In which our hero encounters many forms of spirituality, but still one people.


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Asia » India » West Bengal » Kolkata
March 2nd 2016
Published: March 2nd 2016
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The Birla Mandir at SunsetThe Birla Mandir at SunsetThe Birla Mandir at Sunset

One of the great tragedies of India's density is that you can only appreciate the height of these great structures from across the street.
India is certainly famous for it’s fair share of spirituality, and by now I’ve had the chance to go to a few of the local centers of spirituality and faith (the structural ones at least). A common theme amongst them is the lack of permission to take pictures, so you’ll have to be content with the rather underwhelming ones I was able to snap from outside. Let’s break them down:



1. The Birla Mandir. The Birla family is a rich old Indian clan who, not content to only have a fine arts museum, a performing arts center, a planetarium, a university, a hospital and various other reputable institutions named after them, decided to build the most opulent temple in Kolkata as well. It is a white marble palace centered around two large idols of Krishna and Radha. Tall towers extend upwards from the sanctuaries, each stepping narrower in discrete blocks while following that steep-at-the bottom/flattening-at-the top, distinctly Eastern curve.

Elizabeth and I entered through the main gates, which were guarded by men who appeared to be dressed for trick-or-treating as some sort of exotic rooster. We dropped our shoes off in the shoe checkroom, trying not to
The Birla MandirThe Birla MandirThe Birla Mandir

The gate all lit up at night.
concuss anyone as we elbowed through the mob of temple goers suddenly much more interested in taking a selfie with us than going to see a marvel of religious architecture. I mean I get it. The choice between the all-powerful preserver god with a magic flute and a dude trying to get a claim check for his dirty ASICS it really isn’t much of a contest.

In Hinduism Krishna and Radha are the model lovers so the place is a popular spot for couples. It was sort of weird to our Christian sensibilities to see folks cuddling and cooing in front of their gods, but the temple-goers seemed to have less performance anxiety about putting their game on display for an omnipotent deity than I. Side altars include idols of Ganesh (or as he is known in Georgia, “ol’ Mr. Elephant Head”) and Parvati, while outside there’s a smaller temple to Hanuman, the monkey god who picked up a mountain. There’s also a montage of 10 small sanctuaries in a row, one for each of Vishnu’s reincarnations. There’s the giant fish that pulled humanity to safety during the great flood, the anthropomorphic lion that ripped apart a seemingly immortal
The Kalighat Kali TempleThe Kalighat Kali TempleThe Kalighat Kali Temple

Not much to look at from outside...or the inside really. But it's still important in Hinduism.
demon, and even Buddha. It’s like a greatest-hits mixtape of salvation and deliverance: NOW…that’s what I call reincarnation!

At each shrine there is a Brahmin that will give you a little piece of sugar candy as a reverse-alm from the god. Above each is an enormous crystal chandelier that illuminates the whole space with a sparkling splendor. It’s a really awe-inspiring place of worship. Back at the shoe check, the dude manning the cubbies made it very clear that a tip was required in exchange for our shoes, but entry is free, so I indulged him.



2. The Kalighat Kali Temple. If the Birla Mandir is the Boston Philharmonic of temples, then the Kalighat temple is the Grateful Dead. Working class, largely unadorned, more than a bit unkempt, and yet still incredibly important, it is this temple probably gave Kolkata its name. Ancient and quite holy, some sort of temple has existed on this spot for centuries, though the current manifestation is relatively new. The temple was at one time on the banks of the Hoogly river, but as time has shifted the course of the stream, it is now connected to it-and the holy Ganga
The Mother HouseThe Mother HouseThe Mother House

Of Mother Theresa and the Sisters of Charity.
upstream-by a canal.

The temple is crowded with people and stalls with no order to its floor plan. You enter into its central courtyard through narrow and easily overlooked alleyways. Vendors hawk goods and flowers inside the temple walls, while outside many more sell garlands and depictions of the fearsome goddess Kali: black skinned, three-eyed, sharp teeth bared and tongue extended in a hellish grimace, she holds bloody blades and severed heads in her hands. Around her neck is a string of skulls. This goddess is one fearsome bitch.

As we approached the temple a man appears out of thin air at my elbow. He proclaimed himself Babu, our tour guide, and shepherded us into the actual temple complex. He made us to leave our shoes beneath a vendor’s stand that looked decidedly like the last place I would ever see my shoes. He produced a water bottle full of what looks like a ghost’s urine and directs us to hold our hands out. He then washed our hands in what he claims is holy water from the Ganga, though pouring that gray, turbid water over my hands barely qualifies as “washing.”

Next he led us to
Mother Theresa's TombMother Theresa's TombMother Theresa's Tomb

"Jesus is my all in all"
a caged-in area about the size of a toolshed with a central altar and pointed inside. “This is where the goats are slaughtered each morning!” he bubbled, “Forty each day.”

“Fourteen each day? Oh my goodness.”

He laughed at the absurdity of such modest bloodshed satind such a hungry goddess. “Oh no. Forty!” We moved along quickly.

At the main sanctuary there was a long line of worshippers wrapped around the building: easily an hour wait to get in to see the idol. But because we’re white and Babu has a racket going, a temple guard loosens a lanyard and we skip up some back stairs and to the front of the line. Nods were exchanged between Babu and the guard. Given the long line, the depictions of Kali I saw walking in, and the forty goats, I was expecting a fierce-looking statue. I’m looking to see supplicants bowing before bloody, severed heads, sharp swords, and bones mercilessly crushed to powder. We elbowed our way to the front and there it is: a big black egg-shaped stone that someone has painted three eyes on. It’s an enormous, holy, pet rock. It was like thinking you’re going to
St. Paul's CathedralSt. Paul's CathedralSt. Paul's Cathedral

The old seat of the Church of England on all of the Indian subcontinent. From Lahore to Dakka, from Delhi to Colombo.
a Beyonce concert but getting lost along the way and stumbling into Richard Simmons recording an episode of “Sweating to the 80’s.” Nonetheless toss the flowers given us by Babu towards the idol, soliciting blessings. Babu smears a bright orange bar across our foreheads with bindi powder as a blessing, and we go out the exit, which for us was also the entrance.

But it gets better because next were led to the fertility tree. This tree is covered with little pebbles tied to bare branches with hairs by women seeking to conceive. It is ironic considering that to all outward appearances, the tree is dead. Apparently the successful supplicants on this account are a major source of goat to the daily morning mutton harvest. At this point Babu employed a classic huckster’s trick and separated Elizabeth and I. Elizabeth was told to sit on one side of the Giving-gave-gone Tree while I was brought over to the Brahmin who prayed for me, my father, my mother, my wife, and our children (Oh please not yet; I am in no state to be sacrificing a goat). Then I was asked to leave a donation for the poor at the
St. Paul's SelfieSt. Paul's SelfieSt. Paul's Selfie

St. Paul's Cathedral doesn't get a write-up, but it does get a selfie.
base of the tree. Around the trunk were sprinkled 1 and 5 rupee coins. Babu said very seriously, “Give how ever much you want. Some people give 500 rupees, some people give a thousand.” My laughter was not appreciated. Who these people that donate so much money are is unclear, but I tossed in a 10 rupee bill. At this point it became clear that giving whatever I want didn’t literally mean give whatever I want, as my paltry donation (still the largest I saw given) is was with some furious head shaking. For Indians that is saying something as the people are basically sentient bobble heads. “Give more! Give more!” they cajole as I toss in another 10 spot, worried that something might shake lose in their cervical vertebrae if I don’t do so soon. Disgruntled but content to try a new tack, Babu then switched Elizabeth and me and repeated the ritual. When it comes time to give a donation, all Elizabeth could scrape out of her empty pockets was 3 rupees. Babu and the Brahmin quickly conferenced with furrowed brow, then sent her over to me to get some more money. They tied some yarn around our
St. Pauls GardenSt. Pauls GardenSt. Pauls Garden

Has really nice flowers actually.
wrists as another blessing, sent us over to our shoe keeper (more money did finally produce the footwear), and then showed us on our way.

This temple is less aloof and austere than the grander places. It’s pretty certainly, but not necessarily less beautiful. It’s more commercial and lived in and Indian.



3. Mother Theresa’s motherhouse. Mother Theresa might be Calcutta’s most famous resident, and the house where she lived and led the Sisters of Charity and was buried is still a functional abbey, but it also now includes a simple museum. Seeing this place and what this incredible woman did makes me think that Mother Theresa was basically Mother Theresa. She lived in a small, hot, spartan room where her diminutive bed shared space with the desk from where she conducted the hours of correspondence required to keep her multi-national charity running. The simple but well-curated museum has a marvelous collection of documents showing her growth and evolution to her calling through Christ.

We saw letters written by a young nun who, unsatisfied to teach children only to see them and their families die like animals in the street, began to shift in her mission and listen to a new and unique calling from Christ, opening a hospice for the poor to die with dignity. She founded a new order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, who in addition to pledging the standard poverty, chastity, and obedience also promise total devotion to the poor. She chooses a sari for the order’s habit, and designs it on what the street-sweeping women wear to remind the sisters of humility and who they serve. And while Mother Theresa does have a lot of really inspirational quotes ascribed to her-there is a whole bulletin board of them at the museum, in fact-it is the small private things that were never intended to be public view that were the most inspirational for me. Her private meditations, notes, reflections and prayers tucked away in her diaries and not found later reflect a person totally devoted to Christ and his command to help the poor.



A lot of people talk about India as a spiritual place, and indeed in many ways it is. There are little temples tucked away everywhere and often passersby will stop to pray at them. That said, I don’t think that India has the monopoly on spirituality that some claim. At its best however, it is certainly among the best.

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