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Puja: God and Money in the Indian Subcontinent

Observing the Sacred and the Profane While Exploring India

Painted Ganesh elephant god in India outside the temple.
Painted elephant, symbolic of the Ganesh elephant god, outside the busy entrance to the Siva Temple. Photo by Stuart Braun.

“But I’m not a Hindu,” I reply.

Reflections on Spirituality and Mundanity in Puja Celebrations

“You can take puja, sir. It is all one god,” incants the man sitting lotus in the sand, sandal paste smudging his forehead, that distinctive sideways nod as he speaks, hands gestured prophetically to the heavens.

A holy man is offering me salvation on a beach in Kerala, South India. This fishing village is home to a 2000-year-old Hindu temple. It is above a cliff where budget travelers swarm for cheap rooms, beer, sex, and the unobscured roar of the Arabian Sea.

Varkala Beach is another paradise in the subcontinent's spice basket. It is a blonde sandy stretch flanked by lipstick laterite cliffs and bounded further east by the emerald, aromatic range known as the Western Ghats. In the coming days, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will arrive in Varkala, washing themselves in the purifying waters while casting offerings to the dead whose ashes were dispersed from this shore.

But I don’t trust this priest on the beach, one of many who have set up mobile shrines to offer absolution to the coming hordes. “One god,” indeed. To give puja is to receive rupees, and no man in India can resist a transaction.

Consumerism and Commerce During Religious Festivities in India

It’s been said that religion breeds corruption. India is the holiest place on earth. In India, everybody wants to rip you off. Such has been my sometimes cynical, bitter, but not quite twisted view in the weeks since arriving in India.

But what underlies the traveler's frustrations here? India is the voyager crossroads, where foreigners must suspend disbelief and consider why they sometimes feel aggrieved and what motivates the agent of such disbelief. These questions emerge as we skirt the storied southern tip of the subcontinent.

We fly directly into Tamil Nadu, India’s Deep South, to Tiruchirappalli, a rough-hewn temple town with a shiny airport. Untouched by Mogul hordes that vanquished much of the north, the state of Tamil Nadu is a lodestar for India’s oldest religious monuments, an ancient repository for five millennia of Hindu faith.

We’re tempted to visit Tiruchirappalli’s Rock Fort, a seventh century shrine built on a 3.8-billion-year-old rock formation, Regardless, the city’s dusty, downtrodden visage puts fear in us. We are somehow anxious to find something, and this is not it. We take the next best option, a six-hour bus ride south to the feted temple city of Madurai.

Our middle-aged bus, driven by a bar-footed man who swallows small packets of chewing tobacco (gutkha) with the regularity of passing traffic before flinging the sachet into the wind, drifts down a lone flat “highway,” the scenery a little underwhelming, expanses of sand, rock, spindly Deccan thorn trees as prickly as the heat, occasional spots of dusty color and commerce: spare banana stalls attended by stooped women in brilliant shawls; ragged, sun-bleached cell phone stands; men huddled over piles of garlic on the ground; boys decapitating coconuts in fell machete swoops. Business is made by open sewers, while discarded plastic leaches into the dirt. Apart from incongruous evidence of mobile communications, the most remarkable technology is the sight of scraggy men riding warped bicycles from the time of Ghandi.

On the raw Deccan plateau, there isn’t a drop of rain from November until April. It is July, and the cracked earth screams to the heavens, willing the late monsoon again. Some locals, especially older people, don’t have enough to eat. Questions. What are we doing here? Like some fellow travelers, I have tended to romance underdevelopment and simplicity. But the feeling has quickly turned to complicity. Luckily, I’m antipodean — it is far easier to blame the British.

When arriving at the swarming Madurai bus station, there are more questions. Beggars, vagabonds, blind people, but mostly children, their mothers waiting in the wings, are all now stuck to us like flies. We hand out foodstuffs, mainly biscuits and bananas. It is not enough, not what they want, but it buys us space and time to make it to the exit.

And now begins the interminable process of negotiation, a ritual as Indian as the Taj. Knowing we are fresh from the airport, a lascivious mob of taxi wallahs solicits us with offers of passage to the city center via auto-rickshaw. We select a young driver and try to agree on a price. Other drivers start to get involved, the older barefooted in stained brown uniforms, the younger sporting spangled jeans and plastic sandals.

This is the prickly moment when two neatly separated worlds suddenly and inexplicably collide. Here is a man who works for very little, has no surplus income, will struggle to feed his loved ones, and dreams he can one day borrow money and make it to Australia or America to work below minimum wage. And we are trying, based on good traveler advice, to beat him down by 50 cents. Why? Is it because we implicitly believe he is working for us that we could not wander around India for our wanderlust if he was better compensated? He will never see the Taj and probably never see the palm trees of Kerala just across the mountains. We are standing face-to-face, and he is demanding reparations.

Madurai’s vast, vainglorious Meenakshi Temple was built more than 1000 years ago by a Padya King to honor Lord Shiva, god of creation and destruction. He is said to have anointed the temple with divine nectar (“Madhu,” after which the city was named) flowing from his dreaded locks. Constructed around 50,000 granite pillars, the main pantheon is one of numerous additions to a place of worship founded in 1600 B.C.

Inside the labyrinthine shrine, worshippers prostrate before the multiform deities, and an elephant, a representation of Ganesh, god of good fortune, distributes trunked blessings in return for rupees. We dispense money at every turn: to beggars and elephants, for garlands to adorn the Ganesh statues, for trinkets, a hidden camera fee, a museum fee. Here, religion and commerce are the twin pillars of sub-continental life. But maybe the two are inseparable — our temple is the arcade.

Madurai teems with pilgrims, vagabonds, merchants, bovines, pirate entertainment peddlers, the local Dravidian men marked by thick hair and elegant, robust mustaches, their bandy legs protruding from hitched loin cloths (dhoti). Colorful, a cacophony, but finally a mad house, airwaves stung by jarring, high-pitched dissonance, horns screaming from every rickshaw, taxi, and truck in town. In India, this is typical, something you get used to. But as a first stop, the noise, heat, debris, and relentless human tide — in a city of only one million — loom as unimaginable chaos.

We Try a Run for the Ghat Mountains

So we run for the mountains, like the British before us, cultured colonials who built stone cottages in cool hill stations. Ascending the Ghats — the dividing range separating arid Tamil Nadu in the east from tropical Kerala in the west — is a thrill. It is a sudden and steep rise from sea level until the road drives deep into the range, 2000 meters above, to the quaint but expanding hill town of Kodaikanal.

We stay a night in a sandstone bungalow built by the British in the 20s, with hedgerows framing rose gardens, still known as Dalethorpe. We pay the taxi driver his fee on arrival with a tip. Unknown to us, he collected his payment again from our host. The latter isn’t surprised when the ruse is exposed. Collecting rent from the colonials, I start to think. My partner is angry.

We want to follow some advice and explore an organic farm and sanctuary perched on the granite steps of the Ghats. We are on the run. We need to immerse ourselves in the dream of India but have barely slept and have not stayed anywhere for more than a night. But as E.M. Foster warned, finding India is like finding the center of a cloud.   

Karuna Farm is a vertical sweep of coffee, banana, mango, and avocado, a permaculture village offering accommodations in traditional stone huts, limited solar power, and even fireplaces to take the edge off cold nights. It’s worth negotiating the steep, rocky trail to find this vision of Shangrila maintained long after it was marked on the hippy trail. Pioneers from Israel and England are building a yoga studio from dirt and an earthship (a home constructed with tires filled with soil for ultimate thermal mass). At the same time, a young German family is stopped for six months in their hideaway that surveys the endless, oceanic undulation of the Ghats.   

The farm owner, Nevil, is an Indian mountain mystic and stalwart of the ’60s who talks of the world's corruption. Big, elegantly spoken, his face submerged in a prophetic long gray beard, Nevil presides proudly over his dominion dotted with foreign dreamers, all organized, hardworking, determined to leave the West behind, to make a go of it in this vertiginous eastern frontier. Karuna, the name of the farm, means compassion. Nevil began the project almost 25 years ago when he followed a sign from Krishna. He is putting back, he says, and thereby subverting the consumer/consumption paradigm.

By bus, we cross the Ghats into Kerala. We travel all day, hopping dusty old carriages connecting the mountain towns. Traveling is relaxed, and the nominal fare (20 cents) must not be negotiated. We watch the verdure condense as the bus penetrates the western side of the range, the latter a beneficiary of the twice-yearly monsoon — unique to this region — dumps between the mountains and the Arabian Sea coast. Large tea and cardamom plantations come into view. All else is jungle.

A landscape of the Western Ghats in India.
A landscape in the Western Ghats of India.

The Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary stretches nearly 1,000 square kilometers across the Western Ghats. Elephants and tigers (less than 50 of the latter have survived the poachers) tramp the wilderness, which ushers the promise and wonder of Kipling’s India.

Sanctified by the guidebooks in the 1980s, the traveler ghetto that flanks the sanctuary is today overrun by Kashmiri merchants and attempts at upmarket accommodation. We opt for a $10 room in a basic inn, a last refuge for the dreadlocked and tattooed wayfarers that once pioneered these climes.

The Kashmiris, who come from the significant trading byways of the Silk Road, with selling in their blood, accost us the minute we enter the main street. This is not the jungle we’re looking for. The chorus continues: “Sir, please sir, madam, sir, come and look in my shop, sir, sir, a pashmina for the madam, sir”. Everyone is our friend. Some follow us. “Where are you from? Oh really, a great country, sir, please, come and enjoy some tea in my shop, sir, sir, please, ok sir, next time, remember your promise, sir.” It’s the quiet season. We try to hide. There is no escape.

Yielding in a moment of weakness after fending off streams of rickshaw drivers and bauble sellers, we are shanghaied by a tour guide possessed with a Steve Irwin-like passion for Periyar as a refuge. He is from the local tribe and wants to pass on his knowledge to ensure the future of this biosphere. He also needs our fee to safeguard his family’s future. He struggles to get by with no social security, no savings, and visitors thin on the ground.

As we enter the forest, our guide describes the day he saw a tiger along this same track and his fear and euphoria as the beast traveled straight across his path. We cross high country, the “clouds” walk, see the spiced mountains cutting high across Kerala’s eastern edge, and then drop down into the leech-spiked mud where wild elephants can appear. " Very suddenly,” whispered our guide, as if we might never emerge from this last habitat.

With an ear to the ground, our guide detects a potentially destructive bison on our trail, which we see just ahead before running in reverse. We weave surreptitiously down the valley, taking in the spectral tropical flora, a spring of fear in our step. En route to H.Q., we disgorge cash at a local village — the inevitable “shop stop” that our guide pretends is a coincidence — buying the purest wild honey in all of Kerala, a cure-all that will keep us strong in the weeks and months ahead.

We Venture Off The Beaten Track and Meet Locals

We feel good for having met a local and venturing off the trail. Suddenly, we get talking to another habitué, the owner of our inn. He shows us to a drying area for our muddy clothes and proudly identifies his homegrown spice garden as guests sleep in surrounding tree houses.

This erudite man, aged 50, not with gray hair on his head, is proud of Kerala — long the poster child of Ghandian communism, the state claims over 90 percent literacy — but is cynical about much else. Like the great novelist Arundhati Roy, whose God of Small Things is set nearby, he traces his lineage to St. Thomas, the Syrian apostle who proselytized to the Dravidians in the first century A.D. — Kerala today is 50% Christian, though most succumbed to the Roman brand introduced by Vasco da Gama in the 1500s.

Our host introduces his botanical life work — Ayurvedic herbs collected from as far as the Himalayas, plus coffee, custard apple, passion fruit, mango, honey, papaya, curry leaf, and vanilla — while showing where samba deer and porcupines eat from his hand. He holds a microcosm of India’s true riches, those not derived from religion, a heritage plundered without end since the Arabs first hauled spice from this hinterland 3,000 years ago, followed by the Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and the English...

One night in his restaurant, as an exasperated Belgian man rails against special foreigner entry prices at sites like the Taj Mahal (foreigners pay 750 rupees, locals 10), our host chimes in with his own railing. “Most Indians have nothing. Why? Why is Belgium so rich,” he asks the man, enraged. He has been reading the paper and is full of his reasoning and contradictions as a man of privilege. But no longer having to bow to the colonizer. It has never been a level playing field. Now, given the chance, the locals will take what they can.

We head for the coast. Descending the Ghats by local bus, we first traverse tea-hedged highlands before easing into rubber-baron country. Pink and orange mansions stand out among the plantations, the most prosperous cash crop in South India. Suddenly, large billboards rear up along the road, massive images of beautiful women garlanded in gold jewelry.

Exploring Kerala, "God's Country," and the Cleansing Rituals at Varkala Beach

Kerala, militantly communist and adorned with hammers and sickles, is also bonkers for bullion — as we circle through larger towns, gold souks rival food markets.

Self-proclaimed “God's own country, gateway to paradise,” Kerala is revered for its sparkling backwaters, a vast network of coconut-hemmed lakes and canals running the length of the southern Arabian coast. From Kottayam — grown rich on rubber and the first Indian city to achieve 100 percent literacy — we jump a commuter ferry traversing the Keralan inland sea.

Aboard the aging, squat wood ferry, we creep along canals as school children pile in. Dressed in British primary school blue, the exuberant children filter out at lonely aquatic outposts, islands holding three or four basic concrete homes, and watery parishes more often dedicated to Jesus than Shiva. As tributaries feed into lakes and oceans, these hamlets float tenuously on a widening water mass.

And passing by our commuter chug, traditional Keralan sea craft turned well-appointed houseboats, handsome gondolas with palm pagodas, floating villas rented by the week by foreigners, or owned outright by India’s new golden generation. Trailing the backwaters with the amphibious locals, sinewy fisher folk who at best might own a canoe, the passing plump families enjoying service on their lavish decks seem unreal.

A night later, we make Varkala Beach via the train line that funnels Kerala’s population up and down the flat coastline, crossing, Jesus-like, the monsoonal estuaries that seep in every direction. Our second-class carriage is comfortable if ragged, sometimes suffocating, but wonderfully chaotic as tea wallahs climb between passengers crammed on the floor, hanging off upper bunks, screaming “chai, chai, chai, chai” in a deep staccato, and gypsies, accompanied by harmonium, wail ragas for rupees.

Varkala Beach, its prime cliff-top drowning for much of the year in unhinged wanderers from the four corners, is now ghostly. Most restaurants and bars are shuttered in the face of a hulking Arabian Sea. I await the monsoon here while my partner heads into the emerald forest to an ashram. This is finally our chance to stop.

The reggae bars, Ayurvedic resorts, guesthouses, and Internet cafes crowding the Varkala cliff-top were away 10 or 15 years ago. Apart from fishing, the only commerce consisted of a few thatched cottages selling coconuts and cloth for puja (ceremonial worship). The constant had been the temple, which adjoins a spring-fed pool set in a stone amphitheater. For 2000 years, the Hindu has come here to wash away illness and trouble.

People in white towels and clothes on the beach for ceremonies.
The purification of masses at Varkala Beach. Photo by Stuart Braun.

I seek alternative routes to the sea. I travel daily to fill my bottle at the mineral spring, the storied point in the cliff face that percolates holy water. If I stop for a time on the beach, an intense man, younger and middle-aged, hardened by the sun, seemingly destitute, always comes to tell my fortune. He promises that my future is bright. It’s doubtful he makes such promises to himself.

Though tourism has invigorated the local economy, profits flow to the few. I have been talking to Arkash, a worker at my guesthouse who brings me lunch each day, a culinary kaleidoscope of curries and dhals (thali). This tall man, who walks around barefooted in his hitched dhoti, makes the equivalent of $2.50 a day and cannot afford to keep his young wife on a dialysis machine. He wonders what he can do, for he is lucky to have this job, the opportunity to work seven days, and yet can hardly survive.

Arkash has never left Kerala. I wonder if he dreams about seeing the world like I have. But he knows that such dreaming is futile, even for his child. And maybe that is why so many of his kin have arrived on this day, the July black moon, to dip in the waters of a beach properly called Papanasam, meaning redemption from sin.

The crowd is swelling to three or four hundred thousand. People come to commune with god to receive absolution. A phalanx of bare-chested men lining the shore flush themselves in the tepid waters of this “Varanasi of the south.”

As the procession builds, lepers and the maimed are surreptitiously dropped off at crucial points between the temple and the beach — sometimes in the middle of the road in an attempt to attract maximum custom. My head shakes at this brand of opportunism. But almost everyone, it seems, is attempting to sell something, a fairground-like expanse of food and trinket stalls erected along the kilometer stretch between the spring pool and Papanasam, both now thrashing with humanity.

The priests administering the puja ritual on the beach are the final collection point. Hundreds are gathered before these bared, saffron-robed clerics. Mass renunciations are performed for a fee before the devotees fall into the water, and offerings (rice and flowers sent on bamboo rafts) are dispensed to the dead whose remains were also cast from this shore.

Are We All One Before God in India?

It is getting late, and one wiry, wizened priest, wearing a shiny silver watch I spied earlier counting his rupees, offers me puja. I want to be ready. I am not a Hindu. We are all one before god, he says. But I am suspended between belief and disbelief.

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