Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On heat, puja, and India

Image of plane taxing into resting place on the runway in Mumbai, India.Dear Gentle Reader,

In the beginning...

...your humble scribe arrived in Mumbai (Bombay) in the middle of the night.

The plane stopped on the tarmac, away from the airport hangar and close to the enclosing wall of the airfield.

A tired member of the unwashed herd of long-distance air travellers, your humble scribe slowly descended the portable steps that had wheeled up to the aircraft and banged into a wall of heat.

Struggling onto the tarmac, I waited on the dark airstrip for a bus to come to whisk us all, in fits, towards our luggage and towards immigration.

That bus didn't come; I waited in the shadow of action.

Some words of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) came into my mind (from his poem "The Hollow Men")

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

It was past midnight and yet the temperature was still around 40°C (around 104°F); the temperature acted as a soporific on my body yet my mind was heating up.

It felt as if a shadow had descended upon me.

Waiting on the tarmac, the night air settled like a hot, heavy cloak about my shoulders, back, and calves. It swaddled me then started to suffocate me.

The ever increasing weight of the air pressed the moisture out of my body; someone was trying to make paneer out of me.

(Paneer is a pressed cottage cheese used in every regional cuisine of India.)

Standing on the runway, waiting with the masses for my bus, I could not see, though I could feel, this heavy, shadowy cloak of hot air, spun from the finest spider silk, which held me still.

The cloak baked the water out of me and baked my will into aquiescence.

As the folds of the cloak touched, they stuck and held fast, constraining movement and muffling eyes and ears.

The dark seemed darker.

The night, even on a runway, seemed quieter and stiller.

As I acclimatised to the stifling heat and reduced mobility enforced by that cloak, I attempted to fix my waning attention onto India, and it's sensory canvas that, notwithstanding the cloak, was just starting to open, like the jewel in the lotus.

Even there, on a black, fuel-stained, barren-seeming, barely-lit, patch of runway, the sensory canvas of India is rich.

Yes, this canvas was obscured to the eyes by darkness, to touch by the heavy cloak of hot air, and to taste by common sense.

Yes, the diminished sound palette was mainly whooshes of planes taking off and the heat-deadened whumps of tires absorbing the weight of landing planes.

Yet the canvas was then revealed, that moment, by a palette of scents.

The runway was decorated with aromatic petroleum distillates and jet fuel exhaust that danced in swirls around my head and body.

Hot particulate rubber, from airplane wheels vapourised by mediating the impact between descending planes and unyielding tarmac, formed a nasal bass note mixing and binding the exhalations of over fourteen million residents and visitors.

The sweaty tang of fellow passengers and various ground crews mixed with the leftover spices of tens of thousands of different Indian dinners, cooked in the neighbouring slums, to form olfactory top notes.

And, wafting over all of this, the scent of puja.

I could smell India.

I awoke.


India, for me, always awakens the soul with its abundance of sensory inputs; it's a myriad sights, textures, tastes, sounds, smells, ideas, and modes of existence.

For me, there is nothing like waking up to the smell of puja in the morning.

Anytime you arrive in India it is morning for the soul, and the smell of India, and the smell of puja, will surely wake you up.

Wait, what is puja?

Puja (पूजा in Devangiri script) is a Sanskrit word which encompasses everything from worship to reverence to adoration to honour to recognition of the smallness of the self and the appropriate order of beings in the cosmos.

Puja really corresponds to a series of rituals, specific for the God or Guru being supplicated and, sometimes, for the benefice or boon sought, or the action or transaction which is sought to be blessed or consummated.

Puja consists of thoughts conveyed through actions, motions, words, and offerings.

Image of celebrants involved in a puja for Hanuman's birthday, Hanumanji, in Hanuman's main temple in Nagpur, India.
Ideally, puja is conveyed to the heavens, and to the appropriate God or Goddess or Avatar or Guru, through smoke.

And what better smoke is there to waft up and offer to the heavens than incense?

Incense (from the Latin incendere, to burn) is common to many religions.

Roman Catholics and High Anglicans and Russian Orthodox all have censors in their services throwing off gouts of incense. Most religions in India also use incense; Indians just use more.

Incense, physically, starts with something to burn.

The burning agent is usually wood powder, bark powder, and charcoal. These are held together with a binding agent like gum arabica, or jital, a plant-based binding agent, also used in India.

The good incense, in India, surrounds a core of sandalwood and various unguents and oils are blended into the burning agents.

The more scented oils you want to use, the more burning agent you need to have.

The incense should smoulder slowly, at just the right heat level, to release a smoke column with released, but not burned, fragrant oils that fill the room, the nose, the sky, and the consciousness of everyone involved in the puja--from the Gods down to the celebrants and the supplicants and the offerants.

And onto the cows and dogs and rats and elephants, too. (All the normal things you find in a major urban centre...)


Every act.

Every transaction.

Every aspect of life has its own attendant puja if only you have the right funds and the available time.

Image of a puja ceremony to Hanuman in Nagpur, India.
This means that no matter where you are in India, the scent of fragrant oils and smoke will be pouring over you in greater or lesser amounts. Even in an international airfield in the centre of the fifth largest metropolitan center on the planet, by population.

And, with the ineffable weight of the hot, wet air sticking me, literally, to a spot, and with my brain and body liquefying from my spider silk heat cloak, the scent of puja in the air opened my nose and my third eye, as my yogic friends would say.


Most of the time your humble scribe does not think of air.

It's like your health--you only tend to be aware of it when you lose it, which is why waterboarding sounds so terribly awful to your humble scribe.

Most of the time your humble scribe does not think of air.

But, with the hot weight of that Indian sky physically collapsing and compressing my body, I thought of air that first night in India.

I thought of how air had weight and substance. I marvelled at how it carried fragrances, both pungent and sweet.

Existence alone became a puja and I rapidly became aware of my place in the cosmos (a puddle on on the pavement).


Because disease and ill health not only stalk you in India, they surround you and beg for your blessings. Even over the walls of the slums. Even at night (though this picture was taken on a later visit).

Image of the slums, in the daytime, huddled against the walls of Mumbai's International Airport.
Which brought me to the next stanza of the introductory poem...
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

(T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, again)

It makes sense, to me, that when the smell and look of disease, disaster, and famine can, and do, stare you in the face around every corner, that one would have a heightened appreciation for the divine and a desire for divine intervention.

It made sense to me, that night, that there are 33+ million incarnations of deities in the Hindu Pantheon.

Everyone has a special need, and if one request failed, it's nice to know that you have other avenues to try out.

Someone needs to be on your side when the air and heat is beating down...

Image of the Andhakasuravaha; Lord Shiva impaling the great demon Andhaka and collecting his blood in a cup so that none falls to the earth to regenerate new demons...
So you light your incense
to do your puja
to ask for blessings
you raise them up on hot, scented air.

That hot, heavy air, however, continues to press down upon you, fating you to misery, or at least to discomfort.

So you dream of redemption and think of alternatives that you haven't considered before.

Until the bus with it's fans arrives, to whisk you to immigration, modernity, and a two hour wait for luggage to be offloaded and delivered.

But, really, you cannot complain, not when you know how hot it is outside and how miserable the men collecting the luggage must feel. For "Life is very long" and there is no gain in getting upset at some things.

Just enjoy the bliss of the breeze.

And thus ended the first night in India.



Cloudia said...

Aloha, Chris:
I must admit that my eyes glazed over in the paleozaic stage of your history of philosophy in this post.

If you were trying to make us FEEL the overwhelming quality of being overcome by all the simultenaeity and puja of India you have well succeeded.

Need to lie down now; but I look forward to being deilightfully bamboozled by your brilliance again tomorrow!

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Cloudia,

I'm with you. It is a bit long.

So I just cut all the philosophy and history of science out of it.


That will likely go back as a second post, later.


debra said...

Although it is raining in NE OH, and the air here is the penetrating damp cold of early Spring, I can feel and taste the air in India. Now I shall read the next post as I sip my tea.

Richard said...

the night breath of a billion sleepers. RW

India...streets like rivers of anguish. Pablo Neruda

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Debra,

What a compliment. Thank you very much. I hope it warms (the tea).

Dear Richard,

Fantastic first line (I presume its yours) and apt second line.

We are certainly on the same page.

I don't smoke, but I saluted you and your poetry with a few glasses.


Junosmom said...

Ah, so I see where you were. My boy is in the Khammam District, at least 400 miles (or a lifetime away maybe in India) from Mombai. I just read an article about how the movie Slumdog isn't reality (what movie is?) and that the life there is much more bleak.

Sepiru Chris said...


I have yet to see Slumdog Millionaire. I'll give you my take when I see it. :) (That won't be until after May 15, though.)