As the car sped past the Faculty of Sciences and the Faculty of Performing Arts, I went back in time and could envision myself walking along on those roads in the evenings or driving by on Appu’s scooter and, later, on my own. I knew, the temple was coming up soon, I could see the road beginning to broaden up a little.
‘Here it is,’ I exclaimed to the children, as I saw the large roundel appear in the distance. The car slowed down, turned around the roundel and halted on one side of the road. We filed out of the car, me and the kids, and stood looking around, waiting for others to catch up to us. The façade of the entrance to the temple grounds consisted of an arched doorway with a semi-circle of shops flanking the gate on each side. The shops sold a variety of goods ranging from flowers and sweets for prasadam, to pictures of Hindu deities, to books and cheap jewellery, and fruits. There was even a photo studio there, claiming to click and print some classy pictures of the tourists visiting the temple for a nominal charge. I, for one, had never found either the pictures classy or the charges nominal. Both the photographers and their studio were rather dilapidated and garish. There was a shop selling fresh fruit and fresh fruit juice too, along with some other country snacks and tea. Young couples sat in the shop, around small wooden tables and chatted over cups of steaming tea, oblivious to the crowds around or that they were on temple premises. I smiled involuntarily; I had had my days too, though we had never used the Birla Temple for a date. But times do change, and we should change with them, no?
I stood there, among the children, thinking and smiling to myself. The others soon caught up – Avinash had joined us too, he would accompany us from here to his home for our lunch date. As we stood by the roadside, near the cars, mulling our next move, Macha caught up with us with a paper packet in his hands.
‘Pakodas,’ he declared with his characteristic flourish, and then named a shop which I had totally forgotten, and still cannot recall. The potato dish was apparently a delicacy in Banaras and people flocked from all over the place to eat it. The ‘pakodas’ smelled delicious as they sat steaming inside the packet in Macha’s hands. We were hungry as it was almost lunch time, so we fell on them and they were gone in no time.
‘Let’s go inside,’ someone said, and we all started moving as a group, clicking photos as we went. No one noticed that our generous host, who had sponsored our snack, Macha, had quietly disappeared. This was so typical of Macha – he was not the one to wait on ceremonies. He came, did his job, and took off; not interested in visiting the temple with our families. We took a few pictures near the fountain outside the temple gates, and then proceeded towards the shoe stall to remove and deposit our footwear.
There was a young boy standing in front of the gate, reminding everyone not to go inside the temple premises with their shoes on, and then guiding them to the shoe stall. We noticed, however, that a few youngsters gave him the slip and were roaming around inside the temple grounds in their footwear.
The children noticed this too, and Shubhi walked up to the young man who was policing the shoe stall and said to him indignantly, ‘Why are those boys wearing their shoes inside the temple uncle? Why don’t you ask them to remove their shoes too?’
The man was apparently embarrassed, and replied rather sheepishly, ‘These boys are University students and if we argue with them, they get into fights with us and ransack the property. We do not want to get into trouble here child, so we leave them alone.’
‘But that is so unfair, Papa,’ she said, turning to me now.
‘Yes baby, I know. But that is how life is – unfair. And there will always be such people around who will not conform to rules and will create trouble. It’s best to keep away from them,’ I told her.
From the look on her face, I could tell that she was disappointed.
‘Well this was Banaras,’ I thought, as we moved on inside the temple.
The ground floor of the temple is a huge pillared hall, with frescoes and verses from holy books etched all over its walls. The temple itself is aesthetically finished and would appeal to any person irrespective of his or her religious persuasion. For me, however, it was a double treat. Coming back to the temple after so many years and reading the words of wisdom written on the walls gave me pleasure beyond words.
We walked on straight to the large room at the end of the hall which served as the sanctum or the ‘garbha-griha’. In the middle of this huge room was installed a huge ‘Shiva-lingam’, a stone obelisk which serves as an emblem of Shiva. The ‘lingam’ has often been misunderstood and misrepresented, sometimes deliberately, as a phallic symbol. This, however, is probably not true. In Hindu tantric traditions, the human body is described as being of two types – the physical body, ‘sthool sharira’, and the spiritual or microcosmic body, ‘linga sharira’. Here the word ‘linga’, therefore, means spirit or emblem, and this is the sense in which the stone obelisk has been called ‘Shiva lingam’ – the emblem of Shiva.
To be continued………………………………….
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