THE DOMED IONIC temple in the gardens of Chiswick House in west London was built in the early 18th century. It appears in a painting executed in 1729. This circular building is faced by an obelisk that stands in the centre of a circular pool. Today, we walked past these neoclassical garden features when we noticed a lady in a flowing white dress posing on the steps of the temple. Facing her across the circular pond were cameramen and their assistants, some holding large reflector screens. They were either carrying out a photo-shoot or making a film. Every now and then, a man holding a smoke gun ran past the temple creating an illusion that the temple was bathed in mist. Here is a photo I took whilst this activity was in progress.
During my wanderings through India, I have often noticed trees with thin threads tied around their trunks. These are peepal trees with heart-shaped leaves. They are held to be sacred by devout Hindus. Women wrap threads around the trunks in the hope that their prayers will be answered satisfactorily.
On at least one occasion, and this was in an Islamic mausoleum (dargah) in Baroda (Gujarat), I have seen threads tied around pillars within the dargah. Some of these threads had bangles attached to them. We were told by the guardian of the dargah, that Muslim women tie these threads, hoping that their wishes will be fulfilled.
Statues of Christ, the Madonna, and saints in churches in India are often draped with flower garlands. This is done more likely to honour the persons depicted in the statues than to have wishes granted. I have not yet seen any examples of threads tied in churches like I have seen in Hindu and Muslim shrines in India.
Yesterday, I visited St John the Baptist Church (Church of England) in Holland Road, Shepherds Bush, London. At the entrance to this magnificent Victorian Gothic building, there is a wooden crucifix. I was surprised to see that it had something that made me think of India. Two threads, each bearing a small metal medallion with some prayerful words on them, were wrapped around the heads of the nails penetrating Christ’s feet. I have never seen anything like this in a church in the UK. Is this a chance finding or the beginning of a new trend?
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.
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.