At a temple

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On Sunday evening I was in Jama Masjid, the grand Old Delhi mosque that Mughal emperor Shahjahan built in 1628. The gigantic courtyard was taken over by hundreds of men, women and children. Its open space made the dark blue sky look as vast as an ocean. The domes, minarets and ramparts of the mosque were strung with fairy lights. It was about time to break the roza. People were sitting on the stone floor in groups of families and friends, circling iftari platters of sliced fruits, spiced chickpeas, vegetable fritters, potato chips, and soft drink bottles. The monsoon breeze was bringing relief from the season’s humidity.

At 7.10 pm, a great boom thundered through the mosque, signaling the end of the fast. Another boom followed. Everyone started to eat. Everyone was quiet. It was a beautiful moment.

But my dear Pakistani friends, in this holy month of Ramzan, I want you to sample Delhi’s Hindu heritage.

Situated near Dilli Gate, at the entrance of the Walled City, Shri Shiv Mandir is the most beautiful Hindu temple in the capital. It can truly claim, among all Hindu shrines in the city, to best preserve the essence of this faith. The temple, like the religion, is a showpiece of contrasts. Depending on individual sensibilities, it can be perceived as dignified or showy, soulful or superficial, familiar or exotic.

Of course, the Indian capital has grander temples: Akshardham Mandir in east Delhi, Chhatarpur Mandir in south Delhi and Birla Mandir in central Delhi. But they are too organised and too imposing, characteristics more of Islam, than of Hinduism, a religion that has no definitive prophet or holy book. These three temple complexes seem to miss the essence of Hinduism, a faith in which one could find the God in… well, a pebble. Shri Shiv Mandir – so small that you can walk around it in two minutes – is closer to that idea without being any less substantial.

Tucked at one end of a three way crossing in Daryaganj and clinging to a kachori-subzi stall, the temple has no stately flight of stairs, and no tower of stone. The giant statue of a blue-bodied Shiv – the god of destruction – seated in a yogic posture, watches the world from the roof. The temple’s marble floor is almost level with the road. At the entrance is the statue of Kal Bhairav, a scary-looking incarnation of Shiv. Worshipped by the cannibalistic Aghora sadhus, Bhairav is sculptured in black marble. A cobra (in stone) crawls round his neck. One of Bhairav’s six arms is holding a whiskey bottle. Another arm is carrying somebody’s head. The lips are painted blood red. A sculptured black dog is under his legs. A garland of fresh marigolds is flung around Bhairav’s neck. Some worshipper has put a similar garland on the dog too.

The temple’s principal praying room is crowded with gods: the black Shani Devta, the grey Shiva Lingam and a couple of deities in white marble: Ganesh, Shiv, Parvati, Radha, Krishna, the Nandi bull and the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who was actually a Muslim saint. Some statues are draped in gold-embroidered silk clothes. Most gods look friendly.

The visual centerpiece inside the temple is the gigantic peepal tree. A marble platform not more than two feet high has been built around its massive trunk. The part of the trunk that emerges out of the platform is smeared with an orange-coloured paste. This smudge is Balaji, an incarnation of Hanuman, the god of wind.

Earlier, the tree was in what would have been a courtyard. A few years ago, the temple was renovated and a brick roof blocked off the sky. Now the trunk goes through the roof, beyond which it breaks into a network of slanting branches. A makeshift staircase, installed beside the Shiv lingam, takes you, through a circular opening, to the roof, perpetually covered with fallen peepal leaves. Standing behind Shiva’s statue, you look down to see the Daryaganj people: street food hawkers, maimed beggars, smack addicts, stray dogs and occasional tourists. This noisy world vanishes when you climb down back into the temple.

For more than a thousand years, Muslims have largely ruled Delhi. Most of the city’s monuments – the tombs, domes and forts – were built during the reigns of Lodhis, Tughlaks and Mughals. Delhi’s celebrated cuisine – the kebabs, niharis and biryanis – was developed in the halal kitchens. The city reached its literary zenith during the dying years of Mughal Empire. The era’s most famous poet, Mirza Ghalib, was a Muslim. During this glorious Islamic civilisation, Delhi continued to remain a Hindu-majority city.

How did Hinduism survive? I won’t give the credit to Vedas and Upnishads – just how many could have read highbrow epics in a land of illiterates? I think Hinduism survived because Hindu gods have always been so divine, so sinful, so kind, so terrifying, so decent, so naughty… so like us (some of them even drink whiskey!). And also because in Hindusim anyone or anything – including a tree – can be a god. If you don’t believe me, come to Delhi and visit Shri Shiv Mandir.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.

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