The cavalcade moved on to the next destination on our itinerary – the Sankat Mochan temple. The temple is dedicated to the Vaanara deity or Monkey God from Ramayana, the immortal Hindu epic. He is popular across India as Hanuman or Maruti. His other, lesser known name is Sankat Mochan or ‘trouble shooter’, as Maruti rescues his devotees from all sorts of troubles. And thus, Maruti is one of the most popular Gods in the Hindu pantheon and is especially popular with the students who remember him before every examination.
According to folklore, the temple was founded by Goswami Tulsidas, the poet saint who lived in Banaras and composed Ramcharitmanas, the Avadhi version of Ramayana. Hence the temple predates even the Durga Kund temple. The temple premises can be accessed through a side road which veers off from the main road and leads up to the ‘dwar’ or gate of the temple compound. The temple premises are populated by hosts of monkeys, as no one disturbs them here, and also because they get to eat lots of sweetmeats from the devotees who feed them out of devotion towards Hanumanji or Sankat Mochan.
The cars stopped just short of the temple gates in a large enclosure reserved for parking of vehicles. We got down from the cars and I involuntarily grabbed the hands of Shubhi-Meethi, my daughters, to guide them through the temple and also to save them from the occasional mischievous monkey. Before we climbed the steps to the gates of the temple compound, I bent down, touched the ground and brought my hands to my forehead, in a mark of respect to the hallowed grounds that I was entering. My daughters followed suit. I smiled – this was teaching by example; the best way to introduce children to our cultural ethos.
As I walked inside with my girls on both sides and Vaishali following me, I started to tell them how we used to come to the temple during exam times and get prasad for ourselves and our juniors or seniors. I showed them the monkeys and told them why there were so many of them here and why the animals felt protected here, and hence roamed around fearlessly. We walked down to the shoe stall and removed our shoes and socks, and then proceeded towards the tap to wash our hands – the children watched everything with keen eyes.
The whole group crowded in front of the garbh-griha or the sanctum of the temple to get a look at the deity residing within. We folded our hands and bowed our heads to Maruti, and prayed to him to rescue us from our troubles in the same way that he had rescued Ram and Sita from their troubles so many times in the Ramayana. The stone idol of Maruti smiled benevolently at us from a distance, his face painted orange with the ‘mahabiri’ or the saffron paste that is applied all over the God’s idol, and which the devotees apply to their foreheads as a token of his blessings. Maruti comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Marut’. The Maruts were the wind Gods in the Vedic pantheon and Maruti was their offspring, and hence the name.
As we stood in front of the idol, I started to murmur the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ or the forty names of Maruti. The children, mine and others’ included, observed carefully. Murmuring the prayer, I started to do the ‘pradakshina’ or the circumambulation. The children followed me. It felt good, guiding the children, showing them how things are done, introducing them to ‘Indian-ness’. Near the end of our circumambulation, we came to a place with several pots filled with the ‘mahabiri’ or the saffron paste which I promptly applied to my forehead and then proceeded to do the same for the children. A small queue soon formed, as children, and their parents, waited their turn for me to smear their foreheads with the mahabiri.
After we completed our circumambulation, we bowed our heads to the deity once more, in a manner of saying goodbye.
Right across the sanctum of the temple housing the idol of Maruti is another room, or another sanctum, housing the idols of Ram-Sita, the main characters in the epic Ramayana. Maruti himself is a devotee of Ram and hence most of the Maruti temples in India will also have a sanctum housing an idol of Ram. I took the children across the intervening verandah to the other sanctum to pray to the idols of Ram and Sita, his wife. As we turned around, we could see Sridhar distributing prasadam to everyone. He had bought sweets from the sweet shop attached to the temple and, after offering it to the deity, was now distributing it to everyone. The children yelped with joy. My children, Mithi especially, really loved the ‘besan laddu’ which is a typical sweet that is offered to Maruti. The children hounded Sri, and his prasadam was soon finished.
I was worried.
‘The poor fellow must have bought the prasadam for himself and here all of us have finished it off’, I thought.
But I was worrying unnecessarily, Sri looked happy. He had bought the sweets, I realized, for all of us! I was touched. This feeling of being a family would be echoed so many times during the trip by so many people, and every time it would move me like it was the first time. The whole group moved, talked and thought like one big family. This was homecoming, in the true sense!!
To be continued………………………………….
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