Energy, Music, Light!
Alexandra De Natale
For my field study I chose to go to a Hindu temple, but even more than that make good friends with people that are from India. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was very lonely. One day as I was walking down Figueroa in Highland Park, I stumbled upon a shop full of saris and herbal medicines; it was so colorful it drew me in. I looked at the fabrics, shoes, and bags that stocked the stores shelves and the vitamins that cluttered the back wall. It was very unorganized, but sweet. I started talking to the shop owners, a couple Jagdesh and Chenchill. They were extremely nice, and at first I thought they were trying to sell me things, but as hours passed I realized that they were genuinely kind people. We talked about life and they expressed to me how spiritual they were. I myself did not grow up with a specific set of religious beliefs, which I believe made me all the more interested in religion. When they started talking about their following Durga, I was intrigued. As a child I had always wanted to travel to India. My aunt was a professor of Indian Buddhism, and she would always tell me stories of the various forms Brahman took. She told me creation stories, and showed me pictures of the gods, and also of her travels. It seemed so different, now I would be able to speak with people who were born into this culture and ask them about it. What a treat!
After an hour of introduction, and a very interesting reading of my palm (from a very old Indian handbook, which said that if you have a very short thumb, you are a murderer) we proceeded to discuss their devotion to the temple. They frequent temples all over Los Angeles from Artesia to Chatsworth to Montrose and in between. Jagdesh sings in various programs at these temples, and is so well liked that he even has CDs and DVDs of his performances. They asked if I wanted to go to temple with them and I said I would love to, they were so welcoming I could not refuse. Unfortunately, I ended up not being able to go, and got so busy with school and work that I did not have time to visit them.
When this assignment came up, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to see them again, and actually go to temple. I walked into the store almost a year later, and the couple still remembered me and welcomed me with open arms. They told me that they were fasting and offered me a delicious dish filled with potatoes, carrots, and beets that followed all of the fasting guidelines which was to have nothing with wheat or wheat flour. They are vegetarians, so they did not have to worry about not eating meat. The fast was a week long, in observation of a holiday for Krishna, one of the many important Hindu gods. I then asked if I could still go to temple with them and they told me that this weekend was a very important one because it marked the end of the fast. The program, they told me was from 9 PM to 4 AM on that Saturday, I gratefully accepted, enthused by what I would see that weekend. Before I left they had me try on some traditional Indian clothing, so I would be properly dressed for temple. I left the shop with a beautiful green silk outfit complete with shawl and bangles that I could borrow for the program. It was very exciting.
On Saturday night, I put on my outfit, and felt like a different person, I was excited but also nervous because I did not know how the people were going to react to me being there. Would they think I am mocking them? Would they be offended by my presence in their temple? I did not know what to think, even though Jagdesh and Chenchill were so nice, who knew if anyone else would be. I drove over to the temple that was in Northridge, Chatsworth to be exact. As I approached the block that it was supposed to be located I was puzzled. In my mind I envisioned a huge temple with statuary on the outside, but when I saw this little box building it shattered all my predisposed thoughts. Jagdesh was waiting outside for me as I drove past in awe at the small size of the temple, I guess I figures places of worship were supposed to be monumental in size and presence, possibly the influence of my catholic/Greek orthodox roots? In any case I parked and proceeded with Jagdesh into the temple. The entrance was through the back, and I could hear the rhythmic beat of the drums luring me in. There were children running around the front (back), as I entered a covered outdoor area with tables full of sweet and savory items, he asked if I would like to eat and I accepted with great curiosity. Various vegetarian foods flooded my plate from curries to daal. The spices in the food were unlike any other I had tried before cloves, cardamom, bay delighted my taste buds. It was fantastic. I ate amongst the rest of the members of the temple who were polite, but a bit curious of my presence. I got a lot of stares, but no dirty looks. When I caught a person looking at me I would just smile and nod or say hello. It was interesting because I was the only person who was not Indian at the temple. I did not feel uncomfortable, but, as I am realizing from experiencing new things, I wanted to be accepted. This is something I have to learn not to do because no one should feel they have to be welcomed by a different group automatically, even though it is something that I truly want.
After dinner we had some very interesting sweets and masala tea. My favorite sweet was something that looked like baked strips of dough. They had a salty sweetness that went well with the tea, and I rather enjoyed them. Sitting amongst all of these people was the first true difference in my previous ideas of religious worship. To all have a meal before a service gives a great sense of togetherness among those who follow this religion. It gives a sense of community that is different than meeting at, say, a Sunday mass at a Catholic church, where you sit, listen, and leave. The group proceeded into the next room after dinner and a group of people started playing music. The sound was invigorating. The walls of the room were filled with images of the gods (god). The oranges, pinks, yellows and reds were so bright, that I could have no concept of what time it was. Statues of Shiva and Ganesh, Krishna and Durga filled the room. There was sweetness in the décor; everything looked to be somewhat homemade. It was very personal, and I liked that. The chants went on for hours, but all gave the same amount of energy as the last. I never felt bored or tired listening to the music, even though I did not understand what anyone was saying. Various people participated in the singing including Jagdesh, who had a beautiful voice. Everyone was participating in some way. The rhythm in the music allows for that. Whether a person was clapping or singing, everyone put a piece of themselves into each chant. It was a really beautiful thing for me. When you sit there everything happening surrounds you, fills you up in this unexplainable way. I felt full of life, full of energy, which was a new experience for me, in a religious setting.
There were a few intermissions were people would chat and have tea, and then the program would start up again. At the end of all of the chants one person read a story. Actually it was more of a singing of the story, which was about Krishna, who we were celebrating, entering India from exile. During the story and offering of nuts and dried fruits came around. At the end of the story everyone rises and moves toward the altar to give an offering to the gods. A gold plate with a lit candle and rose petals is passed around. When it came to me I was told to do what the others did, which was swirling the plate around in a few circles, toward the gods. I was a bit nervous but I did it. Then a person took a gold container, shaped like a genie bottle and sprayed water that was in it on us. My senses were exploding. The colors exploded in my eyes, the music flooded my ears, the water awakened my nerves, and the smells of incense and spices all brought the experience to its fullest. I felt awakened, not in the spiritual sense, but in an excited way, in a newly educated way. When the offering was over, a bell is rung and one long chord plays. Everyone then bows to the gods and proceeds out of the temple. As one leaves the temple they are giving an offering (provided by the host) from the gods. It consisted of a box of farina with almonds and sugar, as well as some fresh fruit. The experience was amazing. When we left the temple it was 4 in the morning. I would have never thought it was because my body felt so full of life at that time that I could not possibly be tired. I told Jagdesh and Chenchill thank you, and said that I would visit them at the shop the following day. They expressed how happy they were to have me as their guest, and sent me on my way.
I drove home with a warm feeling. Experiencing something so different felt good. The next day I went to see the couple, and return the outfit they lent me. They told me that I could come with them any time, and I thanked them. They then invited me to another temple in Artesia that Saturday and I said I would go. This time when we went to the temple, I met at the store, dressed, and drove with them. The traffic was thick and I fell asleep in the car. When we arrived it was another small temple. The same flow went with this program as well. We ate, listened to the chants, and gave and received the offering. I saw one familiar face, but the rest I did not know. I masked my presence, a bit by sitting in the back at this temple. Once again, however it was a lively experience.
I went back to both of the temples each once more. My presence was acknowledged more this time around and I actually talked to a few people. At the Chatsworth temple, I met a girl who was my age. Her parents were hosting at the temple that day, which meant they provided the food, chat (snack), and offerings for that program. She was attending UC Irvine as a pre-med student. She had a beautiful silk outfit on and looked like royalty. I looked at her and thought how different she must look in her regular clothing. Then I thought how different my religious experiences have been, as opposed to hers. It made me happy to step into her world, and experience her religion. It was such a weird thing because growing up I had never had a feeling of devotion toward any god. To step into a world that incorporates these gods in their everyday lives, is so radically different than what I have known. To feel a part of what they feel by going to the temple made me have more of an understanding as to why there is religion, and devotion in existence.
I feel so fortunate to have met Chenchill and Jagdesh. They have allowed me to experience a part of their culture that could be a very private part of ones life. They provided me with clothing and made me feel welcome, and I thank them for that. Chenchill and I have even discussed possible going to her home in India, next year for the Divali festival, which is sort of like a Hindu Christmas. I hope this happens. There is so much to experience in the world, and I hope to be able to do more discovering in the years to come.