Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Of temple towns

Many Indians belive in faith and fate and ascribe everything that happens to faith or fate. Many of us believe (whatever we may say in public, there is always that shard within us which believes in the divine) in God, his (or her) various manifestations, forms, thank him (for simplicity) for anything that goes right, react when things go wrong, promise offerings when things go our favour. God is the beacon of hope. He provides the fuel to run the engine when the wheels are grounded in despair. In essence, life is a lifelong conversation and give and take with god. There are entire towns which has a temple as its centerpoint of economy. Tirupati, Guruvayoor, Sabarimalai, Vaishnodevi, Shirdi, Puri are just a few of the better known examples. Yet, facilities in most of these places is sub standard. Tirupati is organised (weekends are maddenning), Sabarimala can be crazy during festive times, Guruvayoor is a little less organised (Sundays are very bad), Puri is overrun with touts and I guess it keeps going down the list.

Pilgrimages once upon a time were undertaken for a variety of reasons. It was often a thanksgiving to god, often a promise to god (I will visit you for the next 25 years), sometimes the only outing for many people. Anything that happened during these pilgrimages was taken a sign of god. Thus, if a tyre burst on a trip to a temple, it was a sign that god wasnt too happy. If things, went well it was a sign that god was with "us". Therefore if facilities werent too good, it was never taken as a grouse since this was a visit to "god". Facilities at many of these temple towns can be abysmal. For the well heeled, it is slightly better, atleast in places like Tirupati or Shirdi. For the rest, it is just an extension of suffering in real life. They have to suffer lack of basic hygiene facilities, touts, sub standard food at "gods" prices, endless meandering queues that can be routinely bypassed by the right "contacts".

Of late, the visit to temples is less of a pilgrimage, than it is a weekend visit to a temple. Shirdi from Bombay was one of the earliest destinations, Vaishnodevi too was one such destination up north, as were perhaps others from their respective nearest cities. With faster travel, people from many other cities find they can reach (say)Tirupati. With its air, bus and rail connectivity, more and more modes of transport deposit ever increasing number of devotees to the temple. Weekends at Tirupati can be maddening. One can reach in the morning and get an appointment for darshan only the next day evening. Three day weekends are more crowded. Tirupati, is of course, a beautifully organised place (because of its darshan tickets) if one can bear the longish queues (all places are beautifully organised for the well heeled with the right connections). In most of the other place, organising means just barricades, sweaty queues,crowd control by attendants who can be "bribed" for people to break queues.

At the end of the sweaty ordeal what a devotee gets is a three second darshan of the lords form and pushed and shoved by rude attendants and police. I dont know how Vatican or Mecca manage their crowds, but I am sure something can be done for the mass of Indias pilgrims which have given Tirupati the second richest place of devotion in the world (after the Vatican). Sabarimalai ( it is open only for a few months a year), Vaishnodevi and Siddhivinayak are among the other richer temples.

P.S.Leaving all question of devotion aside, I still cannot understand what do people achieve by breaking queues (which is ethically wrong) when they come to visit a temple (which is the paragon of ethically right).

So what does a temple town economy thrive on? Temple towns' economy thrives on, simply put, the needs of the pilgrim ranging from boarding to lodging to other facilities. Do they satisfy the need of the pilgrim (devotee) fully? Usually not. Exorbitant prices, substandard services are usually the norm. In the land of gods, everybody is out to make a fast buck at the cost of the hapless devotee. Our temple towns desperately need a face lift and an alleviation of the suffering that devotees endure as part of the "darshan" process.

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