Two dozen women wrapped in neon pink, orange and yellow bejeweled saris dance and prostrate before the elaborate shrine. Their bare feet slap against the marble floor, silver anklets tinkling in time with the copper gongs they beat over and over, as a tangerine-robed guru passes a flaming oil lamp over a statue of the Hindu god Krishna.
“These women come here every day for at least one and a half hours,” yells my guide Vineet Sharma over the din, the short, smiley owner of Jaipur Walks who has shepherded me to Jaipur’s Gopinath Mandir temple this morning. Right now, says Vineet, the women are giving Krishna his daily wake-up call. “We Hindus treat our gods as living beings so we have to wake them up, give them food, change their clothes … It keeps us very busy!” I look up at the shrine and notice Krishna is indeed dressed in a little burgundy and gold dress, with necklaces draped around his neck and flowers tucked behind his ears.
It seems weird. A little crazy, even. But then that’s Hinduism – and Jaipur, and the whole of India, really – for you. This morning at least, as Vineet takes me on his religious walking tour of some of Jaipur’s 300-odd temples, he’s helping me discover the wonderful in the weird.
Stepping outside we find ourselves back in Jaipur’s chaotic swirl. Motorcycles and rickshaws snarl around us as street vendors hawk their wares from the crumbling pavements. We’re inside the walled city, the oldest part of Jaipur, which Vineet tells me encloses 6.8 square kilometres and dates back to 1727.
“When this walled city was created,” yells Vineet over his shoulder as he forges ahead, “it was made for 40,000 people. But now there are 350,000, which makes this one of the densest, dirtiest, most congested parts of the city!” No sooner has he spoken these words we come across a whopping mound of rubbish, on which a dozen pigs and two small cows are feasting. It’s confronting. But then we turn a corner, ascend a set of stairs, and suddenly we’re in a different world. A cool, quiet temple, open to the sky, with light indigo walls reflecting the morning sun. A guru sits cross-legged to one side, dressed in white with a long grey beard, reciting scriptures that sound like a song.
“This is Balanand ji ka Math temple, a Hindu monastery for warrior saints,” whispers Vineet as we watch the guru. “Within Hinduism, the followers of the gods Shiva and Vishnu used to fight in fierce battles where people would get killed. These warrior saints, which we call naga sadhus, started as a reaction to that, to bring peace.” The term “warrior saint” seems a little contradictory, I tell Vineet. “That’s true, but there are a lot of contradictions in this religion!” he laughs, ushering me back outside and over to a street food stand to try a steaming vegetable samosa. I wouldn’t have been game to try it on my own, but Vineet assures me it’s safe and my goodness, it’s delicious.
We eat on the move and soon reach the Ramachandra temple, a 286-year-old ex-haveli, or mansion, converted into a temple in 1894. We enter through a series of elegant Rajasthani archways and find ourselves in a tranquil central courtyard.
“This temple is devoted to Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu,” says Vineet matter-of-factly as we wander through the shrine area, past stacks of colourful prayer booklets and big bronze gongs draped with wooden prayer beads. “Vishnu actually has 10 known incarnations including a fish, a turtle, a bull, Ram, Krishna … We Hindus also consider Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu.”
I nod my head, but I’m officially bamboozled. Not that it really matters. With its 330 million gods, who could say they really understand Hinduism anyway, I tell myself as we head to the marble producing area.
Here, in this buzzing warren of alleyways lined with tiny indigo-walled workshops, an estimated 35,000 men (some say it could be 70,000) carve the devotional statues we’ve seen in the temples this morning.
“Any temple or household in India, if they’re looking for a marble statue of a Hindu god they come to here,” says Vineet as we peer into a workshop. We’re greeted by a group of smiling, dust-covered men. One of them is straddling a Buddha statue the size of his own body, chiselling away at the pale stone. “All these statues come from a single piece of marble,” says Vineet, pointing at the Buddha. “If there is a single join, Hindus won’t worship it.”
Just when I think things can’t get any more odd, we reach our last stop of the morning; a tailor for the gods. Yep, you buy your marble statue, then come here to get it dressed by men who spend their lives creating tiny outfits – different ones for each season, no less – to keep the gods on trend.
Weird, a little crazy even, but totally wonderful.
Nina Karnikowski travelled at her own expense.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED ONLINE HERE AND IN PRINT
Samode Haveli is a 175-year-old mansion belonging to the royal family of Jaipur, members of which still live on site. There are lush gardens and a luxurious pool, and their restaurant offers some of the most delectable food in town. The 39 rooms and suites are all different in style with four-poster beds, carved archways, marble work and opulent rugs and antiques. Rooms from about $170 a night, excluding taxes.NEED TO KNOW
Jaipur Walks offers five different walks, each revealing a different side of the city. Walks include religious, built heritage, bazaars, cuisine and art and crafts, and run for three to four hours early in the morning or late in the afternoon. $15 per person; contact firstname.lastname@example.org.