I have never been comfortable around devout people, not understanding where their devotion comes from and not trusting their passion. Despite becoming familiar with India over several years of study and travel there, Hinduism and its temples still baffled me. Being pressed by bodies; the pungent incense and bare feet; the blurred lines between human, god, and animal. I had been content looking in from the outside, then retreating to more familiar spaces where neither my presence nor behaviour would be questioned. Museums, beaches, bookstores. Even churches and mosques. Spaces that I could enter without the need to interact, without the fear of doing something wrong and having to face the devotees’ wrath. I told myself that as a white woman, perhaps it was better to not draw unnecessary attention, to not put myself within that press of bodies and the blurred lines. I was a strong woman, but I was self-contained, not needing constant interaction or validation from others.
I had not intended to push this limit while in the western state of Gujarat. But I unintentionally arrived in a major pilgrimage town during an annual pilgrimage, which didn’t leave me with much choice. I arrived at dusk in the small town of Pavagadh, an hour or so from the city of Baroda. The abrupt volcanic presence of Pavagadh Hill shone pink with the setting sun, illuminating its incongruity on the sea-level plains of Gujarat. The Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On one side of the main road is the entrance to the fifteenth-century pre-Mughal Islamic city of Champaner, and high above on Pavagadh Hill is a collection of Hindu temples. But while the old Islamic city is a relic, the Hindu temples spilled with people.
Streams of devotees processed up the hill day and night, many bare-footed, all singing devotional bhajans or chanting. From the government-run guest house halfway up the hill (and the only guest house that wasn’t overrun with pilgrims), I could hear the clashing of bells and chanting throughout the night.
I took the cable car to the summit the next morning. A group of four men, crisp in their starched white handspun shalwar-kurtas, shared my carriage. Their clean Hindi and thick, trimmed moustaches gave them away as provincial men. They talked between themselves, mentioning that it was a shame they couldn’t speak English, or they could ask where I was from.
I let on that I could understand them, and they were delighted, remarking on my Delhi accented Hindi. They were from the Madhya Pradeshi city of Indore, 250 kilometres away. It had taken them many days to walk here. They asked how far I had walked. I told them about the aeroplane that had flown me several thousand kilometres, and they fell quiet in awe. I was reminded of dear Sanjay, my driver through Rajasthan on my first trip to India several years earlier. He pointed out the full moon one evening. “You have full moon in your country?” he asked. Elsewhere, he had explained the history of some fifteenth-century monument. “Fifteenth-century…” he mused. “How long ago was that?”
I had been studying India for a long time, travelling there frequently and learning Hindi, but I felt that large parts of it still retreated from my attempts to understand it. How could I connect with someone who didn’t know that the moon appeared every night in New Zealand, too? How could I really understand the lives and motivations and beliefs of such people? There was no common ground, I thought. I never wanted to be an anthropologist, I often said to my colleagues at grad school in Australia. Many of them were anthropologists, going off to live with the Acehnese or Papuans for months at a time. I was a literary scholar. I’m only interested in what’s written down. I shied away from people.
We disembarked, and the men wanted to take me under their wing. I saw their good intentions, but I quietly slipped off into the crowds, an easy subterfuge because the throngs were thick.
The winding path up the rocky hill was flanked by stalls selling marigold garlands, tinsel-edged drapes, and CDs of Sanskrit chants. These kinds of pilgrimages were the only holiday that these working class Indians got. The religious paraphernalia were their souvenirs. There were tented photo studios with backdrops from all around India; here, you could have your picture taken in front of the Taj, the backwaters of Kerala, or the Gateway of India. The ever-present lounging cows were bedecked in tinsel, and the spaces between dogs’ eyes daubed with red sindoor. This was a religious carnival.
I let myself be swept towards the temple at the peak of the hill. Nobody paid me any mind, a curious feeling in a country where I was usually the object of scrutiny or curiosity at the very least. The devotees were absorbed in their worship. If anyone did notice my obvious un-Indianness, I thought, they would think like the men from Indore: how far has the foreigner walked on her pilgrimage? How does the white-faced woman worship?
The press of bodies inside the small temple was thick, so I edged out as quickly as I could, trying to preempt the panic that I knew would come if I lingered. Leaving the temple, a piercing cry split the air right behind me.
My fight-or-flight reflex kicked in as I turned to see where the noise came from. Nobody else seemed distressed, so I quickly calmed. A woman above me on the steps had let out her hair, was swinging her thick tresses wildly and jerking her limbs, her eyes rolling back in their sockets and her face turned to the sky. She screeched again, and space cleared around her. An old woman bent forward to touch the possessed woman’s feet.
This is Shakti, I thought. Female energy. This was the power to unbind the hair and shake it free, dance, shake, shriek, and be revered, but within the parameters of this worship. Just today. A woman’s power is dictated by religion, tradition, or custom, however defined. She was enjoying being free while she could. The next day, no doubt, she would walk the ten or one hundred or one thousand kilometres back home, where she would resume a normal life of care and cooking. The memory of this travel and freedom would sustain her until the next time, as it would me. We weren’t so different.
Photo by Prabhala Raghuvir.
Elen Turner is a Kathmandu-based writer and editor, with plans to divide her time between Nepal and India. She's into good literature, street art, white-water rafting and pretty Indian textiles. Her personal blog focuses on travel in South Asia: www.wildernessmetropolis.com