As an auntie jabbed her elbow deeper and deeper into the small of my back in an effort to propel me further into the mass of humanity waiting to enter the temple and the infant wedged into his mother’s arms next to me wailed his thousandth cry of protest, I wondered why I had let myself become convinced that visiting this shrine was a good thing to do on my only day off. My dear friend and colleague had been talking about this particular place for months and to her and many other Hindus, it was a religious site of especial importance. Nathdwara is the small dusty town in Rajasthan which boasts the Shrinathji Temple – an “infant” incarnation of Lord Krishna. The temple is an important place of pilgrimage and opens only a few times a day to allow devotees to flood in for a glimpse of the small, carved monolith before being whisked outside by the crowd.
Upon our arrival, we walked through countless streets with the feeling of a carnival that never really ends, with a plethora of street vendors selling deities and other religious objects, as well as countless fried foods – the purple glow of ube root looking even more attractive underneath the glisten of still-hot oil. As we walked into the temple area, I was not over-awed by my surroundings, but more by the sheer mass of people who quickly began to crowd, push, and inch their way towards the wrought-iron gates barring the way. In addition, the sheer mass of commercialism at this place was overpowering – infinite items were for sale as well as the “tour-guide” services of tiny, pushy temple boys – regardless of the fact that the temple consisted of one small room.
As the time went on and Shivani and I became more and more compressed in this writhing mob of women, we suddenly heard a bell ring – the men had been released. Kept in sex-specific areas, a huge flood of men suddenly leapt from an unseen holding zone – running, pushing, leaping to be at the front of the pack. The stream seemed to never end – sometimes trickling off, only to be continued by another fresh batch – all the while the women behind the bars of the temple, waiting their turn and growing impatient. I was near the front and the sheer force of an entire room of women leaning towards me was making me a little nervous for when the gates finally opened. Images of unfortunate souls who trip and fall during the Running of the Bulls came to mind. Soon, the women were angry. They were uncomfortable and crowded and tired of watching man after man have his fill of religious piety. Collective chanting and rattling of bars filled the room – the concentrated anger of Indian women deprived of their opportunity to worship. The male guards that stood on the other side began to look uneasy. The clamor escalated to deafening levels with female outcries intermingling with the unhappy howls of their children.
Suddenly the gate opened and I was pushed with a human battering ram forward, forward, forward into the small room that housed the goal of many pilgrimages to this place. The small black carving of Krishna was visible, but barely, among the frantically worshipping crowds – desperate to have the time to say their prayers before being pushed out by the next wave of zealots. And then I was out – blinking confusedly in the bright sunlight, feeling slightly lonely without the constant pressure of many bangled, wrinkled arms pressing against me. And as I walked back into the town again, I had more questions than answers – as usually follows most experiences I have in India. Questions about the sanctity of religious worship when it becomes unrecognizably commercial, about the meaning of pilgrimage and what it meant for those worshipers who got only a few seconds in the presence of their god, and especially the powerful metaphor of that alive and shouting mass of women, kept locked behind a gate and guarded by men, while male devotees sprinted ahead and took the first spoils of religious fruit, while they shouted and shook the bars and demanded to be let loose.