It was a hot, humid night in Southern India and I was nervous. We were on our way to a night Puja, but I had no idea what that meant. Traveling as a guest with my husband’s parents, our tour guide primary spoke Italian. I was only catching snippets of what was happening. Did I dress right? Should I have brought something, left something? I had no idea.
Our pristine white tour van pulled up among swarms of families headed into Brihadisvara Temple in Tamil Nadu. Lit for the ceremony, the temple walls gave off a warm golden glow in stark contrast with the dark blue sky. Despite being 8:30pm the heat of the day lingered like raw onions. Noticeable with every breath.
Our shoes stowed, we made our way inside. Stone walkways having taken a beating from the sun were still warm beneath my feet. A woman in a purple and gold Saree with a kind smile approached. Scooping something from a bucket with her hand, she gestured to me. Instinctively, I put out my hands palms up and receive a handful of warm rice and lentils.
Having never been to a Puja before, I had no idea what to do with rice and lentils. Was this like at a wedding where you throw them at the end? Did I offer them up in the temple? I didn’t know. So I simply cupped my hands together as if to say thank you for the generosity, smiled and made a movement somewhere between a bow and a curtsy. Yes, I was that lost, but it was thrilling.
Scanning the crowd I caught sight of Paolo photographing nearby. Mamma and Papà were a few steps ahead with our guide. I noticed they too had hands cupped together. More rice and lentils. Our guide nudged them forward into the smaller of the two towers. I followed suit.
How a Night Puja at Brihadisvara Temple Begins
A Brahmin stood at the front behind a small alter. White cloth wrapped around his waste he was bare chested save for a beaded necklace crossing from shoulder to hip. Mamma and Papà stepped up to the Brahmin as he motioned with his hands to his mouth. He wanted them to eat their rice and lentils.
At 72 and 80 years old respectively, avoiding food born illness while traveling is a priority. Simultaneously, they shook their heads no. Hands to mouth “eat” the Brahmin said. This time, Mamma shaking her head said “no.” The Brahmin looked slightly confused, but reached out regardless to give them what I assumed was a blessing. Two dots. One red, one white on their foreheads.
Now I knew. The rice and lentils were to eat. Having already been popping Imodium AD like Tic Tacs, I gave myself a pass. Standing a few people back, I slipped my hands into my purse and dumped the rice and lentils. I’d deal with my iPhone later. Approaching the Brahmin, I turned my palms down as if to say “no rice or lentils here!” and received my blessing.
Our guide reappeared through the crowd to guide us to the second tower. Up the stairs, I caught my first glimpse of flames. Another Brahmin standing outside the tower was performing some sort of ritual with fire. I’d come to learn later that fire is an important part of Hindu rituals. While earth, air, water and wind have been polluted by man, fire remains the only pure element.
After looking inside the second temple Mamma and Papà stepped back, content to watch from outside. Our guide urged Paolo and I forward. I stepped inside the temple feeling a bit like Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Paolo my very own Indiana Jones with a camera, daring to get as close as he could.
Inside the golden glow gave way to a darker, gray light. The walls narrowed. It was crowded and hot. The air thick with smoke from fire and incense. Bats flew in and out narrowly missing our heads. It was intense. Unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Despite the number of people inside, the atmosphere felt intimate. Slightly claustrophobic I don’t do well with crowds, yet in that moment all I felt was fortunate. Fortunate to be allowed to witness whatever was about to happen next.
Just as the crowd shifted our guide quickly pulled us back outside. On the steps outside we turned to see what looked to be a small gold palanquin being carried by yet another Brahmin. A procession began back to the first tower, Paolo and I quickly fell in line.
Reentering the smaller tower, what appeared to be a side room lined in blues and gold had been opened. Standing at the back of the crowd I pushed up onto my tiptoes to see. What looked like tiny bed was in the middle between three Brahmin.
As we stood to the back, the Brahmin performed their ritual while the worshippers outside clasped their hands together and raised them overhead. The Brahmin stepped out of the small room and closed the door. A bell tolled outside signally the end of the Puja. The crowd seemed happy almost joyful as they turned to go about their nightly habits. Socializing at the temple a bit then presumably off for dinner or bed.
I’d come to learn later what we had been welcomed to join was a night Puja at one of the largest Shiva temples in Southern India. Sure it would have been nice to know ahead of time that Shiva was the Deity behind honored that night. Or that the night Puja was to join Shiva with his wife Parvati for bed. While knowing details ahead of time might have given me a sense of what to expect, not knowing did not diminish what I felt. Contentment and community.
For the first time on our trip, no one came up and asked for a photograph with me. No one stopped to ask any questions like who was I or why was I here. Everyone just let me be there. As I remarked on the fact to our guide, he smiled saying “worshipers are focused during a Puja.”
If you’re a Hindu reading this, I’d love to know your thoughts on tourists participating in or witnessing a Puja. My point of view is obviously that of an outsider, but from what I’ve seen there is a lot of pride and openness in India to help outsiders understand more about Hinduism. Is that fair to say? In which case if you see anything below that’s incorrect or would like to elaborate on the points explained, I welcome your contribution in the comments below or links to your own blogs on Pujas or Southern Indian culture.
For those like myself who are less familiar with Hinduism including Brahmins and Pujas, here’s a little more information.
What Does Brahmin Mean in Hinduism?
A Brahmin is a keeper of the faith so to speak. Charged with teaching and maintaining sacred knowledge from one generation to the next a Brahmin is both a priest and a teacher. In Hinduism Brahmins come from the highest caste or varna. At the time of the night Puja in Brihadisvara Temple I didn’t know the men I saw were Brahmins. Or even who Brahmins were. All I knew is that you could tell instinctively that Brahmins are respected among worshipers at Puja.
What is a Puja?
In English Puja is sometimes spelled Pooja or Poojah and all spellings are pronounced the same, poo-jaa. A Puja is a Hindu ceremony that can be done at home with simple offerings of flowers or fruit or it can be as elaborate as the one described above at Brihadisvara Temple.
Pujas at live temples (meaning active temples) tend to involve not just more people but more elaborate rituals. From what I can gather, in all cases a Puja is ritual of offering light (fire), flowers, water or food to a deity. A Puja is an offering and a witnessing between human and guru.
In the case of the Puja we attended at Brihadisvara Temple, we were attending the night Puja which started at 8:30pm. Along with the daily morning, mid noon and evening Pujas the night Puja has been happening the exact same way for over a thousand years.
Built by Tamil king Raja Raja Cholain between 1003 and 1010 AD, the Brihadisvara temple is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the “Great Living Chola Temples”. Built of granite, the vimana tower is one of the tallest in South India. It’s also stunning in intricacy and shocking that such a ornate architecture has stood the test of time as a live temple.
During they day, Brihadisvara Temple gives off a soft golden glow thanks to it’s granite construction. Just before sunset Brihadisvara Temple is miraculous. I’m pretty sure this is where the phrase “magic hour” actually comes from.
That night Puja at Brihadisvara Temple was the single most intense travel experience I’ve ever had. Maybe it was the fire and smoke but more likely the people. I didn’t have to believer or a Hindu, I was welcomed all the same.