Down the road again for a one night stop in Somnath to view yet another great pilgrimage site before heading on to Diu. How many noteworthy temples are there in India? Do not even ask! As we rolled into town we passed a harbour crammed with fishing boats, seemingly moored in a roiling brew of blood and fish guts. The boats were an arresting sight, but could not compete with the overwhelming odour of the place.
Somnath about whose founding a mythical story is told of it being rebuilt 3 times, first in gold, then in silver, then in wood, was first mentioned by an Arab traveller in 1026 and described in such glowing terms that Mahmoud of Ghazni a legendary looter was inspired to sack the place and murder thousands of its adherents. That was just the first of such sackings, every time the place was rebuilt, someone blew through and tore it down. Finally after 200 years in ruins, the present reconstruction began in 1950 and so far it continues with no further challenges.
It is a lovely temple both outside and in, with its intricate carvings and motifs from three major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. The resident deity is Shiva, seen as both the destroyer and paradoxically the renewer of life. Shiva is represented by a lingam, a penis like object, which in this case is huge and black with two eye like projections on the front. Wherever one finds a lingam, a yoni representing the female genitalia is nearby. Shiva’s vehicle is Nandi, the bull, and a half life size statue graces the inner temple area. Other gods are represented in niches in the walls — Ganesh, Hanuman, Laxmi, to name a few well known ones.
Unfortunately for amateur photographers, cameras and cell phones are not allowed inside the temple. In fact you have to deposit your bags in a lock up far from the entrance to the temple, then remove shoes and deposit them in another check room. Then, through separate male and female gates, visitors enter a security area with a metal detector like the airlines have, and are physically patted down to ensure compliance with the rules. Tough luck for the photographer!
We got dropped off by our tuk tuk near the gate but decided to wander in the winding back streets of tiny Somnath before entering the temple. There Doug could photograph other small temples and shrines, and we enjoyed the relative calm of the tiny streets without tuk tuks and cars — though no one excludes the ubiquitous motor bikes.
Somnath is on the sea’s edge and to access the beach one wanders through a carnival like melange of small shops and vendors, including a tattoo artist who was inking people as they sat on the filthy path, using an electric needle plugged in by an extension cord to a light fixture. I watched as one young woman had hers finished and rinsed off, then he turned to the next customer with nary a swipe at his used needle. A lot of the tribal women here are covered with tiny spidery tattoos on their arms from shoulder to wrist, and sometimes on neck and shoulders. These are not pictures such as we are used to, but symbols done in black ink. Many of them look like fish skeletons or insects, this young woman seemed to have chosen a scorpion. I imagine they are charms. It’s a wonder anyone has a liver left what with the hygiene conditions.
We had come to the temple for the “arthi” a puja ceremony held at 7 pm to honour the deity with light and fire. We entered the temple half an hour before and joined the others processing up towards the altar of the deity, with crowd confined between two rows of brass railings, one side for men, the other for women. The priest was on the altar, busying himself draping cloths here and there at the base of the lingam, with a more physical depiction of the black faced deity dressed in elaborate brocade behind. As each person passed the large bull, he or she stopped to whisper in his ear — wishes and requests for wealth, health, help with examinations, pregnancies, job searches and so on. A large turtle draped in brocade was stroked for luck I assume . Large metal boxes waited for the essential donations, and people offered garlands, gold plaques, and I think ghee, directly at the altar. As soon as everyone had gone up, each took a place beside the rails on each side of the aisle. Doug and I wedged ourselves near the rear with our backs to pillars to ease our aching backs from the lengthy period of standing, each on the gender appropriate side of the temple of course.
Just before 7 a tremendously loud blast from a kind of bugle sounded from a kind of choir loft above and behind the congregation. Immediately the whole band struck up with a discordant braying of horns, clashing of cymbals, banging drums and the occasional loud peal of bells. Everyone leapt to his or her feet and rushed the rail, fortunately I was wedged into my spot and tall, as no one is better at pushing and shoving than a certain type of very short Indian woman. Everyone began clapping with raised arms and chanting a short mantra over and over, prefaced by “Shiva-ji”, quite hypnotic. I felt compelled to join at least with the clapping because it was too crowded to keep my arms at my sides.
The priest emerged and ignited a large brazier which emitted choking clouds of grey smoke, then taking up a couple more braziers he made his way through the crowd wafting smoke at all the peripheral deities. When he had wafted a great deal of it towards Shiva, he lit a very large candelabra and repeated the routine with that. During all this time, the crowd’s chanting became louder and more insistent, until people began to rush up the aisle towards the deity to deposit more offerings, pushed along by the usual brusque temple keepers.
At that point we decided to decamp, and slipped out our respective doors. I emerged to find Doug plunging frantically through the crowd, frightened of losing me in the crush and the darkness, though thousands of glittering oil lamps on every external niche of the temple lit the scene in a most glorious fashion. Outside a great many people were sitting on benches to watch the scene inside on a giant suspended TV screen!
We made our way the lengthy route back through security limping a bit in our bare feet towards the shoe lock up. There we encountered a hysterical little girl who had lost her family in the melee. The shoe attendant had seen it all before — “Missing” he said to us to calm our alarm and he hoisted her up on the shoe counter where she could wait to be reclaimed along with the family shoes. Another remarkable experience such as India is famous for!
On now for some Portuguese culture and the first beer in 5 weeks in the tiny island enclave of Diu.