Yesterday began normal enough when I set out to visit my doctor in Delhi.
I think his name is Shashi Mohan. See, I get them mixed up since I’ve seen five doctors in the last two months.
Dr. Mohan’s office is way out in southeast Delhi, a stone’s throw away from Lotus Temple.
After my appointment, I thought I’d slip over to investigate the temple.
High-fives all around because the doctor said I’m 99% well. Oh, yeah! And these days my brain is working on all four cylinders for a change.
I was in a good mood and commandeered an auto rickshaw to take me to the temple.
How strange, the rickshaw got surrounded by a large crowd. A wall of humans hit us.
“What’s going on? A festival?”
When I listened past the constant honking of Delhi, another sound distinguished itself. The ringing of cacophonous voices.
I’ve been so holed up in my hotel room; the outside world has been shut off these days.
“Yes.. some festival.”
We got to Lotus and it was dead. The fence sealed shut. A sign hung outside telling me it’s closed on Mondays.
I then asked him to take me to the nearest metro, thinking I pushed it too far. I may be 99%, but that 1% is unknown.
Fully expecting him to drive 10 kilometres, he swiftly turned around and stopped. A concrete set of tracks rose up in the distance, the metro logo that harkens to London’s underground tube stared me in the face.
Oh, we’re here.
I got out, but kept seeing trickles of people gravitating towards this one spot off the road. And cops. Men in tan or camouflage uniforms swallowed the area.
Roadblock signs with the sober words “Delhi police” barely stopped traffic. When an Indian wants to get somewhere, nothing stops them.
Hawkers had overtaken the sidewalk. I saw someone selling peacock feathers. For what, I wondered. Ice cream and refreshments carts appeared every few meters like weeds. It had to be 37º C, so the frequency of customers was plentiful.
Fold out tables with steaming pots of dal and plates of crispy puri acted as filling stations. Hoards of families lined up to grab their portion. People ate wherever space could be found. On the curb, sitting cross-legged on the ground.
My feet ducked around disposal plates. One side a silver color, the other a creamy white. I felt irreverent and guilty, like I was stepping on my mother’s doilies.
Everyone I encountered was barefoot. I mean, everyone. You’re only ever barefoot either by choice or when entering a temple.
I stopped a man in a white shirt, his beige pants rolled up to reveal dirty feet.
“What’s going on? A festival?”
“Narita. There.” I kept thinking I heard him wrong, but wasn’t sure. Sometimes r’s get muddled in translation.
When I came to the entrance, there were full body scanner gates, similar to what you find at an airport. Police were inside with handheld metal detectors.
I saw nobody giving money or anyone barred from entry.
My eyes darted to a pile of dusty flip-flops. I knew what I had to do. I took off my shoes, held them, and smiled serenely as I stepped through the gate. The cops didn’t blink, only smiled back, waving at me to come in.
Let me stress there were no other foreigners. Let me also stress that what I was walking on was not a swept temple floor. It was pure pavement, my feet trampling trash and a black, gummy substance stuck into the concrete.
Cattle like gates spilt crowds entering and leaving. A singe in the air made me feel like I was on the march towards something large. A bolt of energy was straight ahead. The epicenter of it all was a temple spire. My instinct told me to get there.
I passed hawker after hawker with puja items for sale. Bags of rice spilling off their tables, fragrant garlands that stymied the stench of garbage, to stop me from thinking my feet must smell the same by now. I picked up a coconut; its rough hewn shell always reminds me of straw sewn together tightly. I put it down, half deciding to not buy puja.
One could easily label this a typical festival day. It was more.
Worship is alien to me. It materialized abruptly as a woman in a flower pattern sari with her identity covered lay face first on the pavement. The deafening noise drowned out any prayers she made, but I knew they were alive in her throat. She would get up, walk a few inches, and then dive for the pavement again, displaying her devotion inch by inch until she reached the temple.
The swell of the crowd grew in proportion and nosie the closer I got to the temple entrance. Swarms of people held their bags of offerings, pushing by me, seemingly in a rush.
I hung back and watched, unsure what to do. That little voice of adventure whispered to me. Go, go. Are you crazy? Go!
I awkwardly tried to join the throng. Rapid-fire dialogue spat out between families. Nobody paused to stare at me, only intent on emptying their puja bags. The rush exploded when I stepped inside. Pictures wouldn’t do, so I switched to video mode.
My body was squished against other sweaty bodies. The heat of so many swirled and crackled, emitting a curry and perfume odor. I heard a consistent banging, finally noticing worshippers slamming coconuts against the temple walls. People were jostling to be the first to get to windows that oddly mimicked a ticket counter, with a clerk on the other side waiting for instructions. Instead of money, they were collecting offerings. The chanting grew loud, then died, leaving the excited chatter of the crowd as background noise.
I was knee-deep in pandemonium:
I could see a priest through the grilles giving blessings as person after person yielded to him. The temple entrance alluded me, but what didn’t were the crowds.
Pushing began to intensify, until we were swaying in an unwanted waltz of mob over body.
The headline flashed before me.
Stupid solo traveler in over her head trampled to death. Haha!
Instead of pushing back or resisting, I ebbed and flowed with the crowd. My feet weren’t even moving, the crowd dictated where I went next. Bodies of all shapes and sizes suffocated me. I felt outlines of hips, the plane of an arm or the arc of a child’s head.
I actually wasn’t scared, feeling no balls of anger hurled at me. They were just full of unadulterated passion. What mattered was giving their offering and obtaining blessings. Squaring more favor with the gods and cheating bad luck. We all want that.
We moved around and around in a semi-circle until I saw an exit gate. Uniformed cops faced us, calming down the unruly ones. A man behind me kept jabbing my backside, speaking in Hindi, pulling his son along. I could smell his desire to get out.
The gate spat us out. We stood in mild shock, our senses and brains attempting to process the last five minutes, blinking against the late day sun. That’s when I heard the gong of bells.
Fervent worship was over.
I walked down steps, seeing stalls on either side selling powder for tikka, bangles or cool covers for your mobile. The whole area was one big worship fair. What that man called “narita” was only the warm up to Navami.
Oh, my god.
I laughed at what just happened.
And I started at the doctor. It’s serendipitous how you start at point A, only to turn left, zig zag around a maze, and then end up at point Z.
Destinations, are they nothing or everything?
I am crazy.
It was the most fun I’ve had in two months.
Ram Navami recounts the birth of Lord Rama to King Dasharatha and Queen Kausalya of Ayodhya. The festival falls on the Navami, the ninth day of the month in the Hindu calendar. Many regions celebrate in a variety of ways. Some areas stretch the festival over the nine days of Navratras, which includes extensive kirtan, bhajan, and distribution of prasad after puja and aarti is performed. In south India, ceremonies are performed with small deities to mark the wedding anniversary of Rama and his consort, Sita. North India (where I am) typically hold fairs in connection with the festival.