Temples and a palace

THE DELWARA JAIN TEMPLE COMPLEX close to Mount Abu opens to tourists at noon. We arrived at about 11 am and our driver, Zakir, suggested we visit the local museum, which turned out to be a handicraft shop.

We were directed upstairs to the fabric department and invited to sit down whilst a salesman told us about the products, which had been made locally, thereby providing employment to about 4500 locals. No obligation to buy, of course! However, we wanted a razzai, a bed quilt like an eiderdown, and after having been shown numerous examples we settled on one. Its price was greater than we were prepared to pay. We were told that the prices were not negotiable. Both the salesman and his manager told us that they could offer us cups of tea or coffee but not reductions in price. We pointed out that as kind as that was, it would only save us about 20 to 40 Rupees.

We had been in the shop, I mean ‘museum’, for almost an hour and I was becoming restless. I think that when the manager noticed this, he felt that there was a real risk that he would lose a sale. He sold us the razzai, having reduced the price by a third.

The Delwara Jain temple complex contains several temples, two of which are well over 600 years old: one dates back to the 11th century AD. Sadly photography is not permitted within the temples. Words cannot do justice to the beautiful intricate stone carvings that adorn these places of worship. Even photographs, if they had been allowed, would only hint at the perfection of the carving and their fine artistry. The precision and sharp definition of this ancient carving done by hand rivals what can be done with the most hi-tech computerised cutting devices. I have never visited the Taj Mahal, but I believe that these temples are even more breathtakingly beautiful than the famous monument at Agra. You will have to see it yourself, and then you will know what I mean.

Mount Abu was the summer resort for the rulers of the princely states of Rajputana, now Rajasthan. Many of them built lavish summer palaces, some of which are now used as ‘heritage’ hotels. Zakir drove us to the Kishangarh House hotel. Kishangarh was a tiny state near Ajmer in Rajasthan. Its population was 91000 in 1901. Its Maharaja built his palace at Mount Abu on sloping ground, which was transformed into terracing and surrounded by terraced gardens. We ate snacks there and were shown the rooms available for hire. Of all the former royal palaces I have seen in India, this looks to be the most comfortable. Even the lowest priced rooms are huge and extremely well appointed.

Zakir dropped us back in town in the town bazaar, as opposed to the touristic market area. There are numerous shops in picturesque winding streets.

Before returning to our hotel for a much needed rest, we bought some socks from a wayside stall. As is expected of customers, we bargained a little. When we agreed on a slightly lower price than the salesman asked initially, he said (in Hindi), maybe hoping to shame us into paying a little more:
“Will you feel better if you buy the socks at the lower price?”
We replied: “much better.”

Hindu reform in Bangalore

IN AN AREA OF BANGALORE FILLED WITH TRADITIONAL HINDU TEMPLES, I STUMBLED ACROSS A CENTRE WHERE A REFORMED VERSION OF THE RELIGION IS PRACTISED.

FINDING SOMEWHERE THAT I HAD NOT NOTICED BEFORE IS OFTEN FASCINATING. I have often been driven past this particular place in central Bangalore at speed. One day, I walked past this compound, located close to RBANM’s Ground, at a leisurely pace and discovered that it contains three buildings arranged around a rectangular garden. The two side buildings are typical old Bangalorean structures with verandahs and monkey-top woodwork as well as other typical traditional architectural ornamentation. The central building facing the street but separated from it by the garden has a simple facade supported by four plain pillars with Doric capitals. A stone embedded in the outer wall of the compound reads “Brahma Mandir 1879”. This compound contains the buildings belonging to the Bangalore Brahmo Samaj.

The Brahmo Samaj is one of the attempts to reform the practise of Hinduism. Founded in about 1828 in Bengal, it was a monotheistic form of Hinduism. The Brahmo Samaj was not the only reforming movement in 19th century India, but, like Arya Samaj, it became one of the better known and enduring attempts to reform Hinduism.

In my recent book “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets, I have tried to show how the two sets of reformers differ:
The Arya Samaj, in common with the Brahmo Samaj, strove to reform Hinduism, but differed from the Brahmo Samaj in many respects. Members of Arya Samaj had no faith in the goodness of the British Government, whereas the opposite was true for the Brahmo Samaj. Arya Samaj believed in the superiority of Hinduism over other religions, whereas the Brahmo Samaj put Hinduism on the same level as other religions. Another of many differences between the two movements was that Arya Samaj wanted to revive Vedic traditions and to reject modern western culture and philosophy, whereas the Brahmo Samaj accepted western culture and ideas.”

I have yet to stumble across an Arya Samaj place of worship in Bangalore, but I feel sure that there must be at least one in the city. The Brahmo buildings I saw are good examples of beautiful Bangalore architecture, much of which is being callously torn down to make way for ugly new structures.

If you think you have seen the light, think again…

Hoop

 

My earliest memories of Hoop Lane (in Golders Green, northwest London) date back to when I was three or four years old, and therefore are rather vague. At that age, I attended a kindergarten in Hoop Lane. This was in the hall attached to Golders Green’s Unitarian Church (see photograph above), which was designed in the ‘Byzantine revival’ style by the architect Reginald Farrow (opened in 1925). It contains interesting artworks including a mural by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), which I have not yet seen.

The kindergarten was under the direction of Miss Schreuer, who lived a few doors away in Hoop Lane. My only lasting memory from my time there was when my father appeared at the school with a white beard and a red outfit, dressed as Father Christmas. A few years later, my sister and my cousins attended Miss Schreuer’s. One day while my sister was attending, I was allowed to return to the school to act as an older helper. One of my fellow pupils was the late Micaela Comberti (1952-2003), who was later to become an accomplished violinist. Her German mother and Italian father were friends of my parents.

I am not sure what became of Miss Schreuer, but I heard rumours that the end of her life was unhappy. Today, the hall, where her school flourished, is now a Montessori kindergarten. When I lived in the area (I left finally when I was aged thirty), I often walked past the school and the Unitarian Church. The latter had a panel facing the road, upon which posters with pious messages were posted. One that I will always remember said:

If you think you have seen the light, think again”.

 

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote a couple of years ago. If you wish to read the whole article, please visit:

https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/48/

St John’s finger

finger

It might have been in the Bargello, or more likely in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, both in Florence (Italy), that there was (and probably still is) an exhibit that captured my imagination when I was a young child. Amongst a collection of holy relics housed in elaborately crafted silver and glass containers, there was one holy relic that looked a bit like the stub of a discoloured cigar. It was, so the museum label stated, a bone from the index finger of St John the Baptist. Whether it was or was not, this item fascinated me, and even haunted me.

Many years later when I was looking into the story of St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists, I read that one of the miraculous properties of the body parts of dead saints is their ability to reproduce themselves – a feature that must have been useful for those who used to sell such things. I am glad that I had not known this when I used to stare fascinated at St John’s finger, which I then believed to be exactly what it claimed. That would have spoilt my amazement, which I always felt when I saw that piece of bone in its ornate container.

 

Photo from flickr

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.

Bare your feet

In India, I prefer to wear sandals because in so many places it is necessary to remove footwear, and putting on and off sandals is so much easier than doing the same for lace up shoes.

Just in case you are wondering why there is the requirement to bare one’s feet, the reason is to prevent bringing dirt from outside into the place being entered. It is also a mark of respect when entering a religious place such as a mosque, church, temple, or gurdwara.

In some homes, footwear is left by the entrance. This is also the case for some homes that I have visited in the UK. When I went to a junior school in London’s Belsize Park, The Hall School, we left the shoes we had arrived in at the entrance and then replaced them by another pair reserved for use within the school.

When we visited Gulbarga (in North Karnataka, India) recently, we visited what purported to be an Arabic restaurant, Al Makki by name. Its floor was covered with carpets, and guests had to sit on cushions that surrounded very low tables. The owner took one look at my wife and me, and took pity on us. He provided us with a normal height table and chairs. The food was delicious. We ate a mutton “handi”, which is a pilaff flavoured with dried fruit, fried onions, nuts, and mild spices. By now, if you are still reading this, you might well be thinking that I have strayed from my topic. But, you are mistaken. We were not allowed to enter Al Makki until we had removed our footwear.

To conclude, my advice to people visiting India is: wear footwear that is easy to remove and replace.

The writing on the wall

India is a country with many religions. This sign advertises a store that gets in new stock for Ramzan ( Muslim ), Christmas ( Christian ), Diwali ( Hindu ) and New Year ( which one is not specified ).

Sadly, inter-religious tolerance is being challenged in today’s India.

Pilgrim on a ‘plane

 

While I was practising as a dentist, people at parties often asked me what I did for a living. Telling them what I did often brought the conversation to a quick conclusion.

MARY

Medjugorje is a small town in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Between 1942 and ’45 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, over sixty Roman Catholic friars were killed there, allegedly by Communist resistance fighters. In 1981, when this area was still part of the former Yugoslavia, some six children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Despite opposition by the Yugoslav authorities, Medjugorje rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. The authorities softened their opposition to this during the last few years leading up to the country’s tragic disintegration.

I used to visit friends in Belgrade often during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I flew back and forth, often on flights operated by Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (‘JAT’), one of Yugoslavia’s two major airlines, the other being the former Aviogenex. A friend of mine in Belgrade was once looking after some visiting German bankers, when he told them:

“Yugoslavia has two state airlines. Germany only has one … now that the Luftwaffe has been closed down.”

Many of the JAT flights between Belgrade and London touched down at Zagreb to pick up passengers. In the ‘80s, Zagreb was an airport used by pilgrims visiting Medjugorje. I was travelling back to London with a friend from Belgrade. We had occupied two of a set of three seats. We used the middle seat, which was free when we boarded, to store some of our hand-baggage. Many people boarded at Zagreb, including a man who occupied the middle seat. He told us that he had just been to Medjugorje, and asked my friend:

“Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary?”

“I would love to discuss that with you,” she said, “but not now because I have a terrible headache.”

The pilgrim turned to me, and then asked me something.

Not having heard it properly because of the noise made by the ‘plane’s engines, I replied:

“I am a dentist, actually.”

After that, our initially chatty pilgrim neighbour did not say a word during the flight to London.

Switch it off, please

Over the airwaves,

messages of faith are heard,

evangelising

 

radio

 

‘Mark’, the owner of the first dental practice where I worked after qualifying, told me that it is important to have a good relationship with the dental nurse with whom you work. He pointed out that on working days, the dentist often spends more of his or her waking hours with the nurse than with his or her spouse. During the 35 years I practised as a dentist, I encountered very few dental nurses with whom I could not get on amicably. Let me tell you about ‘Maria’, who was kind, resourceful, and remarkable.

Maria fled to the UK after having had what sounded like a horrendous childhood and adolescence in a troubled part of the world. She worked with me for several years. Sometimes, when needed, she worked as a dental receptionist in our practice. When, as they often did, patients came storming up to the desk, impolitely demanding an appointment without even saying “please”, Maria would calmly reply: “Good morning, Mr X. How are you? And how is your family?” Her polite questioning in a soothing voice quickly ‘civilised’ the patient’s approach.

Once, I was running very late, and the patient I had kept waiting had only 15 minutes left out of the 60 minute appointment I had planned for him. I said to this patient: “I have run so late that I really don’t have enough time to do what we planned.” Before the patient could answer, Maria said to me: “Don’t be silly, Mr Yamey, you can do it in time. I know it.” And she was right. I could not have done a decent job so fast if Maria had not been my assistant. When it came to the time to prepare the dental impression (mould) for the crown (cap) I was preparing, she mixed the two elements – the firm base and the low-viscosity material that picks up fine detail – simultaneously. Ambidextrously, she mixed one constituent with one hand and the other with her other hand. We finished the job to my clinical satisfaction in a quarter of the time I usually needed. “See, you can do it,” she said, “I have faith in you.”

You might wonder why I did not speed up after that when working with Maria. During that curtailed appointment, fortunately everything went smoothly without hitches. I preferred longer appointments so that I would have sufficient time to deal with unexpected problems and to relax the often-anxious patients.

Maria was very practical. In the practice where we worked, equipment often broke down. When this happened, a repair man, ‘H’, would be called to do just enough to get the heavily-used, well-worn piece of equipment to work again. On one occasion, an essential piece of kit stopped working. I told Maria to ring H. She said: “He’s not needed.” I asked her why. “I watched what H did last time the drill broke down. Let me try.” Maria fiddled with the equipment for a few minutes, and successfully repaired it.

Maria was a devout Christian.  She kept a small volume of the New Testament in a drawer in the surgery. Some of the words in it were printed in red. I asked her why, and she explained that the words that Jesus spoke were printed in red. Every now and then, she used to say to me: “All you need to do, Mr Yamey, is to accept Jesus in your heart, and your soul will be saved.”  Out of politeness, not wishing to offend her by questioning her great faith, I would say: “I need more time to think about it.”

We had a radio playing continuously in the surgery. Maria had tuned it to a non-stop evangelical Christian station. Various people speaking with strong North American accents spent hours describing how they had discovered Jesus. Like quite a few of my patients at that practice, many of the speakers on the radio had been locked up in prison. During their long incarceration, the radio personalities had had time to contemplate life, and during this contemplation they had discovered Our Lord and taken Him into their hearts. I found this radio station quite fascinating and listened to it avidly in gaps between appointments. Maria seemed less interested in the broadcasts. She wandered in and out of the surgery when she was not needed to help with a patient’s treatment.

Mr ‘C’ was a regular attender. He had a barely discernible North American accent. On one occasion, just as I was about to begin treating his teeth, he raised a hand, and said: “There are two things I can’t stand. One is coming to the dentist. The other is having religion stuffed down my throat. Maria, please switch off the radio.”

Maria turned it off without argument – she never argued. From that moment onwards, Maria never ever tuned the radio to that evangelical station. She was not only a wonderful assistant, but also sensitive and thoughtful.