Streetside Puja, Delhi, April 2010

Uncle dancing

My first night in India.  Bewildered and slightly jaded, I headed to a bar.  I was drinking on a rooftop, in a palm hut, with your usual bunch of ragtag traveller types.  The conversations were good and rich.  The type free people have when they are really living.

We were enjoying some cold beers in Cafe India, Paharganj.  It overlooked a building site were bulls fought, younger black male challenging tan alpha male contest, men slept on wooden carts amongst the bovine madness.  Packs of dogs fought around the cows.  The orange smog hung heavy; the air was thin, empty, except for the smell of burnt plastic.

Cow stand-off, Paharganj

After one too few, we called it a night and headed out into the thick Delhi night.  The bulls still battled away.  Ian (Chester), Fei (Chester) and I wandered back through the now deserted streets, our only company packs of maingy dogs and the occasional sleeping policeman with a machine gun.  We heard what sounded like a massive street party, a explosion of whooping, the sound was coming from a back street.  We decided to investigate.

There was a large pink tent taking up the entire width of the street.  We could hear other-wordly music and a man singing in a high-pitched wail.  As we walked around the tent we saw a few hundred people sitting cross-legged, clapping, smiling and singing.  All sat before great golden statues of differnet godesses and a child dressed and painted as Lord Krishna.  There was a small man dressed as a white monkey and a brass tower of burning ghee (butter).  It was midnight.  This would be my first brush with Hinduism in India.  A kid spun around and spat on my leg.

We were not sure of the etiquette, but as is normal in India, the people embraced us and beckoned us to sit in the crowd.  We took off our shoes and slumped down.  There was an eight piece band and a compere/ singer (MC portly chap), all of the songs were prayers.  The music was hypnotic and built up into mighty crescendos.  The tabla hit me in the heart and the high keys tickled the stars.  Everybody knew the words, I hummed and wobbled my head.  Every now and again a person would rise and erupt into and a shaking, spinning, twisting routine of dance moves.  Seemingly part possesed by the spirit of my Dad dancing at a wedding.

The festival was celebrating Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.  There are over 80,000 different deity’s in Hinduism, some say more.  The stage was a hive of activity and vibrant colours.  Huge paintings of Lord Krishna, Hanuman, Ganesha, Shiva and Lakshmi hung in gold and red cabinets topped by red, white and blue balloons.  Disco lights flashed all over the tent and the atmosphere was more New Years Eve 11:58pm than religious gathering.  There was elation in the air.

Two men tended hundreds of ghee lanterns, spiralling around a stand, topped by a larger ghee lantern.  These men were offering puja’s to people lucky enough to battle their way to the front of the stage.  We entered the fray, a radiant young lad appeared and became our guide through the flailing limbs.  As we approached the front, I was worried about people smelling my stale beer breath and felt disrespectful for sipping that evil juice.

Using my height advantage and pointed elbows, I reached the front and put my hands into namskar.  I was then blessed my the ghee lantern tender and one man wrapped orange string around my wrist, as the other placed a red bindi on my brow, mixed with rice.  The men smiled brightly.  I looked up at Lakshmi, protected by her lion and looking rather ravishing.  The images of Hindu gods are mystical and evocative.  I must know more.  I placed 10 rupees into the large golden collection tray, the first note I grabbed in my pocket.  A modest offering to the goddess of wealth!

I had read of Hinduism’s inclusive nature and have many Hindu friends, but this was the first time that I had felt the love.  The happiness and the light.  Religion isn’t supposed to be like this.  In my experience it’s about people taking things a little too seriously, this was not that at all.  This was an out pouring of colourful joy, through the medium of flashing disco lights and funky dance moves.  There was a ritual going on here, but in all the chaos, it seemed irrelevant.  This was a party!

We made some pals, young lads, incredibly open and shy.  Sourav lived locally and we all needed a trip to the little boys room.  He offered to take us to his home.  We walked through a maze of alleyways until we reached a little door.  Inside his family all slept in one room and as we used his toilet, his mum shouted through (they were all asleep at the time) to ask if we wanted any chai.  Big, big hearts in India.

Sourav was studying his 12 level, like GCSE’s and planned on getting a job after he got his results.  His older brother would decide which direction.  I asked if he ever wanted to go to England, ‘England is very far away for me’ he said and told me that he would be happy living a life supporting his family.

When we returned a cute toddler dressed as Lakshmi, riding a man dressed as a tiger, had made their way onto the stage.  There was a scrum as people fought for the better camera angle.  Flash, flash, flash.  The little guy looked miserable.  Dressed up as a woman.

It was now approaching 4am and I was shattered.  We said our goodbyes and it was difficult to leave, we’d only been there a short time, but felt a real connection to these people. We had shared in unconditional kindness and hospitality, of the like I’d never experienced.

We picked our way through the sleeping bodies in the narrow, dark alleyways.  Back to my hostel room, sat on a slanted rooftop, behind a pile of rubble and twisted metal.

I had been blessed by Lakshmi.  My brow was smeared red with dye.  My first night in India had gone well.  I had been christened by the Hindu’s in the backstreets of Delhi.  It felt like a new beginning.

Lakshmi

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