, I pointed at the picture and asked her to tell me a story about Krishna.
She told me that once upon a time there was a cruel king who received a prophecy that the seventh son of his wife would birth a child that would one day kill him. So, the king imprisoned his wife. But one day there was a terrible rain that washed out all of the prision roads, and somehow allowed the woman to escape. She was impregnated by god and gave birth to Krishna. But she knew that her husband would find the child and kill him, so she sent Krishna across the river, where he was raised by cowherds.
My host mother described Krishna as a “very naughty child” who was always playing pranks on the cowherdesses, stealing their butter and milk and such. As he grew up, he acquired many girlfriends, but his most loving relationship was with Rada. This has made Krishna a symbol of love. According to My host mother, Krishna’s tendency to sleep around makes him resemble the “modern boys” who she thinks try to emulate him.
At this point, she skipped a section in the narrative of Krishna’s maturation and told me that he is a prominent character in the Mahabarata, where he serves as the advisor, friend, and aid to the Pundavas. The Gita is Krishna’s “greatest philosophy”. It depicts a scene where Krishna gives council to Arjuna, who is afraid to go into battle, but is ultimately convinced to do so by Krishna’s wisdom regarding Dharma. The Gita is the only part of the Mahabarata that is allowed to be brought into a household. This is because the epic is mostly about a violent war, but the Gita contains good advice on how to live one’s life. Still, I wonder how the boy who stole curd grew to be the greatest philosopher of Dharma.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
I first encountered this image when we were in Amritsar, riding on the bus, on the way to the Pakistan border. A sticker showing the red outline of a man in robes, with long hair, and a saber drawn, was stuck to the back window of the bus. I started noticing them all around; on cars, on restaurant signs, on cash registers. But the opportunity to ask someone what the little man meant to them never crossed my way while we were in the Punjab. Soon the weekend was over, we headed off to Jaipur, and I no longer saw the little man….
That is until today. We are back in Delhi, and I was just going to buy a pani bottle and eck cup chai from the vendor across from the hotel, when I looked at the tail end of a parked ambassador and saw my little old friend, stoicly stuck, with sward still blazing, on the bumper of the car. I asked a good old gentleman who was eating at some masala munchies, “Namaste uncle. Can you tell me who this is a picture of?”
“Oh this?.. This is Shivar Ji” he responded
“Shiva? You mean this is lord Shiv?” I was confused. The destroyer weilds a trident, not a saber.
“No, no! Not Shiva; SHIVAR ji. His name is ShivAR.”
“Ah. I see. And what can you tell me about this man?”
“Shivar Ji? He is a great warrier; you know, a fighter… In battle”
“Yes, Sap Hay. Who does he fight for? And Who is he fighting”
“He is a Punjabi, and you know the Punjabi people like this character. So he fight for them, and he fought a big battle against the Muslims. It was a big war.”
“Now, when you say Punjabi, do you mean he is a Sikh?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes. Of course, this man is a Sikh. He is Punjabi, but he is fighting, the Sikh peoples against the Muslims. I think they was fighting in about like 18… ah like 1890 or something like that.”
“Is this why the Sikh people carry swards? Because of this man?”
“Yes, because he get them to fight, and to defend them against the Muslims, and so now they carry the sward, like you see at Gurdwara” (motioning in the direction of the Gurdwara a few blocks away)
“And why were they fighting?”, I pressed further.
“Because the Muslims wanted to you know, they did not like that the Punjabi.. I mean they did not like the Sikh peoples, so they fight them to defend their religion?”
“I see. So do people pray to Shivar Ji. Is he treated like a god?”
“No. He is not a god. Only a fighter… The Punjabi.. I mean Sikh people put this emblem on their cars so that people know that they are Sikhs. Just like Hindus put pictures of Gnesha or you know, Krishna or whatever on their cars. So, if you want a taxi, and you are a Sikh person maybe you come to this man.”
So it seems that the little man is no god at all. He is a mere mortal, a killer, a defender of a people (wether they be Punjabis, or Sikhs, or only Sikh Punjabis is uncertain). His noble image serves for an underground symbol for communication between members of a religious group; much like the Jesus fish was for early Christians under the oppression of the Romans. So he lives on, in our hearts and on our bumpers.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
I’m stopped for a bottle of slice, sitting on a stool next to the strangely quiet Delhi street. I stand up to pay the man at the window of his little booth. Behind the chips and chew hanging in the window, I see a picture of a Devi with pink hued skin, eight arms, riding on a tiger. She has a crown on her head, flowers around her neck, and in each of her hands she carries a discus, a club, a trident, two swards, a conch shell, and a lotus flower. I ask the man behind the counter to explain who this goddess is.
“This is Mata Rani” he says.
“Who is she” I says.
“Devi. She is from Jammu-Kashmir.”
“Why does she ride on the tiger?”
“Because she lives in the forest”
I am failing to see the necessary correlation between one’s biome and their mode of transportation. So I press further. “But why does she not walk, or ride on a monkey?” since these too like in the forest.
“The tiger is like her horse, so she rides the tiger. Just like Gnesh rides on a rat, and Shiv rides a bull. This is her choice.”
“I see. And why does she carry the sward?”
“Because when peoples are fighting; when India fights war with Pakistan, Mata Rani is helping them.”
“So she is the Goddess of War?”
“No, no, not war….”
“So why do people pray to her? Like people pray to Gnesha when they get a new job, or when they take an exam? Why do people pray to Mata Rani?”
“Oh, oh, Tee Kay. So peoples pray to her to ask that they do not you know, get angry with other people or that other peoples do not try to get upset and fight them. Or like, so that there is no car accident, or nobody robs them, or cheats them. And they prays to her so that when they are fighting, or there is a battle, that there will be no more fighting and people will not be hurt.”
“Oh I see, so she is like a devi of peace?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes. Godess of peace”
“Why does she carry the shell?
“Because when you blow into the shell, it makes a big sound that makes everything quiet and makes you feel peace.”
I thanked the man for his time and walked away feeling peaceful and nice inside. I still find it ironic that the goddess of peace carries six weapons and only one flower. Also, Teagan is convinced that the photo that I took is that of Durga, not some chick named Mata Rani.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013
I have encountered Shiva countless times, and in countless forms throughout the duration of this trip. There is the Iconic ling that which we all know and love, which depicts the phallus of the deity emerging from the female anatomy at its base. There is also the embodied form of the god, made famous by folk art and paintings, with the blue deity sitting cross legged, clad in tiger skin and adorned with snakes, the Ganga flowing from the Himalayas in his matted hair, while his mount (the bull) his drum of creation and drum of destruction sit nearby. We know these images all too well. But here, I would like to focus on an experience that I have had with Shiva that took a less common forms.
We were in Jaipur. I had just visited the “monkey temple” and was wandering throughout the stone roads that wind through the hills beyond the city; past chai shops and men in saffron robes, claiming to be priests thought they appear as beggars. As I walk with Michelle and Marie, We hear a voice holler “Hello!” out of the open window of a metal shack by the side of the road. I peer into the window as we walk past, and I see a man with dreadlocks, sitting cross legged and bare chested, wearing only a white cloth around his legs. He is squinting and smiling at us, waving for us to come in, repeatedly saying “Hello, Namaste”. We decide to check it out, and round the building until we find an open door on the opposite side.
Walking inside we find three more men sitting on blankets, facing the dreaded man. Between him and his audience (which now includes us) is the black, smoldering remains of a fire. There are pictures on the wall of the humanized Shiva, as well as many self portraits of the dreaded man. Hindi music wines from a muffled radio, hidden somewhere in the room. As we sit down the dreaded man smiles a closed lip smile, so big that his eyes squint half shut. He rocks from side to side and nods his head in satisfaction. As “Chai?” he asks. We agree, and he pours some water and milk into a pot, already filled with spices, and he puts it onto the fire. He is mumbling to himself and not paying any attention to anyone in the room as he looks around the room and finds a small clay tube. He hands it to one of the other men, who has been rolling some ugly brown leaves in his hands for some time. The man packs the leaves in the pipe. The dreaded man says something (apparently to himself since he looks at the ground and nobody responds) and laughs. Then the man with the pipe hands it to the man with the dreads, who lights a match and sucks the fire into the pipe. He coughs, and sticks out his tongue and shakes his head in laughter, before holding the pipe out towards me. I laugh at the scene and say no thank you, motioning to the next guy, who gladly takes it. The air smells pleasant.
As it is going around, the man with the dreads squints and smiles at me and nods his head. Then he points to himself, and says “Shiv… I Shiv… Big babba!” He is not laughing. “You are Shiv?” I ask, pointing at him. He nods his head, then points at the picture of Shiv on the wall, and then to himself, and says “Same man”. I try to take it seriously, as he puts the pipe in his mouth again and returns to a coughing fit.
Just keeping the conversation going on related similarities, I point to his hair, and then to me and say “I had hair like this”. He says “Yes I am babba….” and he smiles with eyes more shut than open. I would like to ask him more about his relationship with Shiva, I wonder if he is speaking philosophically, saying that we are all god. But my conversation regarding confirms an unbeatable language barrier.
The tea has boiled, and by the time the pipe is finished, it has cooled to the point that a skin has formed over the surface. Shiva sticks his finger into the tea and scoops out the skin. He holds his arm strait out, with the milky brown film hanging there. It slowly slips off his finger and onto the ground. Shiva’s stern face slips into a grin and he bursts out laughing, falls backwards, and after a few seconds he sits up, crying and coughing through his laughter. I have got to laugh too, but I am trying not to, because the guys in the corner are stern faced and reverent, staring at me like “pay your respect dude”. So I try to hold it in. And so it goes on like that until we have finished our chai, at which point we bow to the deity and get up to leave.
As we walk back up the hill. Michelle says to me “Holy shit. Stoners are exactly the same everywhere.” To which I respond, “If all you have to do to become a god is smoke a ton of pot, I have been surrounded by the divine my whole college career.” On the one hand, it is easy to be irreverent, and assume that the whole thing is bullshit; the man calls himself divine so that his friends will come smoke him up. But on the other hand, maybe there is some truth to it for all I know. Regardless, Shiva had a following in that room.
- Nicholas Schessl, Fall 2013