A Foreigner Performs Puja


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December 20th 2017
Published: December 21st 2017
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I asked my driver to help me. It would be a first.

Although I had been in many Hindu temples and encountered countless deities, I had never performed puja in a big way. But I knew I had to do it.

I was going to perform puja at the Sri Kannudayanayaki Amman temple.

While traveling in India I’m open to nearly anything—I attempt, as much as possible, to suspend or let go of limiting beliefs, preconceived notions, and judgements, and immerse myself in the culture as much as I can.

So with that mindset, the night before I was to leave the heritage house Visalam in Kanadukathan, I was thumbing through a heavy book crammed with photographs and information about the Chettiars, the traditional businessmen who established villages in that region. A photograph of an important temple showed massive pillars, covered with fine sculptures. Not only that, the famous goddess who dwells there, also known as Kannathal, is said to give assistance to those with eye problems.

That’s what convinced me. Since I’ve had several eye surgeries and have experienced challenges with my vision, I thought it was worth the visit. And even if the Goddess Kannathal didn’t respond to my request for assistance, I would still experience a famous 250-year-old temple and view exquisite carvings.

The temple is in the small town of Nattarasankottai near Sivaganga. Even though it was not on the direct route to Madurai, my young driver and I headed that way.

I asked him about the cost of the puja, as the priest who assists always expects something. It might be 50 or a 100 rupees, but there should be a sign stating the amount, he said. I would also need to buy the offerings to the goddess outside the temple—coconut, flowers, incense, and fruit.

We headed to the puja supply stand after we arrived. My driver took over, asking for a puja offering. The vendor piled a basket high with flowers, a bottle of rose water, lime, banana, colored flowers, and a coconut.

“How much?” he asked.

“Three hundred rupees.”

His eyes widened, my jaw dropped. That’s a ton of money for a puja—about $5.00, but a lot in India.

“The little puja,” he said. He didn’t even have to ask me if I wanted to pay that much.

So the vendor
dumped the basket and started over, cutting back greatly in the amount of flowers, ditching some of the fruit, but retaining the coconut, which was essential. For the smaller basket, I had to pay a hundred rupees.

As we headed for the sanctum sanctorum, the top heavy pillars beyond the main entrance distracted me, but I knew I would return to enjoy them soon.

I felt disappointed that I could not get closer to the goddess—she was at least 30 feet distant, in a smaller room, and what I remember most were the white circles around her eyes, contrasting with her blackness. I moved up as far as I could on the railing to get a glimpse. I handed the basket of offerings to the stern looking priest, who headed to her abode. He chanted loudly, and circled a lit oil lamp in front of her as I clasped my hands together and attempted to establish a connection with her. I kept staring at those white eye circles, imagining that she could “see” me, and understand my needs. No other devotee was standing in front of me to obstruct my view, so I felt very fortunate.

At some point the priest cracked the coconut open. He emerged with the oil lamp and I and the other devotees accepted the flame and smoke that she had blessed. Then I accepted the ash, the sandalwood paste, and the kumkum, or red powder, placing a bit of each on my forehead.

Then the priest handed back the basket with the coconut cracked open. The Goddess had blessed and partaken of the food and flowers and other items I had offered. Our time in the inner sanctum was finished.

But one more item needed resolution.

“How much?” my driver asked the priest.

“Ten rupees,” he said in Tamil. He looked at me, and quickly said, “no, twenty rupees.”

I saw my driver smile at this sudden change in price for the foreigner, and I pulled out another ten rupee note with some amusement.

“Thank you,” the priest said in English. And I thanked him in Tamil.

We exited the goddess’s home, and walked around the walls of her abode.

Later, after I spent a long time examining the remarkable sculptures that adorn the pillars in this place, I completed the ritual by partaking of some of the offerings. I placed the jasmine flowers on the dashboard of the car and left many of the offerings with my driver, who I think enjoyed the experience of guiding the foreigner through performing a puja.

No changes yet with my eyes, but I have confidence that the goddess Kannathal at least appreciated my visit and offerings.

And maybe, she smiled. Just a little.


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22nd December 2017

Coconut
I was told that coconuts were often used as offerings in Hindu temples because they symbolized the condition of humans - no matter how rough and dirty the outside, the inside is pure and white. I don't know if that is true, but I like the idea.
23rd December 2017

Coconut Query
Hi, thanks for commenting. After receiving your question, I went on a quest about the use of coconuts in rituals. I went out to a village with a friend, where he asked a lot of people about the coconut offering practice. There didn’t seem to be a clear explanation. One comment was that coconuts are plentiful and also valued, and so are a natural offering at the temple. Another said it’s just always been done that way (!). Others said they didn’t know, another commented that it is important to make sure the coconut is broken open a certain way. It should be a clean break, rather than a crushing mess. This will assure that the person making the offering will have the best opportunity to resolve his/her problems. The messy break will just lead to more personal problems. I’m going to keep asking about coconut use in rituals. No one had anything to say about the symbolism of using a coconut.
22nd December 2017

Looks like a lot of fun.
23rd December 2017

Fun Indeed
Jim, I’m having a great time. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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