Have you ever seen a teacher get drunk slapped?
Two nights ago we visited as a group the Govind Devji Krishna Temple in central Jaipur, Rajistan. Now, Hindu temples I have visited in the past have been quiet, simple, marble rooms with subtle marble idols and a man collecting donations and giving out the blessing of the Gods, usually a delicious white candy. The only thing the Krishna Temple has in common with those temples is the marble floor. In order to enter the Krishna temple, we had to first pass through a market filled with colorful turmeric and saffron powder, doll idols and clothes to dress them, cheap brass rings, rolls of incense, and grungy keychains. Then we passed through metal detectors and checked our shoes in one of 6 large outdoor lockers, not unlike those at a bowling alley. The path from the shoe storage was lit only by light spilling from the temple proper, which was humming with people. The temple itself was a grand, high ceilinged structure, half walled and half open but for columns and a bench ringing the prayer floor. To the right of the entrance is the walled portion of the temple, filled with a raised floor upon which sits Krishna’s home, a square box roughly the size of a classroom. Around the outside of Krishna’s home was space for devotees to walk, give their devotions, and make their prayers.
It has been my experience that there are infinite ways to practice Hinduism, but what I was taught, and what I continue to do whenever I am afforded the opportunity, is to make a deal with the god to whom you are praying. As you pass to the back of the alter, in this case the back door of Krishna’s home, lay your forehead against the cool marble of the wall, raise your hands above your head, and ask the god for anything. Big or small, selfish or generous, your request must be accompanied by a promise. It’s more complex than a wish on a candle, so I couldn’t say whether the same rules apply, but just to be safe I won’t tell you the deal I made with Krishna, at least not until it comes true. I can tell you that after making my deal and giving my donation I sat down on the cool marble with my back against a pillar. I watching the devotees, the other members of my group and the preparations going on around Krishna, but mostly I just watched the movement of the temple. The people pulsing in and out, flowing around the home of the god. Despite all the differences between this temple and ones I have visited and prayed in before, there is a resolute peace that pervades the marble of both which seeped into me as I sat there, watching and listening. I wouldn’t call it faith, because I have little of that, nor religion because I’m far from a practicing Hindu. But sitting there on the floor, or with my forehead pressed against the wall, I couldn’t call the feeling rational either.
After my fill of peaceful marble, I rejoined the group and we found a place in the back and out of the way to sit, just in time to see the curtains of Krishna’s home drawn back and the revelry of the crowd in the temple as their god arrived. As we sat, still more people flooded into the temple and crammed toward the front of the alter, which was barred off about 10 yards from Krishna’s idol. There were drums and symbols and singing and fire. The crowd shouted and gesticulated in waves corresponding to a ceremony being performed by a man with a flaming lamp, and everyone seemed to have a different take on how best to celebrate and worship. No one gave us a second look as we sat in our corner, the ordered chaos allowed for visitors of all kinds, and worship of all manners, including observation. When the uproar calmed slightly, a man with a full main of white hair, a matching white shirt and a brilliantly orange skirt came by passing out green leaves to some of the men along our back wall. He passed us by without a glance but gave several leaves to a man sitting directly to our left. I thought it a little strange, but then so was almost everything about that night. I thought little of it until I looked over to see the man handing Max a part of his leaf and gesturing for him to eat it. I looked quickly at Max, assuming he would make some excuse not to or at least pretend to eat it but the throw it aside. Instead, he popped it straight into his mouth, chewed for a moment, and swallowed it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. We waited for a while for him to start seeing rainbows but eventually decided that the unidentified leaf probably wouldn’t do him any harm. After that incident we decided it was time to go.
Outside the temple and across the street, a whole new adventure started. Directly opposite the temple there is an HDFC bank which several members of our group were excited to see. As we waited for them to withdraw money, I looked back to see a man silently standing and staring into the circle of our group. Mr. Ghazi looked at him and away, then back again, this time questioningly. A few moments passed and the man was still standing there staring, so Mr. Ghazi asked him “kya chahiye?” “What do you want?” The man continued to stare. Ghazi tried to shoo him away but instead the man mumbled incoherently and gestured at the rest of the group. Mr. Ghazi shooed him again but this time the man stepped toward Ghazi and put his arm around him. Ghazi stepped away and told him in ardent Hindi to go away. The man again refused, instead mumbling about how he just wanted to hang out and be friends with the nice Americans. Mr. Ghazi told him several more times to go away and the man became, through the haze of his inebriation, angry. From where I was standing it was unclear exactly what was happening, but I saw the man reach forward toward Mr. Ghazi, and before Mr. Ghazi could back out of his reach, the man’s hand made contact with his face. I call it a slap only for lack of a better word because the man’s hand was traveling in slow motion and smooshed rather than slapped Mr. Ghazi’s face. We decided afterwards that he in fact was trying to slap harder, but could only muster a dull pat. After that the man stumbled off down the street, leaving Ghazi rather surly and the rest of us doubled over laughing.