I was in Southern India with Overseas Adventure Travels for two weeks this year, and added an additional two weeks on my own afterwards. Their Southern India trip, Soul of India, is rich with the culture and natural beauty that typifies soulful southern India. It was truly inspiring to be in a country with such religious and ethnic diversity. And even during troubled times, their diversity and religious freedom is part of their law, embedded in their constitution. So while Hinduism is a dominant religion there, so is Buddhism, Jainism, Sikkim, and Christianity, Judaism had seedlings there as well, with many in the large Jewish population playing an important part in the spice and tea trades of the South before the people moved on as part of their own diaspora. Aside from the religious diversity, the Indian people there speak over 137 languages, and have over 3,000 casts and sub-casts!
But Hinduism stops me in my tacks when I travel throughout Asia. I feel something very special in Hindu temples, and along with the music of the Indian classical stringed instrument the veema, I felt literally transported at the Big Temple in Tanjore as it is called, More formally it is known as Brihadeeswarar Temple. But with the sun casting a glow on the temple in the late afternoon and the veema being performed by a professional troupe, I closed my eyes and did not want to leave. I could have stayed there all day.
I was given blessings at every turn on this trip, which is part of made it feel so special. We even blessed the bus with garlands before starting out, and that day received the Blessing of the Garlands ourselves. We broke coconuts against a wall until they smashed in two, a way to rid ourselves of the demons which might prevent us from having a wonderful trip. It didn’t matter that most of us were Jewish, myself included. We took it all in, and in the spirit of these blessings, even the least religious of us (me!) made spontaneous blessings at the synagogue in Cochin, which has the oldest synagogue in Asia.
We noticed similarities to Judaism in the Hindu blessings. Both utilize your hands covering your eyes when making the blessing. In Judaism that is more optional, but always done when lighting the Sabbath candles. In Hinduism it is always done, often over a small candle held by a priest. The priest then hands you a small garland and places a dot on your forehead. Its a simple ceremony, but people line up daily to receive the blessing.
In one small village where we met the local townspeople, our group went out into the sea in boats to catch fish. I decided not to go, but the entire group stood in line at the town’s small temple to receive a blessing beforehand. And maybe because I have become more interested my own faith over the last ten years, or maybe not, but I found nothing unusual about getting blessings at every turn and in every temple, in a religion that was not my own.
In the end, on a trip like this, these blessings are not about religion. I never once felt in conflict with my Western traditions nor did it ever feel improper. These experiences are about learning new and different cultures, mores and traditions. They expand our horizons, they gave us something to bring back besides wooden elephants, factory made for tourists, or sandalwood incense. I also came home with a pocket version of The Bhagavad Gita one of the many Hindu sacred texts. I felt a need or learn why the sights, sounds and the blessings of Hinduism reach me at a deep level, and so consistently. But I also came home with an understanding of a people and a religion far greater than the typical souvenir. Having a series of experiences like these blessings, which move me so deeply that I need to continue to learn, is a rare gift in travel. And like the trip to India itself, I was blessed to have it.