What do Kali, elephants, and robots have in common? Me!
I can’t help but love the richness of my life.
Saturday started with a ‘robot party’ for my son. It was his going away party. My husband made a cardboard box robot chassis for each of the kids, but only my son was interested. Instead of designing robots, the party was a huge play fest – noisy, messy and sugar fueled. Just the way a three-year old likes it.
Straight after the party I met up with some friends and together we went to Skanda Vale, a nearby Hindu temple and pilgrimage site. By nearby, I mean a 35 minute drive involving dark, windy, unpaved roads for the last half of the journey. It is a beautiful, wild, peaceful site, and I encourage you to click on the site and look at the pictures. I’ll wait.
We arrived in the dark and the cold. The Maha Shakti temple, which houses the large Kali Ma murti, is at the top of a hill. A short walk through the forest up a windy dirt path lit by lamps leads to the site, and provides a quieting mental preparation for the ritual to come. I walked up in silence, taking in the trees and the Spirit of the place. We were walking east, into the rising full moon.
We arrived early and waited in the terrace for the temple to open. There were some families there waiting as well. The children were leading some chants – all in Sanskrit! – and the singing was lovely. I missed my kidlets.
I’ve never been to a Hindu temple or service before. So the entire experience was new and out of my comfort zone. Even though I had just enough book knowledge to know the gist of what was occurring, I really couldn’t follow along very well. I listened for words I knew and if the chants went on long enough I could find my way in, usually just before they moved on to a new chant. I also noticed that while the majority of the priests, nuns and monks are white, the majority of devotees were of South Asian descent. I got the impression that most of them were regular attendees and so must come from the larger south Wales area. It is not that common for me to be in the racial minority. I think being outside of my regular everyday conditions is a good thing. I kept quiet and followed what the others were doing.
The ritual itself was stunning. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The temple is beautiful, from what I could see. I was not able to go in as I hadn’t kept vegetarian for the required three-day minimum (I had planned to be, but then thought the trip was off and so ate meat). The terrace has a screen that focuses on the Kali murti so I could see her up close. The chanting was enhanced with a speaker for those of us outside. I got lost in the chanting, feeling the buzz of the drums, bells and kirtan (call and response chanting).
I felt overwhelmed with the intimacy and tenderness with which the priests undressed and washed Kali. First they removed all the little murtis from around her, then the flowers, clothes, and jewelry. They washed off all the red dots and the coloring from her outstretched tongue. They poured hot water over her and then a series of various liquids and substances – rose-water, yellow water (turmeric or saffron?), milk, honey, yoghurt. At one point she was bathed in a thick bright red substance – I’m guessing it symbolized blood, as it looked quite like it. Kali bathed in dripping red was a fierce reminder of my fragile humanity. Later, after many rinses, she was coated in a thick white paint-like substance. That too was dramatic in its beauty – a visual reminder of our purity. Over and over again the priests poured water and bathed her. First in this, then in that. Occasionally the run off was collected for later use.
Once all the different baths were done the priests tenderly dried her off and began rubbing oil all over her. It was intimate and the oiliness had a touch of the sexual about it, though none of this was obscene or vulgar in any way. She was spritzed with perfume, flames waved in front of her. The red dots were repainted and her tongue carefully repainted, first with a bright yellow powder, then with a bright blood-red powder. A coconut was set on fire and waved before her. She was redressed and adorned with myriad beautiful flowers.
I was able to help pass the offerings through to the temple. Trays and trays of food and flowers. One of my friends who has been to Skanda Vale several times told me that the temple provides literally tons of food to various charities every year. I had brought four oranges, one for each member of my family, as my offering. If I had known what could be offered I might have brought more! After all the offerings were placed at Kali’s feet the aarthi (sacred flame) was passed around, then powders for blessed markings on the forehead, and lastly the juices collected from Kali were spooned into the hands of devotees. Because I was one of the few people present unable to enter the temple a priest came out to me and I was able to wash myself in the flame and taste the weirdly delicious and blessed concoctions.
On our way back down hill we passed by the temple elephant’s house. Skanda Vale has an elephant, named Valli, given by the Sri Lankan government. It’s been there for over 30 years! Our timing was perfect: the elephant’s caretaker opened the door and we were able to see it. And not only see it: we were given a blessing! Holding a carrot behind our back we walked up to Valli and using her trunk, she blessed us. My head was ‘palmed’ by the trunk snout and then I gave the carrot to her, stroking her trunk as she whisked it away. I adore elephants and this was a tremendous treat.
Afterward there was a vegetarian meal to share – various tasty curries, rice and humus. After two and half hours of ritual in a cold space I wasn’t sure if I would ever be warm again and the spice of the curries hit the spot.
What struck me about the service is how much like church it felt. That’s really what it was! This particular, in-depth service only occurs on the full moon, the daily Kali pujas are truncated versions of this one, I think. But it had many elements of what I consider ‘church’: sacred space, priests performing the ritual while the laity participates only peripherally (or at all), blessings given to the laity from the deity via the mediation of a priest, and a sense of community. I didn’t feel any great connection with Kali, but the entire experience was suffused with joy.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to experience this before I leaving. If you are ever in Wales, I recommend a day long visit to Skanda Vale.
This evening, the full moon ritual on a dark night for the Dark Mother contrasted with my Sunday: a candle lit carol service for the Lord of Light in which I sang, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. Stay tuned!