Ecumenical but absent

The scenes that catch my eye these days are quite a distance from the National Geographic school of photography that I so aspired to graduate from.  I can’t really categorise the new vision but this photo of a makeshift shrine assembled on the windowsill of a busy commercial street in Bangalore’s wholesale market area captures elements of it.

What caught my eye initially was the faded calendar picture of Jesus.  How Christ is depicted and worshipped in India is one of my ongoing photographic projects, and in recent years I’ve made hundreds of pictures of the Indian Jesus.  But upon closer examination what was far more interesting to me is the collection of gods, idols, pictures (all washed out by the elements) and miscellaneous paraphernalia, some religious, some not that has been put together by the ‘priest’ of this temple.

What can we say about this priest?  He is patriotic, witness India’s tricolour hanging flaccidly in the centre of the frame.  Despite having a brush to keep things clean, he’s fallen behind in his domestic duties. He’s probably been on his own for years, like most ‘holy men’ that wander around India, because he makes his own chapattis, confirmed by the rolling pin that balances the brush but on the other side of the picture. He’s an ecumenical sort of believer. If he were here he would probably be quite an engaging philosopher. He has images of Jesus (the Christian diety), Durga (the embodiment of the Feminine Spirit), Ganesh (the God of Auspicious Beginnings), Shree Venkateswara one of South India’s more popular forms of Vishnu, whose name means “the lord who destroys the sins of the people”, a sandalwood figurine that looks like a Buddhist demigod and a ‘temple view’ of Tirupathi one of the richest temples in India.

Most of all we get the sense that the priest is not around. Perhaps he’s ill and hasn’t had time to freshen the garlands and sweep the altar. There’s a sense of abandonment here. Yet the bamboo lathe slightly to the right seems recently placed there and not at all dusty or disused. So perhaps, our priest friend is away collecting some last minute items for a pad yatra (pilgrimage) to Tirupathi. Soon he will return, grasp his lathe and begin the slow long journey south.

Aum Shankar!


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