temple is one of the oldest temples of Shivpur, a small dusty
village by the river Tunga, in the Western Ghats of India. It was
a five-hundred year old temple built by the local ruler in remembrance
of a brave chieftain who died fighting the kingdom's arch rival.
Over time, the chieftain became a legend to the villagers. A majority
of them even started considering him as Lord Shiva's incarnate as
the chieftain laid down his life on Shivrathri. It was habitual
of the villagers to periodically visit the temple to seek Lord's
blessings. But on Shivrathri, it was an unwritten rule for every
villager to pay a visit to the temple and show their respect for
the Lord. For some, it was Lord Shiva and for the others it was
their chieftain, whose spirit still protected the village. But as
far as the atheists are concerned - well, they never really believed
the existence of God; let alone His incarnation!
The temple was at least a mile away
from the village but a serpentine-fashioned muddy lane with thick
wild bushes on either side of it was the only way to reach the temple.
A small stone-paved archway with a wooden gate led to the temple
premises that had two dilapidated stone-carved monstrous gatekeepers
on either side of the main entrance. The temple had a large hall
with a dozen pillars each with intricately carved designs and mystic
symbols representing the manifestations of the Divine Cosmos. Each
pillar was interlocked with the other to form a symmetrical dodecagon
to signify the subtle signs of the universe. Each side of the hall
was decorated with images of various gods and goddesses and a large
Hindu calendar highlighting various auspicious days of that year.
The hall was connected to the sanctum sanctorum of the temple where
a small Lingam was placed at its centre. A conical shaped copper
pot with a perforated bottom was placed a foot above the dhoti-clad
Lingam. To its right, a lamp containing an oil-soaked wick was placed
over a raised platform. Seasonal changes over the last five centuries
took a heavy toll on most parts of the temple. In relative terms,
sanctum sanctorum was the only section of the temple that was still
intact and devoid of any cracks on its supporting pillars.
was the appointed priest of the temple by the village elders.
There was neither an election nor eager contestants for the
post of a priest at Triambakeshwar Temple as Vishnu was the
only Brahmin in the village. He was a heavily built middle-aged
person with broad shoulders and a large midriff; but an attractive
face offset his bodily incongruity. His sparkling pair of
eyes emanated brilliance and deeper understanding of life.
One could always find him either offering prayers to the deity
or reading a book under the banyan tree in his spare time.
He had to discontinue his education in the nearby town and
return to the village to take care of the temple after his
father's sudden demise. It's been now almost fifteen years
since he quit formal education and dedicated himself in the
service of the Lord..
Like any other day,
Vishnu woke up early that morning and cycled to the temple carrying
a large pot and a bag containing a packet of sacred ash and a saffron
dhoti. Upon reaching the temple premises, he parked his cycle under
the banyan tree and left his footwear next to it. Picking up the
pot and his bag, he walked towards the southern side of the temple,
which had uneven but naturally set steps and a sharp slope that
led to the river. Perhaps for a new comer, it would have been difficult
to gauge and walk the dimly lit pavement; but for him, it was not
a challenge but another exercise in his day-to-day life as the temple
priest. Upon reaching the bank of the river, he carefully placed
his pot and the bag on a dry piece of rock and undressed himself
leaving a loin cloth on him that passed between his legs. Adjusting
his holy thread that passed diagonally across his chest and bringing
his palms together, he slowly moved forward into the river till
the water reached almost half of his body. Closing his nostrils
with his right hand, he took three dips in the river. Taking a handful
of water, he chanted a hymn praising the Sun god with deep veneration.
With that marking the last part of his bathing ritual, he came out
of the river and wore dhoti around his wait. He took out the sacred
ash from the bag and mixed it with a few drops of water to make
a fine white paste. He smeared a large portion of the paste on his
forehead and the rest was smeared across various parts of his body.
He reached for his pot and filled it with water.
pot on the right shoulder and his bag on his left, he started
walking back to the temple and chanted hymns as his picked
up a few flowers from the nearby plants. As he reached the
temple, he lowered the pot and opened the lock of the temple
with a key tied to his sacred thread. He moved slowly into
the sanctum sanctorum and placed the pot next to the Lingam.
He washed and cleaned the Lingam and the place surrounding
it with the water. He gently placed the flowers on the deity
and lit the lamp along with a few incense sticks. Raising
his voice, he started chanting the mantras and with every
two or three lines, he stopped for a moment to gently throw
a flower on the Lingam. It almost took his two hours to finish
all his morning ritual. At the end of it, he prostrated before
the Lord as a mark of absolute reverence.
Coming out of the
temple, Vishnu sat under the banyan tree next to his bicycle. He
pushed himself on the elevated platform to recline against the tree’s
trunk. Squatting his legs and rubbing his palms against his unshaven
face, unaware of the morning sunlight gently warming his cheeks,
he was staring at the dome of the temple and was lost in his own
world of thoughts.
‘Hello? Excuse me?’ said a voice from
behind one of the pillars of the temple. Hearing a human’s voice
at this time of the day was a little unusual for him; more so when
it was in English – a language not spoken by the locals. He got
up from the raised platform and walking towards the temple he asked,
‘Who is it?’ A lanky six feet
European emerged from behind the pillar who wore a simple khaki
shorts and a plain white shirt. ‘Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean
to intrude’ said the European with a mild apologetic tone. ‘Don’t
be, please. You are welcome to visit our temple’ replied Vishnu
in English with a friendly tone and walked towards the visitor.
The visitor was pleased to find a
person who could understand and converse in his language. ‘I am
glad to find someone who could speak English at last. I have been
traveling around this place for the last four days and had to use
sign-language in most places, you see. This morning, I was riding
this way and found this place interesting. It caught my attention.
So I stopped by and started taking pictures. Do you mind if I take
photographs, Sir?’ questioned the visitor as he took out his camera
from his backpack.
Vishnu gave a gentle smile and mildly
shook his head. ‘You don’t have to call me sir. My name is Vishnu
Sharma. You can call me Vishnu and by the way, you can take photographs.’
‘oh, I am sorry. How rude of me! I almost forgot to introduce myself.
My name is John Wright’ said the visitor extending his hand. Vishnu
shook the hand and asked, ‘Are you English?’ ‘Yes, I am. How did
you know?’ Vishnu chuckled a
little louder this time and replied, ‘It’s the accent. It’s unmistakable,
isn’t it?’ The visitor too had
a good laugh and nodded his head. ‘Can I go inside the temple?’
in a whispering tone asked the visitor.
‘By all means, you can. Please remove
your footwear and enter the temple’ instructed Vishnu and walked
inside the temple. As instructed,
the European too removed his footwear and placed them in one corner
of the pillar before entering the temple’s hall. He had to lower
his head as he followed Vishnu through the main-door. The
visitor was awestruck to see intricate designs on each pillar. He
took photographs of almost all the pillars from all possible angles
and expressed his admiration for such delicate artwork at the end
of every single shot. Vishnu was happy to see someone who expressed
his interest in appreciating something he valued.
‘I have never been to a temple before.
I never thought temples had such magnificent architecture’ expressed
the visitor who really enjoyed taking such an unprecedented tour.
‘Do you mind if I ask you a question?’ asked the visitor. ‘No
no. Please go ahead. What is it?’ replied Vishnu who was leaning
against one of the pillars of the halls and standing diagonally
opposite to the visitor. ‘How come you speak English? I thought
I would never find one, especially in this part of the country’
curiously put forth his question.
Vishnu expected this question and
it was just a matter of time for him to answer. ‘My father sent
me to the nearby town when I was a kid and thanks to him – I received
both western education and Vedic instructions. Family circumstances
made me to quit university and return to my village to take care
of this temple. My ancestors took care of this village and now it
is my turn to show my respect and gratitude by serving the Lord’
answered without any trace of guilt or remorse in his tone. As
the visitor intently listened to the priest’s words, he closed his
eyes and started contemplating his words for a few moments. Vishnu
sat by the pillar and waited for the visitor to ask his next question.
It’s been a very long time since he spoke to anybody about his life
and his sudden turn of events. There were days when he spent most
of his time in meditating or silently contemplating on his life
when no villager visited the temple. But today’s intrusion was more
than welcome as there was a company to talk to.
The visitor opened his eyes and looking
at the eyes of the priest he asked, ‘You are an educated person
and as I see, there are no jobs that befit your education in this
part of the country. Why didn’t you move to the town and find a
comfortable life up there?’
Vishnu gently nodded his head and
giving one precious little smile he looked at the deity for a minute
and answered his question. ‘Educated? Hmmm… It is not just me who
is educated in this village, Mr. John. Every single villager is
educated. Our schools of thought might differ but the underlying
concept is very much the same. Our people may not seem to be educated
if looked from your point of view. But you see, we live here in
the middle of this dense forest and we have defined our lives our
own way. It may be foolish to gauge us as either educated or rustics
if you measure by your yardstick. Each villager here knows the purpose
of his life. I was not sent to town to obtain university degree
and seek a comfortable life in towns. I was sent to find purpose
in my life – to gain knowledge on both social and spiritual front
so that I can come back to my roots and help my people.” “I agree.
But that does make you a happy person? Can I have a life like yours
when I go back to England?” inquisitively asked the visitor.
“I did not get a university degree
but I found my purpose. As a priest, it is my duty to conduct the
puja and pray for the welfare of my people. When I pray for prosperity
of my villagers, I receive immunity from the Lord from being poisoned
by such materialistic desires. I was taught to find happiness with
whatever I have. I escaped the town before it put a price tag on
my soul and thus the flowers of happiness with little thorns of
privation adorn the valley of my life. John,
I am neither a saint nor a man of words. Honestly, I think you’ll
find your life’s purpose when you are with your people. Find your
roots and lead a contended life. I shall pray for the Lord’s blessings
for you.” With rapt attention
the visitor was listening to every single word the priest spoke.
There was neither displeasure nor happiness to his words. He occasionally
nodded his head and as the priest finished his talk, the visitor
quietly settled down in one corner of the hall, closed his eyes
and mentally repeated the priest’s answer.
As the visitor started meditating,
Vishnu got up and walked into the sanctum sanctorum and prayed for
the visitor’s welfare. The End
Avinash Iyer, works as a Research Analyst for an Energy
Consulting Group in Chennai, India. Avid reader & deeply interested
in religion & spirituality. [email protected]