Wednesday, January 28, 2009


The Hindu gods are everywhere in India – streetcorner shrines, home shrines, temples on every block and images painted on walls. They really are a part of daily life, worshiped every day, and everyone has his favorite.

My favorite is Ganesh, the elephant-headed god who is the Remover of Obstacles. In Jaisalmar, when there is a marriage, Lord Ganesh is painted on the outside wall with the date of the wedding and the names of the bride and groom. It makes it easy to keep tabs on your neighbors.

When we were touring the Taj Mahal in Agra, our guide, Komar, was describing the attributes of the various gods (like super heroes, they all have their own special powers) and he told us that President-elect Obama always carries in his pocket an image of Ganesh, the Elephant god. We didn’t argue, because Komar seemed so confident he was right. (After all, Obama could have gotten to know the Hindu gods when he was a schoolboy in Indonesia.)

The people of India are ecstatic about Obama’s election and consider him one of their own. Last week someone forwarded a YouTube link to a catchy Hindi pop song with English subtitles—a tribute to Obana. (Check it out at ) “Obama, we love you” goes one repeated lyric. ”He is ruling everyone’s heart despite skin color”

About halfway through the song the lyrics say, ”“A follower of Hanuman [the Monkey god] he has Ghandian beliefs.”

Well, I don’t know which Hindu god is Obama’s favorite. Hanuman, the Monkey god is a symbol of strength and tenacity. In Varanasi we went to a Hanuman temple that was jam-packed with worshipers and live monkeys. I had been warned about monkey bites --India does not have the right rabies vaccine and I would have to be flown out of the country immediately. Although I was keeping my distance, two separate monkeys grabbed hold of the pashmina shawl I was wearing and I had to do a tug of war both times to get my shawl back.

On our last morning in Varanasi we had breakfast on the roof of the Shiva Ganges View guesthouse overlooking the town, and we watched a number of monkeys leaping from roof to roof. A mother monkey, with her baby clinging to her back, jumped down to the balcony of a English guest house where a door had been left open. She emerged from the room with toast, then went back and got an orange, flying to a higher roof to eat it. After the English tourist inside yelled at her and slammed the door , she came back in through the window and stole the girl’s book and raced away. I think Hanuman the monkey god should be a symbol of craftiness and maybe the god of thieves.

In Jaisalmar I bought a beautiful carved “traveling altar” allegedly made of camel bone, (it’s old) in the shape of two hands doing the “Namaste” salute that is used to welcome friends everywhere. (It means “I salute your inner being”.) When the hands are opened you can see my pal Ganesh riding on his vehicle (a mouse or rat) and Laksmi, the goddess of Prosperity, who is riding on her vehicle – an owl.

When daughter Eleni was beside the Ganges, a statue of Laksmi washed up at her feet and she took it home and is still waiting for prosperity to come in the window like a monkey. There are about 300 Hindu gods, but about nine are the important ones, from Shiva the Destroyer to Krishna the Supreme being to Kali, the dark mother of death and Parvati, the fair and lovely divine mother.

I think Obama should probably carry all of them in his pocket along with his Blackberry—he could use all the help he can get.


Caroline said...

What gorgeous photographs, Joanie! Isn't it amazing to see art as an integral part of everyday life? In the US, it's hidden away in museums and people's houses, but in India it's everywhere...

I can't wait to see pictures of you in the blue shalwaar kameez!

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