I wheel my bicycle up an alley where shadows promise a sanctuary from the crush of market streets. A dog dozes on the cobblestones. In a courtyard, an ancient tree twists up out of the earth, and an orange flag flutters from the roof of a temple. I leave my shoes on its steps and, walking onto the verandah, feel a warmth beneath my feet, the presence of departed worshipers remaining on the smooth stone.
In the sanctum a stone monkey stares out of round, black eyes: Hanuman, the simian friend of the god Ram. He has received many smudges from sacred flames, and a century of scrubbings has eroded him to an all-seeing lump. On one wall is a mosaic of a turbaned maharajah, a temple sponsor; in triumph, he approaches a city gate beneath his bejeweled, cloud-sized umbrella, leading a procession of elephants, chariots, horses, warriors. His splendor is refulgent, his identity forgotten.
A woman drops into a lotus position before the altar. Closing her eyes, she begins singing to Ram in a quavery chant that resonates beneath the ceiling. Her voice blends with the scent of glowing joss sticks and the pale beige light that flows in from the courtyard. Smile-lines in the woman’s upturned face make her look as if she is singing for pure delight, and I wish I could feel some divine presence so strongly that I could burst into song like that. I stand still, just grateful to listen. Finally her voice trails off into silence. She pads away up the alley, leaving a memory of the song behind her in the temple as if the music were there before she arrived and she was simply its instrument for a while.
On the highway leading to my house is a colossal new temple constructed entirely of white marble, a gift to the city from one of India’s most powerful industrialists. His name is prominently carved beside the pillared entrance. Visible from miles away, the edifice looks like an iceberg stranded on the hillside. Close up, I have to wince to view it in the reflected sunlight. It contains only empty floor space where my footsteps echo between high white walls. Most visitors are Indian tourists, who have to pass through an electronic metal-detector to enter. I doubt if any other forces protect the place.
Down a side road off the highway is a scruffy, older temple I love. I often stop here on my way home, leaving my bike at the rusty rack with dozens of others. The building’s courtyard rings with the voices of children whose parents, like me, are resting on their journeys. Men smoke bidis—tiny cheap cigars--on benches outside the mottled walls; women in saris chat and sip bottled drinks through straws. The temple is dedicated to elephant-headed Ganesh. Inside, sitting cross-legged on a cement platform, the god glows bright orange, as if he’s been molded out of sweet, orange-flavored halawa candy. He’s elephant-sized but welcoming, his tummy bulging, his almond eyes smiling merrily. Murmured prayers hover around him like the purring of doves. Now I understand the idea of darshan: of being glad simply to see a deity and to feel him returning my gaze.
People filing past him bow their heads with their palms pressed together, and I do, too. Sometimes I buy garlands of purple flowers from an old woman at the gate and put them on the fragrant pile at the god’s feet. Or I bring a little box of coconut fudge from a nearby stall and leave a square of it on the platform for Ganesh, who’s famous for his love of sweets. On the temple steps, I share the rest of it with kids on the lookout for donors. The ride home is always easier after my visit.
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Edward Hower has published eleven books, most recently "What Can You Do: Personal Essays and Travel Writing." His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, The Smithsonian, American Scholar and elsewhere. He has been awarded two Fulbright Fellowships to India, and writing grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Council on the Arts. He has taught at Cornell University, Ithaca College, Duke University, Auburn Prison, and Kenyatta College in Kenya. More information can be found on his website: www.edwardhower.com
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