Monday, February 25, 2008

Hare Rama, Hare Krishna

Today, we’re tourists, at the Hare Rama Hare Krishna temple in Juhu. We surrender our shoes to one of the four men behind the counter outside, just like at Superbowl. We hardly need the token he gives us in exchange: among a million flip-flops, our footwear’s not hard to spot. The white marble dazzles our eyes, and fries our soles. To one side of the main entrance, there’s a line of taps, where people are drinking, and washing their feet. Still confined to tap water, and too uptight to ablute in public, we hobble up the hot stairs and into the cool interior, to exchange light for sound.
In the central open space, people sit on chairs, or mats, chatting, thinking. A few are prostrate, slowly inching forward in progressive prayer-stops. Anxious not to obstruct, offend, or appear foolish, we creep round the perimeter. There are tableaux to admire, stories to read. A grandma holds her small grandson up to see, show-and-tell. I know I’d find her version more accessible than the explanation panels, but she only comes in Hindi. There are hundreds of thousands of Hindu gods, there’s a small boy with a lot of listening to do. Trying to fathom it all, is like unravelling all the wool in the world, wound up in one ball – no sooner do you think you’ve got one thing straight, than three more loose ends pop up. There appears to be a core knowledge, A-list deities like Ganesh and Shiva and Hanuman, but the fine-tuning is for scribes and scholars. I gather scraps, fascinated.
At the front, incense, candles, flowers and song clamour for your attention. “Fight the good fight” and two strangled gladioli wouldn’t even appear on the radar, here. The shaven-headed, bare-chested monks, in their complicated looped skirts, take the offerings the worshippers bring – baskets of fruit, orange and yellow posies – in exchange for a dab of ash on the forehead. Other visitors are openly filming the proceedings on a mobile, but we believed the signs meant what they said, and switched ours off at the door. Anyway, we’re far too conspicuous to transgress.
Hare Rama, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare – I’m humming along – the piped music’s so loud, the flowers are trembling. The words appear on an LCD screen, discreetly to one side, but I know them already, thanks to George Harrison. I watch the screen, which then flashes, “Beware of Pickpockets.” (My handbag’s built to take one tissue and a lipstick, but is further crammed with two mobile phones, a hairbrush, credit cards, cash, two pens, a spiral-bound notebook, as well as a retractable ruler (don’t ask). Anyone who can so much as open it, without the whole shebang exploding across the mosaic tiles, is welcome to what he can swipe.)
We complete the circuit – like the Stations of the Cross, but with more gore and elephants – and leave the main temple by the back door. In the next chamber, a little retail is on offer, with stalls selling ropes of wooden beads, small statues, holy books like the Bhagavad Gita, self-help meditation DVDs, or sitar music on CD. I wonder fleetingly if bartering is the way to go, here, but I’m not wanting an illustrated edition of the Vedas, so the question remains theoretical. The nearer you get to the sunshine, the more worldly the merchandise. At the threshold, you can buy cups of coffee, and slices of pizza – you can’t get much more worldly than that. We tumble out, blinking like bats at noon.
A monk sits on a low wall, in front of him a bowl the size of a dustbin-lid, full of something which looks like couscous but is the colour of mashed carrots. He’s got quite a crowd of takers, all with outstretched hands. He’s doling it out with his fingers. They all look well-heeled (if you can be well-heeled and barefoot), so he’s not distributing a charitable offering to the parish poor. Sliding by, we take it all in peripherally, because it’s rude to stare, where we come from. Gingerly trying to find a path kind to our nesh western feet, we set off, in search of our shoes.