India stories – Durga temple

(see this post at MindYourMind here)

Around New Year’s of 2011 I went to India with my partner Patrick. I was right in the thick of some of my worse periods of mental health difficulties. I had just been put on the impulse reducing (and intense soporific) Seroquel, to combat self-harming that I had re-taken up with alacrity the previous couple of months. But we had steady jobs, and I had always wanted to go to India, and I wasn’t going to let new meds and tough health stop me.

This is the story of my sole trip to a Hindu temple.

We were in Varanasi, exploring. I was curious to see the Temple of Monkeys, because I was a biological anthropologist and I liked monkeys. Not that we’d had a shortage of monkeys so far, but the idea of a temple with lots of moneys seemed interesting. Hint: I am not particularly spiritual. I fit in the category of agnosticism, largely because I simply do not know what I believe.

We arrived on foot. The temple was not one of the elaborate ones you often picture when you think of Indian temples – not one very laden with carven images, delicate structures, pillars and twists and tableaus. It was a square, with a courtyard in the centre, containing a more stereotypically carved, multi-story tower. It looked very much like a military compound, a detail strongly supported by its bright, blood red paint. Menstrual red, simply put. Even more viscerally unnerving were the sets of bars for windows, scattered around the walls, dripping water and marring the paint.

In short I was taken aback by its appearance. We wandered to the front, where the usual contingent of flower and garland sellers flanked the gates. I had never intended to go inside, Patrick and any non-priest male would not even be allowed inside, I had read, but with the gates wide open I peered in the door slightly. A man at the entrance told me to step further in to better see, so I handed my bag and my shoes to Patrick and crossed the threshold.

I was almost immediately pulled inside by some of the priesthood. This was bad. I had no money for alms and services, and I had no offerings. I was embarrassed and abashed, intimidated and ashamed. I considered it seriously rude, especially as a traveller, to be in a temple at all, let alone without anything to offer. Sure enough, as I was led by the arm to the inner gate, a man standing there grabbed my arm, and began to tie threads around my wrist. He smudged my face with powder, and capped it off by asked me for money, which I didn’t have.

Inside the temple was a courtyard, with images and statues set into the walls. Bars hid many of the figures. All was black and red paint, hard corners and hard stone. There were many priests, and many women doing rounds of the altars.

Next I was pulled to the main altar, where women were burning offerings and ringing the bell. An image of Durga sat in a large alcove, fronted by bars slapped with bloody paint. Smoke whistled from incense, and her image was stained with centuries of rain and haze. She was as menacing as a wise, great animal in a small cage, conscious of her own power. I stood before the altar, alone now and uncertain, and figured, if I was here, I should pray. So I began to pray to Durga. I prayed, please help me survive this illness. Please help me heal. Please may I not be tormented by this panic and anger. One of the women guided my hand to the bell knocker, and gestured that I should ring it.

And as I rang it and as I prayed I suddenly felt stabbed in the heart. In my core, a knot of emotions cringed as it was impaled by a knife, and as the knife withdrew the knot sighed and released and bled a river of feelings, all at once. Before I could draw another breath I began to sob and cry uncontrollably. I lost my sense of where I was. The subconscious part of my brain that kept me standing upright kept running, but it stopped sending messages to my conscious brain – messages of reassurance that I was still standing, messages I never knew it sent before I lost them in a sea of confusion. I may have been upright, but my understanding of gravity abandoned me. Meanwhile, sadness and loss and loneliness and pain tumbled over me, opening my chest and emptying my soul into Durga’s waiting hands for her to examine.

Someone led me from the altar and began to take me through the cycle of altars in the temple, stopping me before each one so I could gaze on the idol’s caged existence, as if I were being shown a succession of torture chambers by a time-numbed aide who could not understand my grief. Sections of stone were streaked and blanched where the water washed away the blood, dripping down into drains at the bottom of the courtyard.

I was brought to another priest who began to tie more threads around my same wrist, and to smudge my face with charcoal. His robe was black and his skin was stained with black powder and when he asked for money and I had none he seemed mildly disgusted yet unsurprised, and dismissed me like a disgraced pupil. I was turned to the back door, where I stumbled out onto the road, tears pouring from my face, charcoal smears on my wrist, and no shoes with which to walk over the broken glass and sharp stones abandoned there.

I made my way around to the front of the temple to Patrick, who was naturally bewildered as to why I was suddenly grieving like a widow and unwilling to speak. We escaped and walked to a bookshop, where the presence of books and the distance from the temple slowly drained away the feeling that I was being examined down to my molecules.

Many awful things happened on our trip to India after that. I do not know if that was the starting point. I do not know what happened. Why I grieved. Why I felt my insides open. More puzzling than the onrush of emotions, though, was the sense of judgment, and subsequently, of acquiescence. In those moments in the temple, I felt a presence judge my case, and I felt it decide that yes, it would heal me. It also seemed to imply, if a presence and a mere feeling can also communication such insinuations, that first it would send me some sort of challenge or punishment. And with those thoughts, the presence seemed to depart, leaving me with the sense of utmost relief, and sadness.

I will probably never know what all of that was. I have not become a devotee of Durga. I have not become anymore a believer, nor any less uncertain, than I was before. I am grateful for the experience that occurred. It will remain a mystery to me, and I am happy with that.


One thought on “India stories – Durga temple

  1. Geoff Mays

    All I can say is intense. Also the world, universe, mystics, gods, beings, nature work in ways which, until we have found a way to release and understand for our evolution, are a mystery to us.


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