Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hanuman's Festival

The narrow road to Hanuman’s Temple turns into a street market. It’s easy to see why pilgrims, picking their way to worship, might need stalls selling garlands and posies of yellow and orange flowers, or grapes and apples in careless heaps. Why would you need a pressure-cooker, though, or a rusty billhook? You can buy plastic earrings, spanners, Disney pyjamas, mobile phone rechargers, soup ladles, jewelled flip-flops or a Playtex bra, all on your way to church. By the side of the temple, a sunken swimming-pool, the public baths, with a lone bather in a white loincloth.

Where two or more are gathered, they’ll be wanting to eat, sooner or later. Providing snacks for the five thousand requires advance planning, especially if you need to make the oven before you can make any food. The stall-holders build clay-ovens right there, where the pavement would be, if there were one. They stoke up with sun-bleached logs, and cook in vast, blackened pans, like cart-wheels. An infant crawls around the feet of the head chef, investigating, but no-one shrieks, or hauls her to safety, nor does she come to any harm. At another stall, we see a boy of eight or nine, on pan-duty, leaning out at full stretch across the boiling oil, to rake in the fried snacks, like a croupier at a casino.
When night falls, Panaji spills out onto the streets, in all its finery, and the festival really begins. The first cart in the procession carries the music – what you might call, the band-wagon. The pianist and singer process, crab-wise, alongside the cart and its trumpet-speakers, following the temple route, flanked by eight musicians, stifling in braided hats and jackets. If you care more about volume and rhythm than harmony, it’s a joyful noise. The cacophony doesn’t disturb anyone’s sleep, though, because nobody’s in bed. Happily, every Goan child’s out and about, in his or her new festival clothes, clamouring for a balloon or a bag of popcorn.
The second cart’s more sparsely flowered; it carries nothing but a huge generator, which you can only hear between songs. On the other end of the cables attached to it, are the Bearers of Light, who appear to be waving long fluorescent tubes about, to cast a little clarity on the cart behind. This is the wagon the worshippers lining the street have all been waiting for. They compress together, in anticipation, then surge forward. Flowers cover the cart’s domed vault and walls. Inside, the god. A tiny gold replica of Hanuman. Robed priests marshall the milling crowds. There’s no hurry. This will take as long as it takes. People bring offerings on ornately decorated trays, lit with candles, or in supermarket plastic bags, or just in their bare hands. It’s the jolliest of Harvest Festivals. The priest takes the gift, heaps it into the wagon, does a bit of orange-and-banana-juggling, then gives the giver a pile of someone else’s offering. The giver returns home with it, and cuts it into many, many small portions, so that its benefit can be shared far and wide, amongst family and friends. The priests ensure Hanuman gets his allocation too: lay-workers hoist onto their heads huge wicker baskets of fruit, in a constant relay from the wagon to the temple.
You can’t help but like Hanuman, the monkey god, known for his musicianship and mischief. Blessed with divine powers, he’s also cursed with forgetfulness, so has to be reminded of his abilities before he can put them to good use. Humble, yet brave.
The procession finally moves off. It’s quiet and dark again. A lady, in a glittering sari, stands waiting, at the end of our street. A car pulls up, and she climbs in, carefully balancing her tray full of fruit and lit candles on her lap. We give each other our “Health and Safety” look, but we're used to it now, and, anyway, we trust Hanuman’s got his eye on her.