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Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Other Goa

Temples are all silent on the outside yet a maelstrom of flower flinging fury within. Our ancestral temple in Goa was, like many others, in its own complex. Guest accommodation reminded me of Sakori - but I'll tell you about that later. There was of course, the kitchen and dining area, where priests of all sizes and ages served food while reciting the various blessings in a state of trance. There were portly old priests who made it a point to give you as much food as they think is necessary - if only they knew how much I love vegetarian temple lunches... The thin priests were often younger. Their virgin moustaches and curious glares gave their age away. Seeing them serve me made me wonder how different my life could have been had that God character seen it fit. How does he decide anyway? How far was I from serving semi-tourists on a banana leaf?

The interiors of temples are usually marble. Cold, hard marble walls ring with the echoes of tenors' prayers. My grandparents, the couple sat feet away from me on the wooden chairs in the temple's side room, are among those who speak Temple. The focus in their misty eyes is matched by the priest sat cross legged, across the altar from them. In front of the trio, the frankincense sticks that jut out from the cluttered altar burn slowly - their smoke, as pleasing to the nose as it is potent to the eyes. How can these people not go to heaven? Forget the cheerful priest, who's halo I can just about make out over the light of the many candle-lamps. My grandfather lives his life in between his prayers. In our Bombay house, he spends his day tending to the needs of the all too high-maintenance prima donna wooden altar next to the bed. My grandmother speaks of Lord Krishna like he's one of her lungee-wearing pals. I'm talking about the kinds of pals found here or at seemingly every other temple across the country, who I'm introduced to with such pride and sincerity, in Konkani (a language in which I only know the few most important words, "the children are very hungry"). I'm certain there'll be a limo at the pearly gates.

This morning the courtyards in the complex are quiet and still relatively cool, although the Goan sun that casts terrific shadows across the dusty ground will make you sweat in moments of stepping into it's Vindalooic light. The temple itself its planted in the middle of the square. A few meters from it, a pristine white obelisk (I sound like such a tourist) provides Dad with great photo opportunities. "Yes dad, we'll stand facing the sun for 12 seconds, faces scrunched into smiles of politician-esque falseness, we don't mind." The whole setting was not the kind of Goa I was used to. There were lush, green hills to the West with a tiny shrines dotted in between the vegetation, sheltering the complex. The roads were small and winding like all Goan roads but beaches were replaced by paddy fields and the churches by temples. It was a far cry from Anjuna, I'll tell you that. It was quiet, but not siesta quiet. There weren't that many curly haired men with cheap sunglasses. It was a different Goa. And yet this temple couldn't have been just anywhere in the south. There was a distinct feel to it. Maybe it was just the way the sun made my sister whine - it had to be Goa.

Like with most of India, there is some unspoken protocol that keeps everything in check. I think after a certain amount of trips to the temple you're expected know you're way around the legislation. It is assumed. The temple constitution tells us where to leave our shoes, where to throw rice, when to throw flowers and when to extend one's right hand. I suppose God keeps checklists of these things. Not that I have any clue about what one does at a temple. I simply sit cross legged in the corner, meditating in tune with the elaborate ceremony. Just sit and enjoy the fragrance of the flowers, the hypnotic monotone of the priest, close your eyes and think about the world and your place in it. Think about it, gently, and ask yourself how to be a good person. For me the answer is inside. God is not in a book or off playing golf with the elderly on a cloud. God is life and love and how to connect them. And all this is inside. It's inside your head and mind, it's inside the intangible spirit that connects love and life and you and me. You need only look.