The Multiple Worlds and Wonders of India

Of all that God has shown me,
I can speak just the smallest word,
not more than a honeybee takes on her foot
from an overspilling jar.   Mechthild of Magdeburg

To live in India, and to ponder what it is one is experiencing when wandering out to explore what waits in the streets, is to be humbled. This is my ninth year living here in Delhi. There is a myriad of things still to see in India and a myriad more to understand–or realize I will never understand. India is immensely diverse with a long, long history. Though many things after nearly a decade of living here seem familiar to me now that are utterly different than the world I was born into–things such as buying groceries at street side stalls, monsoon heat and rain, dogs and cows wandering the streets, and erratic electricity–the more I experience and learn about India, the deeper the mystery of this culture goes until it seems I have entered the waters of the ocean and the universe beyond.

This past weekend I traveled to the state of Odisha (Orissa), and the cities of Bhubaneswar and Puri, one of India’s holiest cities. Traveling through these cities colorful streets full of ancient stone temples, is to enter a place wonder.

A few short kilometers from Bhubaneswar, we visited the Udayagiri and Khandagiri Jain caves, cut into two facing hills over 2,000 years ago. Ascetics once lived here, but now along with visitors and devotees, langur families roam the area, eating from shrubs, as well from the hands of the many Indian visitors to the temple atop the hill.

A bit over an hour’s drive down the coast from Bhubaneswar and north of the coastal city of Puri is the Konark Sun Temple. Made of  stone and facing the east-west direction, as if carrying the sun, the temple is a World Heritage site built in the 13th century. The temple’s shape is modeled after the giant cart that Hindus pull through city streets in various locations in India during religious festivals. Though no longer safe to enter the temple, it’s exterior carving is both extensive and beautiful. There must have been an enormous bank of skilled sculptors available in order to make the temple with its beautiful carvings–something that would be rare to find in most any place in the world today in such abundance.

Down the street from where I stayed with my husband and friends in Puri, is a crematorium–a holy place for Hindus. To be cremated in

Crematorium across from the beach
Crematorium across from the beach

Puri is highly desired as it allows one to enter moksha and to be released from the cycle of life. Interestingly, directly across the street from Puri’s crematorium is the beach on the Bay of Bengal, crowded with people barbecuing fish, eating, shopping, and riding camels with a decorative red and gold cloth to sit on.The waves stretch along the coast beside Puri, though no one is swimming, preferring the activity on the shore. This is not a country or culture that isolates death from the ongoing experience of life. Death while necessary, it’s very presence is woven into the fabric of the town’s hotels and seaside attractions, as a natural partner to other activities such as a barbecue or a seaside stroll.

South of Puri, along the coast, lies Chilka Lake, one of Asia’s major areas for bird migration and nesting. The road to Chilka Lake from Puri, wanders through a wetland area of trees, verdant green rice fields, and buffalo watering holes. Black dolphin live in the lake, and you can see them on a boat ride that takes you out to where the lake opens into the sea. On our boat ride, we got caught in a monsoon downpour. As the sky turned dark and the thunder rolled, we crouched behind umbrellas, hoping to stave off some of the rain and sea spray. At the lake’s opening to the Bay of Bengal, we pulled up to the shore and climbed off the boat to huddle under a palm leaf hut with plastic tarp, watching the wind blow and the rainwater drain off the roof as the boat driver wrung the water from his shirt. Locals working at the tea hut knocked open oysters and pulled out perfect pearls time after time as well as stones hoping to sell us a few. I never saw clams produce shaped and polished stones before, but people on other boats believed it was possible, and willing bought the jewels.

Later, we headed back to Puri, to the Jagannath temple–the Lord of the Universe’s home on earth: Vishnu’s abode. The temple, according to the Jagannath temple information site, has 6,000 priests, as well as the largest kitchen in the world, where it has prepared meals for 1,000,000 people on festival days and frequently up to 25,000 on other days. If you are Hindu, you can enter the temple, but if you aren’t, even from outside the temple there is a world of wonders to see because half of India seems to be gathered there in a celebratory mood–balloon, flute and toy sellers, fruit sellers with their carts, a woman selling grass for the wandering cattle, devotees washing themselves, beggars with open palms–all part of the throng in the plaza and funneling toward the temple gate.

The temple complex is large, covering an area of 10.7 acres, and as I circumnavigated its walls, I got a glimpse of an idea of the world inside. A group of men wearing white and clanging a bell trudged by carrying a wooden plank decorated with flowers, women wearing gold colored saris walked by in a group, and everywhere food sellers pandered their wares and cows wandered the streets. On the opposite side of the street from the temple, were the broken-off walls of apartment buildings and shops where some men worked to rebuild the half dilapidated walls, while others sledge hammer in hand heaved into walls, blow by blow hoping to bring them down.  One thing was certain: I was in a different world. No sterile streets with trimmed hedges and clipped lawns here, no malls or neat and tidy traffic flowing to regulated lights. Instead, a cacophony of human activity filled the world on all sides. Here, the world was turned inside out. You can literally see inside houses, and everything appeared to be in a state of simultaneous construction and deconstruction–which is actually a pretty good physical embodiment of what is actually happening at any particular point in time or history. Things have a way of breaking open and breaking out of the boxes they are put in. Life, like many things found in India, is bigger than the boundaries we build to contain it. It spills out and pours over–is larger than what we can define or name. Order is there beneath the change we experience, but the birth and death of everything is happening all at once right before your eyes.

Like some kind a satellite, asteroid or meteorite from a world other than the one people in Puri were familiar with, I circled the Jagannath temple, my eyes absorbing what my mind had the tiniest fragment of comprehension of. Here is a world to itself, one that doesn’t care that your your hair is falling out, that you once held an athletic record, that you aren’t able to walk as you used to, that you can sing, dance or draw, that you might be unable to do what someone else does or thinks is important. These are things of the world you might have been born into or come from but none of this matters when you cross into another world, and clearly the space around the Jagannath temple is another world. If it is possible to be reborn into another life without dying, than certainly, that is what occurred. Doorways mark the liminal spaces between two worlds, and to stand outside the Jagannath temple amongst the honk of mopeds, the cows and dogs lazing in the streets, the clanging bells, marigold offerings, and the sun casting a golden light across the street is to definitely see into a different reality. This was no place anything I knew in my childhood would prepare me to know or understand. Except that it was wondrous.

There are things in this world far beyond our comprehension. This I knew as a child. I climbed the hill opposite from where I lived with my mother and two of my sisters when I was four, and when I looked back at where I came from, at the small house in the valley below, I knew my home in an entirely new way. Circling the Jagannath temple walls is one way that allows you to see where you call home in a new way if you call home a place other than India or Puri. Walking around the temple wall, you can glimpse into the universe of mysteries and to realize that of all the world holds, we know very little. The world, the universe is much bigger than our minds can hold. Birth is mystery, as is relationship–the fathomless bond of love. The intricate connections and interweaving of natural systems of animal life, of whales’ migration patterns, for example, serving to mix the ocean’s water columns and spreading nutrients, that according to National Geographic, enables more fish to eat and grow–just this one example of the vast natural systems that we interact with daily that have evolved over eons of which humans are just one part–all these things are working together, holding us up and together. These are far more powerful than the power of any ruler, government plan or force on earth. As in the poem I opened this post with, it’s good to be reminded of these things. We often get wrapped up in our small worlds and plans, in our way of seeing things, making it easy to forget our view is just one perspective in the wider, wilder world and universe we are a part of.

Comprehending the complexities of Hinduism takes an outsider an effort of serious study; but I can comprehend this: by living we partake in mystery.  We move from mystery to mystery as we move from birth to death, and isn’t this a fundamental truth to all religions–that we are not a world unto ourselves? Bruce Cockburn has a song you might enjoy listening to, “Lord of the Starfields.” I appreciated it for the awe it evokes with lyrics that begin like this:

Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker
Here’s a song in your praise

Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end
You make my heart leap
Like a banner in the wind

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