All along the highway people were setting up colorful tents where they would serve food for the worshipers coming to the Ekling Ji Temple for the Shiva Festival the next day.
As we got closer to the temple there were temporary barriers made from bamboo poles. The next day people would line up for miles inside the barriers waiting to worship at the temple.
Ekling Ji is in the middle of a small village. Most of the people visiting it that day were Indian tourist.
I left my shoes with the others at the entrance and got in line, walking bare foot on the red AstroTurf carpet that led to the temple. Women were sitting just inside the gate handing out garlands of flowers, flower petals, leaves and what I think was shredded coconut, to make offerings.
I felt conspicuous among the worshipers, but not uncomfortable.
One man asked me where I was from. It was then I noticed that I was standing in a line of men, and to my right were all the women and children. I looked at the older woman, the drape of her orange sari covering her head, standing next to me. She seemed to read my mind and motioned for me to get in line in front of her.
Soon there was the sound of a bell and a voice came over a loud-speaker. The people around me responded. They went back and forth a few times, then the heavy wooden doors to the temple opened.
Like the Nagda Temple the area was made up not just of one building, but one large indoor sanctuary and other smaller buildings which had alters to different gods inside of them.
The AstroTurf ended and now I could feel the cool ancient marble beneath my bare feet. It’s one of the things I immediately loved. Being able to walk barefoot in the temples. The bottoms of my feet touching the worn steps and walkways that so many other feet have touch over the centuries. That sensation of being in such close physical contact with the sacred ground.
The line continued single file. A man was drumming and we circled a roped off area with the statue of a bull in the middle of it. People ducked under the rope touching and kissing the bull’s head and leaving offerings of flowers on it.
We made our way into the ornately carved interior of the temple. Alters to gods lined the walls and in the center of the space musicians and singers surrounded another statue of a bull. Again people made offering of flowers and coconut shavings. The woman in front of me turned around and said to me ” You like this?”
I grew up going to a Catholic Church. There was a time in my life when I was looking for religion. But I was never able to make sense of the masses we went to. I never felt any connection to them.
It probably has something to do with not having any knowledge of the meaning of the ceremony, not being able to understand the language and just making the connection on a visceral level that appealed to me.
I responded emotionally to the music and singing of the Aarti ceremony. I felt the devotion of the worshipers. It seemed like a celebration, and yes, I was enjoying it. So much, that it made me want to dance.
The line broke up after that and people wandered around the grounds visiting the smaller building with alters in them. Most of the gods were unrecognizable to me. And the worn stone blurred their features. But on the way out I saw two alters for Ganesha. They both had aluminum foil molded over the sculpture of the elephant god, making him shiny, his big belly, ears and trunk easy to distinguish.
I got my shoes and headed back to the taxi. My senses full and my need to see some ancient Indian art satisfied.
I was looking forward to getting back to my room and googling the Aarti Ceremony, finding out the names and meanings of the gods I saw statues of.
But there was something pure about experiencing the temple with very little knowledge it. To experience them bodily and emotionally. And find a connection on a guttural level.
I found I entered the space more with my heart and body than with my mind. I wasn’t applying information onto what I was seeing. I was gathering information with my senses.
As I walked back to the taxi there was a medium-sized, white cow on the road. When I passed her, she turned her head and pressed the top of it gently into my belly. I stepped away from her, touching her head with my hand, putting space between us.
I don’t know if she was trying to butt me or nudging me like our donkeys do to get attention. It was unexpected, but it didn’t feel aggressive. Some of the people around me smiled and pointed.
I smiled back, wondering what to make of it all.
I was ready to get back to the hotel, but trip didn’t end there. James had a couple of other ideas about places to visit.