Temples, faith and dissonance

We were on this road trip with our parents to this temple called the Garbharakshambika literally translating into the Goddess who is the protector of the womb. It is located near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu and believe it or not, is very easy to find using Google Maps.

Flashback: We have fielded many suggestions around applying some kumkum from some temple to wearing some thread on the left hand. A visit to this temple was something that came up over and over from relatives and it was something we never acted on. I was able to park it aside with the excuse of undergoing treatments and therefore not wanting to do road trips. But once we decided to stop all treatments, we lost that excuse and it was hard to ignore the plea of “there is no harm in trying”.  So off we went with a seething husband waiting to connect his fist to the face that made this suggestion in the first place.

What is strange about this temple is how new-age it is. There is a dedicated website (feel free to look it up. I have no intention of ruining my day with sponsored ads by posting the link here) explaining the history, instructions on how to consume the prasad and most importantly, how it can be couriered with blessing to U.S, UK, Canada etc. There are also testimonials but again all by NRIs as though domestic clientele is not worth bragging about.

As we were entering the temple, the lady selling flowers on the other side of the entrance, yelled out saying buying flowers as an offering is great for putrabhaagyam (fortune of having a son). That got the ball rolling.

Outside the administration room (where one goes to pay for the rituals and prasad) there is a board in Tamil explaining how there is no need to stop on-going medical treatments in order to make an offering at the temple. In fact, it strongly encouraged continuing with medical treatments.

Walk further in, there are cows grazing and women in three clear categories:

  • Category 1: Women here to pray to have a baby
  • Category 2: Heavily pregnant women who are praying for a safe birthing experience
  • Category 3: Women with babies who have come back to offer thanks

As everyone stands to look at the deity, the main priest offering prayers inside the sanctum summons the Category 1 women to line up with the ticket bought, a 5-rupee coin, a small bottle of nei/ghee (clarified butter) and a coconut. This isn’t some discrete announcement or a tacit understanding but more like an angry man bellowing at a room of about 50-60 people.

Then in groups of 4, we were asked to sit at the threshold of the sanctum and the priest took the stuff from our hands to rest it at the feet of the deity. Sitting there it is hard to not notice things like the palpable sadness in the women around me, the fact that our husbands are not expected to sit alongside us, that the priest is churlish to a point that makes me wonder if he is mad at us for not being able to do the one thing that is expected of us.

I was also incredibly conscious that I was basically sitting at a threshold of a temple asking for absolution. As a feminist, was I disrespecting the way paved for me by all the work done in the past? As an educated woman, did I fight hard enough against this? As an educator, am I no longer a role model for my students when I preach rationality? But what if this works, would I become a statistic on the website in the favour of this ritual? Was I going crazy thinking this would work?

The four of us were then asked to put some kolam on the threshold of the sanctum and place the 5-rupee coin on the design. Now the other three women drew a star with two intersecting triangles and in my head, I was like everyone obviously has seen/read the Da Vinci Code. But I cannot draw straight lines with a pencil let alone rice powder so I drew a basic flower imagining that I could place the 5-rupee coin at the centre. Clearly, I didn’t meet the brief since the priest scowled, redrew a star on top of my flower and placed the coin on top of it, not trusting me with anymore tasks.

We were then given back our small bottles of nei/ghee and sent on our way with instructions on consuming it for 48 days.  As I walked back to my family, I was struck by how even though I come from incredible privilege (caste, colour of my skin, ableness, education, economic background, access to medical care, voice, you name it) in this temple I shrunk my presence without being explicitly asked to do so. I walked slower, with lowered shoulders, I struggled to find my voice when the priest barked something at me and most importantly, I experienced guilt.

Fast forward: The 48-day thing didn’t work. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt. The rational part of me, of course, didn’t think it would work. But clearly miracles happened to someone right?  I was just hoping it could have been me.

Other things I noticed:

  • This temple is dedicated to a goddess who is dedicated to solving only the women’s problems. There is another section in the temple with another god for men but guess what, that God deals with “general health problems”
  • There is an ecosystem around the temple where there are flowers to please the goddess and chappal stands. BUT there are also a few stores on the parallel street to the temple selling porn. Loving how this “ecosystem” is committed to the whole experience
  • All the paintings in the temple explaining the story have incredibly fair skinned people. Because you know, if you are dark-skinned and struggling with infertility then even God cannot save you
  • How the word “luck” was thrown around so many times and most of the women in Category 3 came with twins. Awfully coincidental?

temple-clipart-kovil-5

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