February 22, 2009

A Shrine On The Streetside, Faith On The Inside

It is a warm feeling and it does not come from the early morning sunshine alone.

In a narrow Bombay lane an old lady makes her way across the road from her hut at the break of dawn. Clutching a matchbox, some oil for a lamp, water in a steel utensil to wash the stone slab with, and a damp piece of cloth, she walks uncertainly across the narrow road to the footpath opposite. There, affixed to the compound wall separating the premises within from the bustle of the lane outside is a wall tile with a picture of Sai Baba looking benignly at the world passing by, a garland of marigolds adorning him.

The few times that I’ve seen her she’s been either squatting in front of the small shrine she’s built for Sai Baba on the footpath or bent at the waist wiping the image of Sai Baba with a piece of damp cloth. Other than her I’ve never seen anyone place offerings at the shrine though passersby will pause for a moment, slip out of their footwear and fold their hands in a quick prayer before going their way.

Not too long ago the shrine that you see in the picture was of a more ‘permanent’ structure until the Municipality came calling. Not that it was much of a hurdle to get around on their way, for most people using the footpath did just that, and still do when the old lady prays at the shrine, but rules being rules they took the structure away while leaving the saint’s presence on the wall alone. It did not deter her. She returned to the shrine, now stripped down to a platform (a slab of stone) resting on two carved stone rests that can be moved aside if need be.

After washing the platform with water she had carried in a steel utensil she reaches under the platform to retrieve the steel lamp, then fills it with oil from the plastic bottle and lights it before saying her prayers to the saint. Then she pushes the lamp under the platform where shielded from breeze it burns away through the morning, shining in the faith of an elderly lady.

I see her only occasionally, and cannot remember ever seeing her face, covered as it is on the side by the sari she wraps around her head. Many an elderly woman will cover the head with the pallu of the sari, more in deference to the deity while saying their prayers.

In crossing the street to the shrine on the footpath, while she’s aware of any traffic coming her way, she’ll rarely look anywhere else other than where she’s headed. If the garland has shriveled away in the heat she will replace it with a fresh one, taking her time in tying the ends to the nails in the wall.

I cannot hazard a guess as to why she chose to have a shrine to Sai Baba on a footpath in a narrow street rather than at her home. For all I know she might have one back home. Is it so passersby can seek blessings while on their way past? Or is it that walking to a temple is an act of faith in itself because walking involves an effort, a discipline that mirrors a resolve necessary to any act of faith?

I wouldn’t know.

Looking back I wonder what it is about her bending at the shrine that mellows the morning sunshine so. Does it result from seeing an act of deeply personal faith performed so publicly as to invest the surroundings with reverence reserved for divinity, bringing sanity to the road and invoking in the believers a common call to faith while they go their separate ways?

I wouldn’t know for sure.


Cynthia Pittmann said...

How lovely...your Sai Baba devotee is described with such beauty. Her determination to continue worship in spite of obstacles inspires reverence in me, certainly. I imagine those who take the time to observe are honored with such sights. Thank you for sharing this woman and her simple devotional practice with us. <3

bobbie said...

This is a lovely post, Anil. It warms my heart to read of such devotion to faith, whatever that faith may be. I see so many younger people, rushing through life, uncaring about the spiritual side. But when one reaches a certain age, one is more likely to stop and consider reason we are here and to become more reverent.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, I couldn't get what was so awe-inspiring about a delusional woman praying to a picture of a long-dead "saint" on the footpath. It wouldn't be so awe-inspiring if she had been praying to a picture of a fairy or harry potter. In fact she would have been called insane if she did that.

I fail to understand why is faith considered such a good thing.

Anyway given the nature of the post, I don't think my comment will be published but well I can try

Anil P said...

Cynthia: Thank you. Eventually, every ritual is a form of discipline applied to a situation stemming from faith as much as from a belief. And discipline bases itself on a determination.

There's a certain rural simplicity to the scene, and if you've lived in the Indian hinterland it will remind one of an innate inclination to submit to the almighty, and therein also lies a philosophical acceptance in the cycle of Dharma and Karma.

It takes a lot to not let go of your roots even when uprooted to the milieu of a city, and for that reason alone if none else her devotion is admirable, that obliviousness to what people may think of you in a place where this may not be a common sight (though in Mumbai it is not uncommon).

Bobbie: Thank you.

Prayers strengthen a sense of community, connects one to one's social mileu, combines with fellow believers to achieve a harmony of purpose that can only come from sharing beliefs.

If nothing else it makes a person receptive and sensitive to another. And yes, it can be a humbling experience as well, more so seeing the simplicity of purpose in offering prayers as a daily ritual.

To allow simplicity to touch one is in itself a big step forward, for there's too much cynicism around anyways.

Nitwit Nastik: Some things will never be understood, either way.

And I certainly did not find anything delusional about the elderly lady as you suggest, but then I would put your insulting observation of the elderly woman down to an all-knowing arrogance peculiar to the supposedly "rational" who find a need to snipe from behind a pseudonym.

At least she has an identity of her own while you find the need to hide yours.

heidi said...

What a beautiful moment you captured!!! Thanks for making my morning.

Anonymous said...

by telling this tale, I love how you raise pertinent questions that plague are times.. it's time we delve within, and even better so display it in quiet reverence on a street side..than the noise of drums, of love so gaudily shown off

kenju said...

Beautifully told, Anil. She is,no doubt, hoping that others will take up her cause.

karen said...

i love this post, and the images of the woman with her shrine. faith is a wonderful thing x

Anil P said...

Heidi: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

shes..: I agree. Somehow at times 'bigger is better' can tend to colour our approach to faith. The simplicity in her manner somehow strikes an 'authentic' chord so to say.

Kenju: Thank you. I'm sure she would be glad to see that happen as well.

SloganMurugan: Thank you.

Karen: Thank you.

Renee said...

Wonderful. And that is exactly why you got my vote.

Good luck sweetheart.


Brian Miller said...

beautiful post and wonderful insights. to see someone living out their faith publicly with feeling the need to push it in the face of others. her discipline to cleaning the shrine. simple faith is beautiful to look at. glad you found me. i will be back.

Mandira said...

nice post. its amazing how we in india, take any small corner and turn it into a temple of sorts..

Anonymous said...

God is everywhere. Whether it is streetside or a beutiful temple. The faith is more important the the place. She has proved her devotion towards God.

Anil P said...

Renee: Thank you, Renee, for the vote and more importantly, the faith.

Brian Miller: It's humbling to see someone making the most of what is available and devoting oneself to it. Thank you.

ChurningWordmill: Thank you. Yes, it's amazing for sure.

Vaman: Thank you. I agree. Faith is more important than the place.

unpretentious said...

just felt like reading this post after i saw the pics...i was touched. Am sure this routine gives the woman a kind of happiness which not many would experience (the many beiing busy in other things in life like work, catching a train, going somewhere, buying something etc.)

very well portrayed

rads said...

Faith is a beautiful moving thing innit? :-)
I believe in Saibaba too, and I know just from personal experience that faith does move mountains.
Thanks for the post :-)

Anonymous said...

The old lady while crossing the road with trafic rarely look anywhere to reach place of shrine. This reminds me a mythological story on 'Devotion.'
A sage was living in solitude (hermit), which was situated on the bank of a river. Daily in the morning an illiterate old day was coming from other side of the bank to fetch milk to the sage. She was coming in the boat. This was going on for several days. One day she asked sage, “Sir, in the event of heavy rain the boat stop plying, how can I bring you milk?”
“Good question! Chant the name of God, ‘Ram’ uninterruptedly with firm devotion till you reaches the other side of the bank.”
Once the old lady faced the similar situation and did what sage had told. She reached the destination unknowingly.
Sage was surprised to see her coming under difficult situation. Out of curiosity the sage asked, “How did you walk on the current?”
She replied politely.
Sage wanted to test for himself. He wanted to walk on the current by chanting ‘Ram’. But he failed to move an inch and returned with great disappointment.
The moral of the story is firm devotion in the Almighty.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love it !! I cannot help agree with you on every observation and every interpretation of yours. I also like and appreciate your response to the dispassionate comments made by some insignificant individuals..Cheers dude !!

Anil P said...

Unpretentious: Thank you. I thought that was what was humbling about the scene. The joy simple things are capable of providing one and those that can easily be lost in the hurly burly of life.

Rads: Thank you. Yes, faith does move mountains.

Vaman: Thank you. I agree. The devotion implicit in what is seemingly a routine is remarkable for the faith it demonstrates to an observer. The story is very illuminating.

Saurav: Thank you, Saurav. I too felt the same about the dispassionate comment, more so when it seeks to belittle another's faith in what brings them joy and gives them strength.

Jai said...

Wonderful reading this...and I must say I did miss this lil spectacle or maybe I unconsciously chose to ignore it. Sometimes these little acts of faith can be real eye openers.

Anil P said...

Jai: Thanks. True, little acts of faith can be real eye openers as you rightly said.