A cup of coffee

Somnath in the state of Gujarat is one of India’s important Hindu pilgrimage centres. People flock to the small town to worship in the Somnath Temple (also known as the ‘Deo Patan’). The shrine has been in existence for many centuries, but was demolished by Muslim invaders several times, and re-built after each episode of demolition. The structure you see today was built in the early 1950s.

To enter the temple, one must first divest yourself of cameras, all electronic equipment, and anything made with leather – remember, the cow is sacred in Hinduism.  Although we did not  enter the crowded temple because of the long queue, we watched the line of people waiting to file through the security check point at the temple compound’s entrance. Everyone passed beneath a metal detector archway and then was frisked. But it was a frisking with a difference. The security personnel passed their hands up and down, and close to, each of the visitor’s bodies, but made no physical contact with them.

Far less visited than the temple, but close by, there is a fascinating museum containing artefacts – sculptures and architectural fragments. All of the exhibits had once been parts of the former Somnath temples, which had been destroyed. Part of the collection was housed in a building constructed with domes and pillars from the former reincarnations of the temples.

After viewing the museum on a warm morning in March 2018, we were ready for a drink. It was around 11 am and coffee would have been very welcome, but our chances of finding some were pretty slim because we had discovered that in most of Gujarat coffee is not available in outlets providing drinks. As we walked away from the museum, a lady, hearing us speaking in English, stopped us in the street, and told us that she was a retired English language teacher. Kindly, she asked us to come into her home, next to which we were standing, to join her for a cup of – we could hardly believe what we were hearing – coffee. Full of anticipation, we followed her indoors. She told us that she drank coffee all day.

Our hostess fetched two disposable cups and filled them with hot milk to which she added a few grains of instant coffee powder. She seated us in her living room, and soon we were joined by another lady, who had just dropped in to say hello. At about the same time, some (wild) street dogs also entered the house, and our hostess fed them biscuits. Now, I do not want to sound ungrateful, but it was difficult even to imagine that we were drinking coffee because the amount of coffee she had added to the milk was so little; it was homeopathic in quantity.

After a while, our hostess’s husband arrived home and joined us. A retired businessman, he had become a pandit (a Hindu priest). As with many people we had already met during our travels in Gujarat, the first question he asked my wife was about her caste. In her case, that is not a simple question to answer because her parents, who did not believe in the importance of the caste system, were not from the same caste. In fact, my wife had no idea of what her caste until she was 27 years old.  One of them was a Kayasth. The pandit explained that the Kayasths are offshoots of the Brahmins, but essentially Brahmin. Later, we spoke about the temples in Somnath. He was attached not to the main pilgrimage temple but to a smaller one nearby, which is much older than the Deo Patan. We had visited it earlier in the day. Kindly, he walked with us through the town, helping us find our way back to our hotel, which was near the town’s quite grand railway station.

Although the coffee was not quite what we were hoping for, the disposable cups deserve more of a mention. The Pandit’s wife cannot have been sure of our castes and was too polite to ask. Well, I do not qualify for any reference to the caste system, and she had not asked my wife about her caste, or even whether she is a Hindu. As a devout Hindu, and a pandit’s wife, she could not risk her coffee cups becoming polluted by being touched by people who were not, or might not be, of the right caste. For safety’s sake, she used the cups that could be disposed of after we had touched them.

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