I sleep in a bit, but am restless because I don’t know when or if to expect a Skype call from my husband. He’s gone to Chicago to visit my brother for his birthday.
Kim from California is at breakfast again. We chat about politics. She needs to find out how to get her absentee ballot so she can vote from here. I’ll be home by the election, so I don’t have to worry about it.
I laze around my room until one o’clock, when Palminder arrives and drives me over to pick up Julianne. We’ll be doing some sightseeing today: the Iskcon Temple and Safdarjung’s Tomb. Mister Kandhari said the tomb is nothing special when I told him I was going to see it last night, but it was once of the sights I read about in William Darymple’s City of Djinns before coming to India, so I figure I may as well go see it.
We pick up Julianne and tell Palminder, “Iskcon Temple.” He knows where it is. We drive through the serpentine neighborhoods and come to a hill on the far side of the Lotus Temple. This temple is for the Hindu god Krishna. The worshippers here chant the mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare,” etc. Yes, these are the people known to some as the Hare Krishnas; the people in airports that give out flowers. Their temples are found around the world and likely in a neighborhood near you.
Julianne says she thinks it’s important to understand other religions so you can understand other people’s worldviews, but she’s always quick to point out that the other religions are just made up; they are not based in truth like her religion; they are wrong.
The parking lot is strewn with piles of broken bricks and bamboo sticks. The cars have Hare Krishna stickers on their rear windows.
We get an intimate frisking by the woman who also checks our purses, then we walk through a metal detector. The grounds of the temple complex are spotless. There is a circle of buildings with a manicured courtyard in the center. There’s almost no one around. We stop a group of students milling around a statue outside and ask if the temple is open. It’s not. It doesn’t open until four o’clock today. At the far side of the courtyard is a sign that says “Vedic Expo,” and I suggest we go check it out.
Once inside, we see that there are three exhibits that we can check out. The first is called the “Bhagavad-Gita Experience;” the second is a robot show, and the third is about the Ramayana.
The young man behind the desk with the two white stripes on his forehead greets us with palms pressed below his chin. “Hare Krishna,” he says. He says the Gita show is starting in just five minutes. Would we like to do all three?
Julianne says we should just pay for one show. We can come back to the desk if we want to see the other things later.
Julianne hands over five hundred rupees but he doesn’t have enough change. All I have is a five hundred rupee note as well. Julianne has a few hundred rupee bills. She pays for both our admission because she’s the only one with change. I’ll have to pay her back later, or pay for her entry at our next destination.
We walk into a lobby with a huge blue statue of Krishna resting on a bed of snakes. There are double golden doors though which we are rushed. The show is starting.
There is a dark room with flashing lights and statues in it. A voice over introduces us to the Bhagavad-Gita Experience.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Julianne leans over and half giggles, half wonders.
The funnier thing is that I have. This is no big surprise. This is just like Akshardam Temple, only on a little smaller scale and not so polished. I tell Julianne she should go to Akshardam. They have better robots there.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she repeats.
The voice recording stops and we’re ushered into a second dark room, along with three Asian people who are looking bewildered and shuffling about. There are stairs in between the rooms and they aren’t lit, so it’s a surprise when you get there.
A light comes on in room number two and it reveals a large mirror. “Look at yourself,” the booming voice-over says. “Who are you? Are you your face? Your hair? Your skin? Or are you something more?”
The recording goes on to talk about the Hindu concept of the soul, the Atman. The Atman, like I read in the Vivekananda book, is God within us. It is identical with Brahman, the all-pervading god and spirit of the universe. It is different from our face, our body, our worldly identity.
“Maybe by the end of this experience, you will know that you are not your body. You are something else entirely,” the voice-over says as the mirror in front of us disappears and we see behind it a line up of statues lit from behind, with little red LED lights that flicker in their chests. I think they are expecting a lot from their little sound and light show.
The man at the far side of the room with a flashlight ushers us and the shuffling Asian people into the next room. There is another small, unmarked step. Julianne tells me to be careful, but I’ve already half-stumbled on it.
We walk down a dark hallway with a statue in the corner of it. It appears to have spiky armor on, and it has two red, glowing LED lights where its eyes should be. Does this statue have two Atmans, I wonder, or is it just a demon?
In the next room, there are flashing white lights, evil sounding laughter and muffled screams. “Confusion,” the deep-throated voice-over says, “and sadness. This is what comes to those who are deluded.”
He explains while different figures light up on the walls surrounding us that there are three types of people. The first type of person I forget because I am too distracted by the laughing and the screaming and the flashing lights. The second kind of person is ruled by passion, he says. This person does anything to stimulate their senses. A distorted and large sculpture of a person shooting up lights up, and a similarly distorted and horrible-looking person playing an electric guitar accompanies it. The third type of person is ruled by ignorance. This type of person eats meat and has a bad temper.
People free of these delusions are ruled by goodness, though, the voice-over tells us. The flashing lights stop and totally different figures are suddenly lit with a blacklight that makes them appear colored in soft, warm tones. A man walks with two goats. A woman holds an armful of vegetables. The lights turn off and we’re ushered off the next precipitous drop into a room with three movie screens in it.
Here, we watch a movie about karma and reincarnation. “The chicken you eat in this life could eat you in the next,” the same familiar voice tells us. These messages don’t really affect me because I’m a vegetarian. I won’t be eaten by a chicken in my next life. But if the Hindus are right, Julianne might. She leans over and says she’s in so much trouble. She’s ignorant and now she’s going to be eaten. She laughs.
This movie theatre is so small in comparison to Akshardam. I wonder if there’s a rivalry between the temples. My movie screen’s bigger than yours. We have better lasers than you.
The room after the theatre, also guarded by a weird armored guy with glowing eyes, has a tiny statue of Krishna in it. He is in a golden chariot pulled by horses. The voice-over talks to the statue. “Krishna, thank you for showing me this form. But I know you also have another form different from your human form. When can I see this?”
Then Krishna himself speaks. “You can’t see my other form because it is beyond seeing.” Shadowy sculptures are lit from the side at the back of this room. There is a twenty foot tall face and another, smaller face that seems to be belching lava next to that one, and a large human figure against the wall next to that. Suddenly, rainbow lasers spiral out of the eyes of the twenty foot head. Krishna explains that this form is too frightening to show most people. It is fierce. It devours the earth and unleashes the powers of nature in the universe. The head belching lava lights up red as the spiral rainbows sort of hypnotize me. Clouds of dry ice arise as Krishna goes on about his all-encompassing power. What looks like a rainbow flying toaster screen saver rolls across all three giant Krishna statues at the back of the room.
Then the familiar voice-over comes back. “Krishna, thank you for showing me this form. But I prefer to think of you in terms that I can understand.” The lights come back up on the tiny statue posed with the horses on a large rock. The man with the flashlights ushers us into the lobby where we find a lit up display of all the incarnations of Krishna. There is Krishna the lion-man. Krishna the angry bore. Krishna as a dwarf. Krishna is also Buddha. Krishna is his own older brother. Krishna is a fish with a unicorn horn. Let alone the giant face with the laser eyes. That’s not even on the display. Krishna is a busy guy.
Outside the exhibit, I wonder where the entrance to the other shows is. There’s still the robot show and the movie, I think, about the Ramayana. Julianne isn’t keen to see the other displays. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” she says. “Besides, you’ve read the Ramayana, haven’t you?”
I haven’t. It was one of the books I didn’t get to before I left. I read the Gita, but not the Ramayana. Not that the movie would do a good job of explaining it to me. The Bhagavad-Gita Experience was spotty at best in introducing the concepts explained in that book. I’m curious to see the other exhibits, but Julianne seems finished. We walk around the rest of the grounds because she wonders if there’s a restroom anywhere. Instead we find a book shop. I find a book entitled “Say Hare Krishna and Be Happy.” On the cover is a picture of George Harrison. It’s a very slim volume. I’d buy it if I weren’t running out of room in my luggage. It comes with an exclusive interview with George Harrison, the cover boasts. Julianne looks at another book about Krishna consciousness. When the vendor asks if she wants it, she appears slightly alarmed and foists it back at him. “No!” she says, and walks away. I follow her out.
Up a short flight of stairs is a gift shop. I find some necklaces. They remind me of the sandalwood beads I was once given by a Hare Krishna in Washington D.C. That necklace broke a while back. I’m excited to replace my Hare Krishna necklace, but I only have a 500 rupee bill. They probably won’t change it for me. Julianne says I can probably find such a necklace anywhere, but that’s not the point. I don’t bother trying to explain why I want a Hare Krishna necklace specifically. I’m not even sure why except that I feel like it’ll have happy Hare Krishna vibes. I’m sure this would be completely sacrilegious in Julianne’s mind.
I take two little wooden necklaces off the display and carry them to the counter. They only cost twenty rupees a piece. I think there’s no way they’re going to change my 500 rupee bill, but, shockingly, they do. “Hare Krishna,” the man behind the counter with the two chalk colored stripes running up his forehead tells me. Since I have change, I ask, also, to see a string of Indian prayer beads. Julianne is interested in these. “It’s kind of like the Catholic concept of the rosary,” I tell her, “Only much older.” I buy a string of dark red wooden beads—not that I know how to use them. But they’re beautiful.
We still find no bathroom, but there is an immaculately clean food stand and I haven’t had lunch yet. I ask Julianne what a ladoo is. It’s a sweet. Really sweet. They eat them in the Bollywood movies all the time. If it’s good enough for Bollywood, it’s good enough for me, I think. I get a ladoo. It costs ten rupees and I’ve got change because I bought my happy beads. The ladoo looks like a tan golf ball, minus the little divets in it. It seems like it’s made of sesame seeds, some kind of paste and lots of sugar. “I’m glad you like Indian sweets,” Julianne says as I scarf it down and crumple the little silver cardboard plate on which they served it to me. She doesn’t like them.
We get to the signpost that says, “Vedic Expo, Auditorium, Robot Show, Guest House,” and try to decide what to do. It’s three o’clock. If we stay for another hour, the temple will open and we can see inside. I figure we can watch the Ramayana movie, then it will be about four o’clock. But Julianne isn’t too keen on this idea. We leave for Safdarjung’s Tomb, but I ask her if she’d mind stopping at Kalkaji Mandir. It’s the temple she had to find on her “Amazing Race” day in Delhi. For her Hindi class, she had to find a list of places the teacher gave her by speaking to the locals in Hindi. This temple was on the list. She says it’s very different than Iskcon. I want to see how.
The cab pulls over to the side of the road and stops. I see nothing like a temple. Julianne says, “This is it,” and hops out of the car. I follow her into a covered, tiled walkway with a railing down the middle of it. The tile is full of bits of garbage. It is muddy and wet. Here and there men attempt to sweep up the mud and wet and garbage with handmade brooms made of sticks.
The side of the walkway is lined with people sleeping and beggars. The beggars know to hang out here because people who worship at the temple think it’s good for their karma to give to them, Julianne says. We follow this pathway in between the surrounding buildings for what feels like a quarter mile until we come to a small, white circular building that you can hardly see the top of. It rises up between the adjacent buildings and awnings with concentrically smaller circular domes.
“We have to take our shoes off if we want to go it,” Julianne says. We’d have to take our shoes off and stand in the wet muck, she means, in a stagnant line that is almost the length of the whole walk we just took. This is what a daily temple is like. Julianne says she likes to think about the use of the temples she goes to visit. “Who comes here?” she says. “Are they middle class, or is it lower class or is it a combination?” It is an interesting question. The beggars around the temple are definitely not middle class, but the worshippers here don’t appear destitute. In India, though, it can be hard to tell. Even the homeless men on the street will wear collared shirts and pants. And I’ve seen begging women in what look to me like beautiful saris.
There is a crush of people here. We choose to keep our shoes on and view the temple from the outside. There is a giant brass OM symbol and a shrine with burning incense to which people make offerings of food and money. There is a large brass bell at the entryway that people ring “to wake up the gods,” Julianne says. The gods aren’t getting any sleep today.
Next to the temple is a building with a brightly painted wooden façade. Inside music plays and people dance. We follow the tiled pathway behind the temple into a narrow marketplace. Piles of sweets are laced with dozens of bees. There are tables full of red and orange powder that people use to dye their hands and feet. Stalls full of colorful bangles and children’s toys and fabrics pile up one on top of another. Everywhere I look is photo worthy. I snap one after another picture, unable to take it the totality of the place. Julianne walks ahead of me, dodging an old woman with red dye on her finger who tries to put a smudge on her forehead. She tries to smudge me too. I dodge her just because I saw Julianne do it in front of me, but then I think it would have been fun to get painted by the lady. I think it was kind of insulting not to let her do it, too. It was a welcoming gesture and I rejected it. Next time someone tries to smudge me, I’m getting smudged, I resolve.
There is a small opening several hundred meters down the narrow pedestrian market. In it are a few carnival rides for little kids. A little boy bounces up and down in a jeep that spins around a small circular track. A boy not much older than him sits and operates the ride.
There are booths selling Hindi movies and booths selling knick knacks; religious statues and statues of white fluffy dogs sit right next to each other on display. There are photo booths where you can pay to have your picture taken against several different backgrounds. One is a temple with garlands of flowers, another is a beach scene. One of the photo booths has a tiny monkey tied up by its collar. His face is troublingly human. A woman throws him tiny balls of sweets that he contentedly picks up and munches.
We walk to the end of the market, then turn and walk back the way we came. The woman with the dye on her fingers is gone. It is a whole new smash of people we wade through this time. I thank Julianne for bringing me here. It’s not someplace I ever would have found on my own, and it’s so different from the “touristy” temples I’ve seen so far.
Back in the car, Julianne asks me if I know the story of the tomb we’re going to next. I know I read about it in City of Djinns, but I can’t remember anything about it. When we reach the tomb, I see why. It was built in the 1700s for a prime minister of the Mogul Empire. His name is obscure, as is the name of the emperor he labored under. There isn’t much more story than that, at least on the plaque outside the monument.
Once we get inside, it looks much like the other tombs I’ve seen. There are the onion domes and the arched doorways. We trade cameras and take pictures of each other, then walk inside to where the headstone lies. A man in a collared shirt asks where we’re from. Julianne walks away. “Sometimes I just don’t feel like chatting,” she says. We mill around some more and the man walks up to me. He says, “Please madam. I work here. I want to tell you about the tomb.” I think he’ll probably make up bogus stories about the tomb and expect money when he’s done talking to us, so I’m about to walk away as well, but Julianne decides to listen to him. He tells us that the grave marker that we’re looking at is fake, and the real body is buried nineteen meters below where we’re standing. I already knew that because every Mogul tomb is constructed that way. Then he tells us that while the prime minister was Muslim, his wife was Hindi, and so the tomb has architectural and design motifs from both traditions. This is actually interesting information. He points to an inlaid design in the tile floor. The Muslim holy flower is the rose, and the Hindu holy flower is the lotus. This tile is a design incorporating both. He points to the ceiling in another chamber of the tomb. This is a lotus design. And on the wall is a partridge, a Muslim motif. Two Indian girls have joined us. They ask why there would be a lotus design in a Mogul tomb. They didn’t hear the beginning of the tour. Instead of explaining, our tour guide rudely tells them not to ask questions. Only Julianne can understand this because he says it in Hindi. When he is done with our tour, he wants money, but we already paid a hundred rupees each for admission and we never asked him for his information. I high tail it out of there when he asks if we liked his tour.
Julianne tells me he wanted a tip. I know, but I didn’t feel like giving him one. She agrees. She said he was totally rude to the Indian girls because he thought he’d get money out of us, and it was creepy how he kept asking us to step closer to him. “That’s totally inappropriate,” she says. He would never do that to Indian women.
We return to the gate to find Palminder standing outside waiting for us. He points us back to the car which is parked nearby. It’s just five o’clock. I ask Julianne if she wants to go to the Gandhi Memorial. She says sure. We ask Palminder, but he just says no. He doesn’t know where it is. I don’t have a map with me. We try calling Susie’s roommate Sarah who is something of an encyclopedia of Delhi. Even Sarah can’t tell us where it is. The Gandhi Memorial is out for today. Some other time.
I ask Julianne if we wants to go back to Iskcon Temple since it’s open. We can see the inside. She says sure. We can go back, and since it’s close, we should eat at The Big Chill after. Brilliant! I can taste the vanilla malt already.
We tell Palminder to take us back to Iskcon. He gives us a little squint. “Back to Iskcon?”
I think he just thinks I’m the weirdest, but at least he humors me.
We’re not that far from the temple and as we drive up the hill one more time, the topic of communal violence in India comes up because I’m participating in the event to speak out against it this Wednesday. I say it’s strange that most people here seem so accepting of other faiths, yet there seem to be flare ups where people just go crazy on each other.
Julianne says that people will tell you they’re accepting, but it stops at a certain point. I don’t understand what she means. When I talk with Mister Kandhari and Mister Singh, they are happy to explain their religion with me, and very careful about respecting mine. Mister Singh told me, “We don’t want anyone to change their faith unless they want to.”
Julianne says they’ll be accepting until you tell them that the only true religion is Christianity, that their faith is wrong, that what they are doing is worshipping in vain. I can see where this would be an impasse.
The inside of the temple is beautiful, adorned with an enormous lotus flower chandelier and huge paintings of the blue Krishna in different pastoral scenes. There are three large shrines that I don’t understand. There are pictures of different teachers in one of them. There are what amount to beautiful dolls in fancy clothes in another. People bring prashad, food offerings for the gods, and monks inside the shrines act something like zookeepers, placing the food in the exhibits for the gods to enjoy.
If I were by myself, I’d sit in the middle of the clean tiled floor and meditate like I see some other people doing, but Julianne looks well and ready to go. She seems a bit uncomfortable amongst the worshippers. It’s like being at a big, beautiful pool with your bathing suit all ready but not being able to jump in. It’s a trade-off, though, and one that I am happy to make. I am glad for the companionship we’ve shared throughout the day. I wouldn’t give that up just to indulge my inner meditator here for a few minutes.
On the way out of the temple there is a huge poster for Radhasiand on September 8th. It says there is a “Special Charan Darshan (only once a year)” that goes on until nine o’clock at night. I wonder if this was the festival that Amar was telling me about. I think, “Maybe I can come back Monday night after work.” Sure I won’t be able to see the robot show then, but I’ll get to see what the Special Charan Darshan is.
Julianne and I conclude our day of tourism at the American-esque restaurant in Kailesh Colony. I order the exact same thing I had the last time I went because I liked it so much. Julianne gets a chicken salad: it could be the very chicken that will eat her in her next life. I guess the Bhagavad-Gita Experience didn’t change any lives today, but it was fun while it lasted.