Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Offerings to the Goddess of Smallpox

He is three years old, and tired. I don't blame him, it's pretty early in the morning for me too. And it's Sunday. He doesn't complain at all though as his uncle pulls him onto his lap and grandpa pulls out a razor. It's a sacrifice to the goddess, to Maryamman the goddess of smallpox, measles, mumps, and the village of chavadipudur where I am staying. They wet his little head down first and then grandpa starts shaving. Little curls of black hair fall to the ground and before long he has a stripe of bald skin on the top of his little head. He doesn't react at all. He just sits on his uncle's lap and yawns a bit while Grandpa shaves off all his hair and Mom and Dad snap photos. He is stoic and almost bored throughout as if to say "business as usual". After all, this is his fourth head shave.

Your hair is your beauty, you see, and if you give that to the goddess she will bless you in return. His first head shave was dedicated to his father's main caste god, when he was nine months old. Caste is a tricky thing in India, and I won't go into all the details. Let's just say it's kind of like a family lineage in this case. His second head shave went to his mother's main caste god, and then I think they returned to his mother's native village for a head shave to that village goddess. This head shave is more for his paternal grandmother who, living in this village, is beholden to Maryamman.

Eventually, having twisted his head this way and that and shaved it clean of any hair, he gets a bath. A tiny little boy standing behind the temple trying not to fall over as his grandmother splashes him with buckets of water. Again, no crying. He just covers his eyes or smiles up at grandma with those huge brown eyes and ridiculously long eyelashes.

Shaved, bathed, and clothed once more he gets a nice layer of sandalwood on his newly-bald head. It dries quickly and leaves his head painted yellow. Now for the offerings to the goddess.

Within the inner shrine of the temple the priest and his son begin to minister to the idol of Maryamman. They douse her in rosewater, cover her in flowers, and chant at her while ringing a bell. Then they remove the flowers and cover her in curd with more chanting and bell ringing. They wash off the curd and replace it with red liquid, more chanting, more bell. Wash away the red, shower her with ghee (like a butter/cheese thing) and chant and ring. On and on it goes, each time they shower the statue with a new substance and chant and ring and circle her face with a flame, and then they rinse her off and start again with some other offering. There must have been about fifteen layers of offering, and poor little baldy got bored. He is supposed to be sitting with his palms together just outside the inner shrine, but instead he is sliding across the floor and trying to play clapping games with uncle. Eventually, the stench of the various offerings having wafted out of the shrine and into our nostrils, it will end. The priest will close the curtain and put out the flames and turn of the recording that has been repeating "om, shanti, om" for two hours now, and we will all disperse. Them to their car to drive back to Bangalore and me to the dirt path leading to the next village where church is being held today.

All in all, a very religious day.

No comments: