Visiting temples is still one of my favorite things to do in India. I like to visit both Hindu temples, mandirs, and Buddhist temples and monasteries, gompas. The two, like the two religions, are fairly different—though both are colorful and usually splashed with wonderful paintings and/or statues.
Hindu temples usually center around altars where there are pictures or statues of at least one god or goddess. Most temples I have been to are large enough to have several altars and shrines, each with their own god or goddess idol. Usually the bigger temples have a “main” altar, where a pandit (priest) or sadhu (holy man) may be reciting prayers, pouring milk on the altars, accepting prasad (offerings of food, incense, and money that worshippers bring to the temple), or waving incense or fire around the idol or the worshippers in a gesture of cleansing and blessing.
The entrance to the temple is usually ringed with bells that worshippers ring as they walk into the temple. My friend Saurabh told me this is to “wake up the gods” and make sure they are listening. I like the idea that the gods need you to grab them to get their attention.
Worship and blessing always feels simple, open, accessible to anyone who wanders in. Parishioners kneel before altars, hold their hands in front of them in prayer position, offer prasad to the gods, then receive some prasad off the altar in exchange. Sometimes you are also given a dab of red or orange paint on your forehead, to show that you have offered prayers and received blessings.
The air fills with the ringing of bells, the chanting of priests, the wafting smoke from incense, the scents of fruit and fire and human sweat. It always feels very holy and spiritual in its otherwordliness—it feels, without you knowing, like something very, very old.
Today I went to a very interesting set of holy sites on top of Observatory Hill here in Darjeeling. My Lonely Planet told me the site was “the site of the original Dorje Ling monestary that gave the town its name” and is “sacred to both Buddhist and Hindus.” Indeed, while the complex atop the hill is ringed with the pink and orange shapes of Hindu mandirs, the whole area is heavily draped with Buddhist prayer flags and altars are topped with Buddhist butter candles. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Darjeeling is literally in the clouds, and sometimes you will find yourself in the middle of one. As I climbed the hill to the temple, a vast cloud rolled over the town, so that the entire hill was shrouded in mist and fog, adding to the ethereal feel.
I stood in front of a statue of Nandu, Shiva’s bull, and watched a woman pour milk over a lingam, a phallic representation of a Shiva, as other worshippers walked clockwise around the central shrine, hands joined in prayer. A group of men nearby chanted “Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Krishna Ram Hare Ram” and shook bells as a sadhu stood over shelves of butter lamps. I tiptoed, barefoot, watching, before offering prasad.
(Before you accuse me of being culturally insensitive because I took pictures at a temple, let me assure you that every Indian there with a camera was taking a million pictures. Indians really tend to not be uptight about these things.)
Buddhist gompas are usually much quieter, less crowded, less kinetic. There are brilliant colors, but usually in white, red, yellow, blue, and green—the colors of prayer flags—rather than the lurid pinks and oranges that dominate most mandirs. There is often a central statue of a Buddha and a few statues of holy men. These are often guilded in gold and can be elaborately painted. There are bells here, too, affixed to the top of prayer wheels that Buddhists spin—clockwise only—for good luck as they walk past. The bells chime once per rotation—a quiet metronome percussing worship rather than a constant background choir as at a mandir. There are also usually large cabinets filled with holy scripts, which are covered in brightly colored fabric.
Yesterday I went to a Buddhist gompa called the Yiga Choling Monastery. Just like today, a cloud rolled in as we pulled up to the gompa, which is atop a hill near Ghum. Swirling mist made it difficult to see the temple and meditation hall from the parking lot. Friendly monks nodded hello as they trod across the courtyard (some checking their cellphones as they went).
One monk followed me inside, watching as I trod the perimeter on quiet tiptoe, taking in the faded elaborate paintings of Buddhist spirits and gods covering the walls and the rows of burning butter lamps, surrounded by offered piles of rupees. He and I were the only people inside. Colored lights flickered on and off as an audio tape of chanting monks played in the background, filling the otherwise almost-total silence.
Finally I sat in front of the enormous golden Buddha, letting my eyes trace the elaborate carvings of dragons and clouds and smiling mediators surrounding the statue. I took one picture, dropped 10 rupees into a box, and then resumed sitting in front of the statue, surrounded by thousand-year old Tibetan writings and tattered prayer flags, to meditate.