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On Worship

Daily life in India is infused with religion. Drivers adorn their dashboards with miniature shrines dedicated to various gods and goddess. Muslim rickshaw drivers switch baseball caps out for white taqiyahs, or skullcaps, during the five daily prayers. Commuters stop in the middle of the street to pray at roadside shrines and temples. The scent of marigolds, roses, and other flowers used for puja, the act of Hindu prayer, wafts through the air. The sound of adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, resounds through the early morning darkness. Christians make offerings of fruit, flowers, candles, and money to statues of Mary, various saints, and Jesus. Schools and government building shut down for Ramzan, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. The spirituality of India is tangible, and influences everything from body art to food preferences. So far, I’ve entered approximately eight places of worship around the city of Bangalore, and passed by hundreds more. I’ve visited a Roman Catholic basilica, multiple Hindu temples, and a Muslim mosque. Last Friday, I attended a Roman Catholic mass at the Dharmaram Chapel on the Christ University campus. Despite the significant ideological differences between each religion, the behaviors of worshippers have a lot of commonalities. Regardless of religion, the styles of worship all incorporate distinctly Indian traditions. St. Mary’s Basilica Outside, a white statue of Mary holding Jesus welcomes worshippers to the basilica. Bags of salt and flower garlands are strewn at her feet. Inside, the chapel is dim, illuminated only by candles and rays of sun streaming through the stained glass windows. Carvings depicting Biblical stories and verses line the stone walls of the chapel. On the periphery of the basilica, a hallway of statues surrounds the main chapel. Various saints are depicted in these statues. At the end of the hallway, a statue of Christ lays in a glass tomb, blood dripping down his face. Orange rupees, flowers, and coins lie scattered around the statue. People stop to kneel and press their palms against the glass. A bald man stands with his palms raised to the sky, staring up at the ceiling and reciting a prayer. An elderly woman with a pale orange sari kneels on the ground, holding a corner of the orange fabric out in front of her chest. The sorrow on her face makes her look like she’s kneeling two thousand years ago, her arms outstretched towards the actual crucified body of Jesus. She could have been Mary herself, staring at her Son’s tortured body.

Shiva Temple The Shiva temple I visited featured a 32-foot statue of Ganesh and a 65-foot statue of Shiva. According to Hindu belief, three main gods exist in a trinity. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. Appeasement of Lord Shiva is believed to result in health and longevity. Thus, this impressive temple dedicated to Shiva provides a variety of opportunities for worshippers to revere and serve him. According the Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva resides in the Himalayan mountains, in a place called Kailasa. Thus, the Shiva statue is surrounded by replications of the Himalayan mountain range. Water spills forth from the statue's hair, a representation of the holy river Ganga. Before entering the temple, you are required to remove your shoes and wash your feet with water. Inside the temple, visitors walk through dark tunnels that are designed to resemble caves in the Himalayan mountains. In one of the tunnels there is a lingam (abstract representation of Shiva) made of ice. Touching the lingam is believed to bless you. Worshippers light agarbatti (incense) for their loved ones; light candles to float in the water below the statue; make puja to Lord Shiva through offerings of flowers, fruit, and money; and take pictures in front of the iconic statue. Compared to other Hindu temples that I’ve visited, this temple is more commercialized. The entrance fees, package deals, and checkpoints along the route are targeted more towards tourists.

Sri Big Bull Temple and Other Traditional Hindu Temples In contrast to the Shiva temple, the Sri Big Bull Temple, also called the Nandi Temple, is a more serious place of worship. The entrance to the temple is marked by a large golden tower depicting various figures and motifs. Shoes are removed and feet washed outside the temple. Geometric chalk kolam drawings adorn the steps leading into the temple. These drawings are believed to bring prosperity. Inside the temple, a gigantic 15-foot statue of the bull Nandi fills the entire room. Nandi serves Lord Shiva, and is the animal guardian of Kailasa. The statue depicts Nandi lying down, his head upright and dutifully keeping watch over the temple. Long chains of flowers are wrapped around the bull’s neck. Candles and bowls of holy water surround the statue on all sides. Several priests dressed in yellow robes chant and perform rituals. As I approach the statue, a priest dips his ring finger into a bowl of red vermillion powder, raises his hand to my face, and presses his finger onto my forehead. Everyone who enters the temple receives a bindi marking between their eyebrows. The bindi mark has different personal meanings for different people. Traditionally, though, the red dot represents a person’s third eye. This is the location of the sixth chakra, which is the area of enlightenment and connection with energy from the universe. The Bull Temple is located on Bull Temple Road, and multiple other Hindu temples line this same road. I walk barefoot down the street. Several feet away from the Bull Temple, I enter another temple. Inside, a small room with an open doorway sits at the center of the temple. A shrine covered in flowers resides inside the room. Several priests wait in front of the shrine as worshippers line up and take turns peering inside the shrine and bowing to the idol inside. A priest with burning incense approaches me. Following the lead of the other worshippers, I cup my hands around the flame, and then hold them up to cover my face. Next, a priest comes with a silver pitcher. I cup my hands and he pours yellow water into my hands. I hesitate and he encourages, “It’s holy water. You can drink it. It’s holy water.” I nod, bring my hands to my mouth, and pretend to take a sip. I start walking around the shrine, and a woman tells me I’m going the wrong direction. You must walk clockwise around the shrine. Worshippers engage in a wide variety of rituals. One woman spins in circles before the shrine, her palms pressed together and her head bowed. A man takes the offering of holy water and pours it over his head, rubbing it into his skin. The temple is also a center for socializing. A group of girls sit on the floor, whispering beneath a painting of Lord Shiva. The other Hindu temples I’ve visited are been similar. Regardless of the specific deity they are dedicated to, each temple is characterized by idols, puja flowers, offerings of food or money, priests, incense, and powder for bindi markings. Some temples feature paintings of gods and goddess illuminated with flashing LED lights. Other temples contain animatronics representing various deities. Some have a large bell hanging from the ceiling. Worshippers stop underneath the bell, recite a prayer to the idol, then ring the bell. Ancient Mosque The ancient mosque I visit is the first place I’ve seen that is devoid of icons. Islam is characterized by aniconism, which is the avoidance of artistic representations of sentient beings such as God, humans, and animals. As such, abstract designs and Arabic script decorate the walls and ceilings. On one side of the mosque, a stone wall features the ninety-nine names of Allah. The opposite wall contains the ninety-nine names of the prophet Muhammad. The entire mosque is decorated with shiny silver tiles. Colored metallic plates form floral designs, and multiple chandeliers hang throughout the mosque. At the center of the mosque, there ia an old tomb. Chains of flowers are draped across the tomb, serving as a blessing to the deceased. Shoes are removed before entering the mosque. A man dressed in white pants, a white kurta, and a white taqiya enters the mosque. He walks around the tomb, presses his palms together, and then reaches out to touch the tomb. A Note About Caste Despite being outlawed by the government, the caste system is still a prominent feature of Indian society. The word Dalit refers to a person belonging to the group of people called “untouchables.” Mahatma Gandhi coined the term Harijan, or “person of god,” as a more respectful name for the group of people living outside the Indian caste system. Harijan individuals constitute a group called the “scheduled caste.” Remarkably, the Indian caste system transcends religion. Untouchability has been widely categorized as a tenet of Hindu belief, tradition, and ideology. However, institutional social stratification exists in Indian sects of Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity. Members of the lower castes often convert to other religions in an attempt to escape the marginalization of the caste system. Rather than finding sanctuary outside of Hinduism, though, Harijan individuals find themselves subjected to the exact same segregation. For example, lower caste Sikhs are required to take offerings from a separate area than higher caste Sikhs. Harijan Christians often build their own churches rather than face discrimination at higher caste churches. Scheduled caste Muslims are required to worship in the back rows, or even outside of the mosques. Consequently, untouchability is largely a cultural, rather than religious, phenomenon. 

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