It was early, around 6:00, when we took a narrow turn down a crowded street. It was beginning to fill with vendors, carts, cows, and tuk-tuks. But it was winter, and cold, and many people were starting their small fires on the sidewalks outside their businesses. I saw clusters men taking Chi and waiting for the fog to settle or lift, who could tell which was which?
The car rolled to a stop in front of a rectangular concrete plaza. It was bordered by electronic shops, a school, and a few flower stalls. This was not a place for outsiders, it seemed foreign and inaccessible. It seemed we were trespassing on someone’s life, their real life. These were people on their daily routine. As causal and as practiced as my morning cup of coffee.
“Where is the temple?” I asked, shy, a little nervous. This was not what it looked like in my guidebook or internet research. This was not the photo stop I had imagined, this was a local temple.
The driver pointed to a small entry way, covered in an olive green tarp. It was weathered, the sign was well hidden. But there were signals. Dozens of pairs of shoes lined both sides of the walkway, and people were buying bright orange flower necklaces for the shrines inside.
And there were monkeys. Rhesus monkeys, with long wrapping tails, scattered around the entrance, the buildings nearby, and the plaza. People were feeding them and letting them bounce from shoulder to shoulder. They scooted on the ground and chased each other around the legs of pillars. Softly bickering at the venders, waiting for fruit.
We followed the morning devotees into the temple. This was not a special holiday or an occasion to celebrate. This was the morning ritual for this community. It was ordinary, normal, and practiced for them. As much as I felt I stood out, it seemed that no one had time to investigate or worry about these new visitors. They needed to pray, give thanks, give offerings, sing, to connect with the others in the temple. They needed to do all of these things and race to put their shoes on. They needed to go to work, walk their kids to school, and make sure they had vegetables to prepare supper.
The soles of my feet touched the floor at the precise moment I started hearing the drums. The tile was cold under my bare feet, so cold it almost felt like the stone was squishing between my toes. I know that couldn’t be the case, but it was December in Delhi and anything seemed possible.
At first, there was a small shrine. Glowing and clean, with a golden Hanuman, greeting us. Boom, ba, boom, boom, ba, boom, boom. The drums continued, and now I was able to hear the soft crescendo of voices chanting, signing. Around the dimly lit corner, the next room had more shrines, flowers, mounds of honey drizzled bread.
Music was thumping from the final room, where a dozen or so people were saying good morning and eating a light breakfast. We pressed our palms together as if to say “Thank you”. It wasn’t the Hanuman temple we thought we would see. It lifted me out of my itinerary.
The driver was pleased, so pleased, to have taken us to that particular temple. Hanuman was his favorite, his most beloved deity.
“Hanuman represents loyalty” he explained, “Hanuman shows us his strength and willingness to serve. He is the god that all young men should pray to, because he is the god of energy and manliness”. This was his temple; he had been there that morning before starting work and picking us up at the hotel. This was his ritual and his community. Why would he take us to any other Hanuman temple?
We spent the day searching for temples around the city and eating piping hot samosas. As we drove, the streets widened, the sidewalks became cleaner, and the buildings were wrapped in high walls and wire. The wet, smoky, fog started to rise above the buildings and street signs. That is when we saw him.
The towering Hanuman statue, the one from the guidebook. Carefully tucked away. Behind a parking lot with security, behind a long freshly swept walkway, outside of the crowded city. The monument was everything I had wanted to take pictures of. But something was missing. There were no empty shoes, no morning chi, no singing, or beating or chanting. There was no cold tile under my feet, no sound of friends saying good morning or grumbling into their breakfasts. There was no crowded plaza, there was no ritual. And there were no monkeys.
No monkeys to adorn the loyal feet of Hanuman.
About the Author: Natalie Cowart received her BA in Creative Writing from the Florida State University. She currently writes and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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