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Published: January 29th 2008
It's a glorious sunny day, and Rakesh, my yoga teacher, and I have decided to go to Kunjapuri, an ancient temple in the mountains dedicated to the Divine Mother Goddess. We set off by motorbike and enjoy the ride which leads us along a winding road, with forested valleys and mountains all around us. We can see the Ganges down below, and Rishikesh, which is shrouded in a slight mist. Monkeys sit by the roadside and nurse their babies, and the anti-speed signs along the road feature bonmots such as 'Speed is a knife that cuts the life' and 'Whisky is risky'. There are also numerous little white shrines on the way, dedicated to deities such as Shiva and Parvati.
We arrive at Kunjapuri after an hour's drive and have a cup of chai at a stall before climbing the steep steps - hundreds of them - to the hilltop. The rugged landscape as well as the location remind me of Sicily: also there, the Goddess Temples are almost always located on high mountains, necessitating arduous climbs. Kunjapuri, the site, is ancient: the Goddess has been worshipped here for thousands of years. The present-day temple is relatively new: it consists
of a white pyramid-like building with orange stripes. Two fierce lions guard the entrance gate. Like in Sicily, there is also a gigantic mobile phone mast on the hill, alongside the obligatory rubbish that litters the slopes behind the temple.
Kunjapuri Temple is 'owned' by the family of Nandu, who also owns my guesthouse (and half of Rishikesh). Nandu comes from a long lineage of pujaris
, Hindu Priests and Priestesses, and his parents still live in the Temple, tending it for the Goddess every day: lighting candles and incense, keeping it clean, accepting and giving out offerings. I am delighted to see Dadi, the old granny I shared a house with for a few days at the beginning of my stay. Dadi is Nandu's mother and many mornings I have emerged from my room to see her lighting incense and candles for Durga and Ganesh while muttering mantras and ringing bells with a big smile on her face. I liked her instantly back then, and now Rakesh tells me that she is the main pujari here - like many of her ancestors. After removing our shoes and ringing the entrance bell, we enter, and Rakesh introduces me as a
pujari from England. 'Accha?'
, they say, and smile at me. I light some incense and offer some sugar I was given by a Sikh at the Golden Temple. Behind the main altar is a big red statue of the Goddess. The Priest gives us puja in form of a tikka (red colour on our foreheads) and some rice and sweets to take away. After a few minutes, everybody leaves and I am alone with the Divine Mother. I offer her some of my moonblood, an ancient tantric practice.
Back outside, Dadi invites me to sit with her on the temple steps. She takes my hand, holds it to her heart and puts her arm around me. We sit contentedly in the sunshine: the old Hindu pujari from the mountains, and the young Priestess from Europe. Even though we can't communicate with words, there is an instant kinship between us that goes back a long way and feels older than memory itself. I am once again reminded of the mountain temples of Sicily, where the Priestesses of Venus sat on the steps leading up to the temple in a very similar way thousands of years ago. These vibrations are so
ancient and feel so familiar to me.
Rakesh says that, in Hindu tradition, we have to circle the temple once fully, ring all of the bells and touch the corners of the four directions: North, East, South and West. We do so, before paying respect to the Goddess once more. The energy up here is so serene and gentle, the mountain air is clear, the brown-green colours of the trees and the soil spread out ahead of us. It is just perfect.
To the left of the main shrine is a statue of Lord Shiva, together with a smaller Goddess, in an orange cage. There are also smaller paintings and icons of other Gods such as Ganesh. Behind the Temple, we can see the Himalayas in front of us. Rakesh says, ' You are very lucky. It's not always so clear.' 'Yes', I say, 'The Divine Mother knew we were coming...' '...and decided to bring the sun out fully for us', Rakesh adds, smiling. Indeed, it's been cold and misty over the past few days, and today is a rare clear day.
A young newly-wed couple climbs up the steps to the temple. The bride is wearing an elaborately decorated purple sari and traditional golden wedding jewellery, running from her ear to her nose, and her hands are mendhi'd. I go over to speak to them: they are from Rishikesh also, and were married two days ago. Now they are visiting various temples to ask for the blessings of the Gods.
We meet Roger, a mutual friend from Switzerland, and Rakesh gives him a lift to the bus station, while I remain at the temple for a while longer. When I leave and ring the bell one last time, a young man in an orange jumper approaches me on the steps. 'Ma'm', he asks hesitantly, 'do you believe in the Gods?' 'Yes', I say, and we talk about the Hindu Gods for a while. 'Ma'm', he continues, 'has God ever appeared to you in a dream?' 'Yes, I say, 'why?'. 'Well', he muses, 'every day I pray to God, but he does not help me'. 'What are you asking for?', I enquire. He turns to look at me. 'Ma'm, the girl I love.... she's from a different caste than I. This means I can't marry her. Her parents won't accept me.' He pauses. 'So I came here today to ask the Divine Mother to help me, to appear in her parents' dream, to tell them to let me marry my love.' I am touched by his story, and tell him to keep praying and make offerings. 'You know', he says, before we part ways, 'today I had planned to go somewhere else, but I feel that the Divine Mother called me, so I changed plans and came here instead.' As he disappears around the corner, I wish him Good Luck. When I tell Rakesh, who is waiting for me at the roadside cafe, about the boy, he nods. 'Yes, the Divine Mother called him, like she called us to come here.' There is always a reason for everything.
After some more chai, we leave and, back in Rishikesh, visit Mother Ganga. Sadhus mingle with pilgrims by the river's banks, and the big trees are decorated with altars, statues and paintings of religious symbols. Incense wafts through the air. A bit further down the road, there is a huge colourful statue of an unusually muscular Shiva and Parvati. Shiva looks like he is alive with his hair blowing in the wind.
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