Ramachandran's Weekly Visit to the Temple
Having just shaved and bathed, Ramachandran wraps the three meters of his clean, freshly starched white cotton dhoti around his waist. He places a matching shawl over his shoulders, leaving his chest bare. He then steps into his rubber sandals and slips out the door of his home. Just in front of him, his younger sister has almost finished painting an elaborate kolam, a sacred design on the ground before the door made with bleached rice flour. It is an activity that either she, or his mother or his aunt, performs every day of the year. As he walks carefully around it, he admires the beautiful lotus she is creating. All around him the town is coming to life. He weaves between countless other kolams as he moves down the street, waving to his neighbor, an old man intent on milking his cow. Ramachandran is on his way to the temple.
Today is Tuesday, dedicated in South India to the Goddess Mariamman, an embodiment of Shakti, the feminine power that conquers evil and heals disorder. When Ramachandran was just sixteen, he vowed that for the rest of his life he would fast every Tuesday. Now ten years have past, and he still maintains his vow. After his bath before sunrise, he drank a cup of tea and ate some rice cakes. For the rest of the day he will have only liquids, keeping his mind and body ritually pure in order to be a proper vessel to receive the Goddess's guidance. Although Ramachandran worships Mariamman every day in his household shrine, on Tuesdays he goes to the temple. Usually he goes alone, although sometimes he is accompanied by other family members.
Nearing the temple, the streets grow more crowded. From the stalls on either side, hawkers call out their wares. Many sell the offerings that devotees take to the temple; others sell the objects that are used in household shrines. Ramachandran purchases a coconut and a packet of white camphor from the vendors that he frequents every week. He puts these into the small wicker basket that he carries, which already contains some bananas and bright red hibiscus that he picked from the garden behind his home.
As he approaches the temple gate, he leaves his sandals at the door and steps inside. Already he can hear the loud clanging of bells from within the sanctum. Repeating the name of his Goddess--"Mariamman, Mariamman, Mariamman"--he joins many other devotees to encircle the central temple in a clockwise direction. Returning to the entrance, he pushes through the crowd to enter the temple itself. Inside it is dark and cool, filled with the thick, sweet smell of incense. Ramachandran joins the line of other male worshipers to the left of the inner sanctum. The women, wearing their brightest saris, with flowers in their hair, line up opposite him. Children are on both sides. He reaches up to ring a bell suspended from the stone ceiling. Its strong tone clears his brain of extraneous thought and allows him to focus his attention on the Deity. Craning his neck, he can just get a glimpse of the blackened stone image of the Goddess. She is dressed in a brilliant red sari, her neck covered with jewels and garlands of flowers, her head crowned with a diadem.
The priest comes down the line of devotees collecting their offerings and returns into the sanctum. A curtain is drawn across the shrine for a few minutes of eager anticipation. Then, amid the clamor of bells, it is opened. The image of Mariamman is radiantly beautiful to him, newly adorned with fresh flowers, including two of Ramachandran's bright red hibiscus. The priest waves a brass lamp lit with seven flames in a circular motion in front of the Goddess. Looking into the shrine, Ramachandran locks his eyes with those of the image: he has darshan with the Goddess. At that moment he is filled with a feeling of well-being, of centeredness and of belonging. His world is in balance.
The priest then brings out a tray of lighted camphor. All the worshipers place their hands quickly into the cool flame before touching them to their closed eyelids, symbolically opening their souls to communion with the Divine. On the same tray are little mounds of white sacred ash and red vermilion powder. With the fourth finger of his right hand, Ramachandran puts a dot of each in the center of his forehead between his eyebrows, the ash symbolizing purification through worship and the red symbolizing Shakti, the power of the Goddess. Then each person's basket of offerings is returned, some of its contents remaining as a donation to the temple, the rest blessed by the Goddess to be shared by the devotees. Ramachandran will take this prashad back to his family, so that they may partake in Mariamman's blessing.
The purpose of his weekly temple visit is over, and Ramachandran must return home quickly. Once there, he changes out of his dhoti and shawl and puts on the black pants and white buttoned shirt of his work attire. After drinking only a glass of water, he mounts his bicycle to ride to the shop where all day he repairs the computers that are so essential to the maintenance of business in contemporary India. As he solders the memory boards of broken mainframe hardware, he is content in the memory of his link with his Goddess, and with the rituals that bring balance to his life.
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