"Oh I am not a temple goer."
"I only visit temples if they have some history."
"I only go to temples when there is nice dinner served."
This was me until just a few years ago. In my childhood, I have trudged to Tirupati for darshan but not been enthused. I have shot down every plan to visit Vaishnodevi and Kedarnath. But I've happily gone to Nainital, Darjeeling and Ooty.
Yet, I visited 9 temples yesterday and stayed up the whole night of Mahashivratri, that too in Singapore.
And I am asking myself how did this happen?
I think it started when Indian history became more than just an interesting subject. I always knew there was something dishonest about the historical narratives we learned at school, which varied drastically from what our families knew. As I delved deeper into history, temples assumed greater significance for me, but only ancient temples - which had historical value.
Now one cannot really understand Indian history unless one is an insider to the traditions, the experiences, the philosophies. You will wonder why people came to India - as foreign students, travelers, invaders, colonizers. You will ask how did Hinduism survive in India despite Abrahamic religions sweeping away every other religion in the world? What kept the flame of Hinduism burning when the religion of Egyptians, Persians and Native Americans got extinguished beyond redemption?
The answer seemed to lie in the hearts and minds of Hindus themselves - the Shaivas, the Vaishavas, the Smarthas, the Shaktas and hundreds of sub-divisions, sects, sampradayas, which are still forming today.
All that I scoffed at was not absurd any more. Those yatris. Those bhaktas. Those people who fasted for different deities. Those donors. The effect of uttering mantras loud and clear versus reading in your mind. I was coming to terms with my own ignorance.
And so when a dear friend suggested an all-nighter for Mahashivratri this year, I was one of the early respondents. What was first supposed to be a few cars going from temple to temple became a 45-seater bus. 9 temples were selected in Singapore, none of which I had visited in 13 years of my stay.
From 10 pm to 5 am, I experienced the magic of a civilization that had preserved its spirit down the ages. Hindus from every sect, every class - praying, reciting from their own books, sitting in silent meditation, all traversing their dharma and karma. Many looked like workers away from their homes and families. Others looked like locals who had lived in Singapore for a long time. And of course, there were immigrants like me - engineers, chartered accountants, bankers, writers, professionals. Generous donors had ensured there was delicious prasada for all. There was certainly something special about congregating for a festival, for a deity, for dharma. Why was I distancing myself from it?
Each temple I visited had a character of its own even if it was not ancient. Some were spacious and well laid out, others were small. Some stayed true to Indian forms of architecture, others were influenced by Chinese and modern forms. Most temples had all the major deities. If there was a homa happening in one part of a temple, there was a mangalaarti going on somewhere else. Sounds of nadaswaram and thavil evoked a feeling of momentousness. Light from homas, deepa kambhas and mangalaarti deepas created hypnosis. And the smells of incense, flowers, prasada - they evoked memories of a million moments in time.
I've often stayed awake at night to finish writing articles, to take thermometer readings of sick family members, to catch flights and wait at lounges.
But to stay awake for Mahashivaratri along with millions around the world is a different experience.
It made me feel good to be a Hindu.