Hotel Tirupati

The Hotel Tirupati in New Jalpaiguri (NJP) is a few minutes walk from an important railway junction in West Bengal. Its rooms are comfortable but the hotel has several curious features.

The bedrooms we occupied on two separate occasions contain more lights, each with their own switch, than I have seen anywhere in similarly sized rooms. The lighting included unshaded blue and red light bulbs and a recessed ceiling lamp which bathed the room in a subdued eery blue light.

The rooms in the hotel are arranged around galleries overlooking a covered central light well. The ground floor of the light well, a central courtyard, contains a large effigy of the Hindu deity, the elephant-headed Ganesh (see image above). It forms part of the hotel’s large Hindu shrine. At least twice a day, bells are rung and a pooja is performed. I have not come across this before in my over 25 years of visiting India and its hotels.

The most curious feature of this hotel in NJP is the presence of CCTV cameras not only in the bedrooms but also in their ensuite bathrooms. I never dared to find out their purpose and whether these were in use!

Ignorance is bliss

Many decades ago, ‘M’ and his then young wife ‘F’, both Indian Hindus, settled in the UK. F observed Hindu dietary practices far more than her husband. In the early days after their arrival in England, the couple were not well off. Consequently, if they treated themselves to a meal in a restaurant, they chose one which was not costly.

M used to take his wife out to a Wimpy Bar for a treat. For those of my younger readers, let me explain that the Wimpy Bars were fast food joints, rather like a very inferior version of McDonald’s.

M and F used to order hamburgers. F ate them quite happily, believing that they contained ham and not beef, which contravened her Hindu dietary restrictions. M said nothing to disabuse his wife’s misconception about the ingredients of the burgers, as she greatly enjoyed them.

Many years later, M inadvertantly revealed to F that the hamburgers that she had been enjoying during many visits to Wimpy Bars, contained beef rather than ham. She was horrified to learn this.

Nowadays after decades of happy marriage, the couple have become quite prosperous. I guess that now they would not be seen dead in a Wimpy Bar.

Indian way of worship

Over and over again, I am impressed by the “Indian-ness” of worshipping in India. I will illustrate what I mean by this by describing a small Orthodox Christian chapel I visited on Bazaar Road in the Mattancherry district of Cochin (“Kochi”) in Kerala.

Outside the chapel, there stands a carved stone stand with indentations for oil lamps (diyas). It looks just like any diya stand that you could find in a Hindu temple, except that it is surmounted by a Christian cross.

The crucifix that stood above a small high altar within the chapel was draped with flower garlands (malas). Again, these are commonly found draped around effigies of Hindu deities.

I saw a brass diya stand with burning oil lamps directly in front of the crucifix. Like the lamp stand by the entrance, this one was also topped with a Christian cross.

If one were to replace the crucifix with an effigy of a Hindu deity and were to remove the crosses from the diya stands, the chapel would become identical to a Hindu temple.

The use of diyas and also agarbati sticks (incense sticks) is not confined to Hindu temples. I have seen them used in Christian as well as Islamic (especially Sufi) and Jain places of worship.

At a Sufi shrine at Sarkej Rauza on the edge of Ahmedabad in Gujarat, I have seen tulsi leaves being sold. These are commonly associated with Hinduism, but the vendor in the Sufi shrine told me that they were also used by worshippers who came to the shrine.

I have seen threads tied around the trunks of peepal trees by pious Hindu women hoping to have their wishes granted. I have also seen threads tied by women around pillars in Moslem shrines for the same reason.

Hinduism was probably one of the earliest religious belief systems to become evident in the Indian subcontinent. Christianity and Islam were relatively recent arrivals. Many Hindus converted to these two religions, but, I imagine, they were reluctant to abandon their Hindu heritage completely. Hence, the Hindu-ness or Indian-ness of some aspects of other religions in India.

Hindu burials

Death is a morbid but fascinating topic, as is disposal of the dead. Many people living outside India, including myself, believe that the corpses of Hindus are only cremated. At least, I believed this until about 15 years ago, when I visited a Hindu burial ground in Bangalore.

In a Hindu Burial Ground in Bangalore

I have visited two Hindu cemeteries in Bangalore, one of them being next door to a major electric crematorium in the city centre. When I have asked about Hindu burials, I have been told that some sects of Hindus favour burial rather than cremation.

Recently, I read an article about Hindu burials (in Calcutta) by A Acharya and S Sanyal in the “Mint” newspaper (Bangalore), dated 24 Nov 2018. Here is a brief digest of the points contained within it.

1. Certain groups of Hindus are traditionally immersed or buried.

2. These groups include:

A. Saddhus or ascetics who perform their own mortuary rites when they become saddhus, and are considered to be dead to the social world, living ghosts one might say.

B. Some young children, especially those who have not yet developed visible teeth. Also, some parents prefer to bury their dead offspring, rather than watching them being cremated.

C. Lepers. It used to be feared that a leper’s body might release an infectious vapour during cremation.

D. Some members of the following communities prefer to bury their dead to avoid the dominating behaviour of the Hinduism of the Brahmins: dalits, Vaishnav, Hela, and Kaburpanthi.

3. Sometimes, burial is cheaper than cremation. In Calcutta, burial can cost half of the charge of cremation.

4. Burial of Marwaris and Vaishnavites is more costly than for others because these two groups bury their dead with lots of salt, which they believe speeds disolving the flesh off the bones.

This newspaper piece has helped me to understand the existence of cemeteries where Hindus are buried. I assume that at least some of what has been written about Calcutta also applies to Bangalore.

On a parting note, I used to believe that the traditional method of corpse disposal amongst the Parsis was to feed their dead to the vultures. A Parsi friend of ours died in Bangalore, which has Towers of Silence for the corpses of Parsis, was buried in a Parsi cemetery in Bangalore. I have visited that cemetery, which is located in the district if Malleswaram and is for Parsis only.

All of this goes to show that making generalisations about India is inadvisable. So, before you assert that Hindus do not eat beef, hold your tongue! Some sects of Hindus have eaten beef since time immemorial. If the present government in India bans the consumption of beef, it will not be only Christians and Muslims who will be affected, but also several million Hindus.