An illustrated travel report of a surprising Hindu rite

By Nold Egenter

1) Panorama of Kovalam Beach at the southern tip of India. Like Goa the Beach became known in the 1960ies as an alternative place to stay in India and still today attracts rather young people in a rather natural  atmosphere not yet spoiled by commercial hotel chains.

2) The initial arrangement consists of four poles indicating a square of about 5 m side length. The 'plan' of the temporary 'ceremonial hall' is laid out with strips of  palmleaves imitating somehow with very ancient means an architects plan on the spot. The poles consist of banana trees with their tops cut off  and with their leaves and outer barks peeled off. They are thus of a pure white colour. In the centre of all four sides openings or gates are indicated, protruding towards the outside. Evidently there is a frontside and a backentrance. The front entrance is directed towards a small temporary hut in which the local deity will be set up. As one of the first decorative elements a square of about 70 cm sidelength is marked in the same way with palmleaves stretched on the ground. It shows 16 squares inside and evidently indicates some sort of a mandala.  It is the first part of the whole arrangement which is decorated with red and white flower petals and green leaves.

3) The temporary hut which will serve as temporary temple for the local deity. Its structure consists of wooden poles and a flat roof covered with grasses. Sides are covered with textiles, the backside wall with a more costly cloth. The front edge of the roof shows the guarland of hanging palmleaves   charcteristic for all sacred places in Hinduism.

4) Detail of the 'mandala' with its basic decoration nearly finished . The 16 squares are clearly visible.

5) Detail of one of the four entrance openings of the ground plan of the 'ceremonial hall'. A triangle with its top points towards the opening.

6) One of the entrance-related triangles covered with white and red petals. In the centre part of a banana leaf is spread. It contains various offerings.

7) The 'mandala' near the ground plan's opening towards the temporary temple hut is finished now. Red petals form the outer line of the frame made with leaves. In the centre the 16 square grid is left visible. The outer triangle too is covered with petals and offerings but not yet framed with leaves. In the opening there is a banana leaf, an oil lamp, a cocos nut and other offerings.

8) The completed opening towards the temple. A bunch of bananas is added and a freshly harvested  rice stalk.

9) The priests assistants have finished their preparations and have gathered their various ritual tools like skewers and white strings on a bananaleaf at the front corner of the temple hut.

11) Most observers of this rite would doubless miss this detail. But in the framework of architectural anthropology it gains an enormous weight. There is no 'roof' in this symbolic structure, but the hut is complete because the four poles which define it are conceived in the sense of polarity. They represent above and below, heaven and earth in the most elementary aesthetic expression of proportion. Proportion not as abstracted yet, but materially bound. Protruding indefinitely above a well defined portion. Thus the hut is defined by means of a philosophical principle or an elementary aesthetics. it needs no roof to protect those who 'live' in it.

12) The 'temporary ceremonial hall' can also be interpreted as a transitory space, a gate towards the deity. The harmonious principle of polarity gives it a high ontological value. Its form is part of the unity of all things in this world of pre-analytical cognition. Most Westerners would just consider this arrangement as a 'primitive' rite in the domain of 'primtive belief'.

13) The assisants of the priest are preparing various instruments used in the rite.

14) White strings and small wooden skewers partly covered with a white tip. The concept of polarity is the general concept that unites all in this world.

15) The outlined 'walls'  are decorated with leaves and flower petals. Large pots with water have been brought to the place on which leaves and flower petals are floating, ready to be sprinkeled into the defining elements of the temporary cult hall.

16) The triangles outlined at the four corners of the cult hall too are richly decorated with green leaves and white and red flowers. In the centre an banana is laid down and arrowed with a small wooden skewer prepared before the rite by the assistants.

17) Detail of the finished triangle at one of the four corners. In the centre a banana leaf cut into a square form is laid down and on it various offerings are put, among others a banana with a wooden skewer.

18) A long procession with umbrellas and music moves along the beach and comes to the temporary sanctuary. in the centre of the procession the figure of the local deity is carried. It is richly decorated

19) The figure of the deity is set up at the back of the temporary temple hut. Flower guarlands are set around it evidently as a very ancient expression of religio, which is, however, not understood anymore in its original meaning of creating harmony, the ontological principle of polarity. Offerings are put on plates and containers at its feet. Evidently this anthropomorphic deity as it appers today is an expression of historic Hinduism. But many indicators can give us clues about its evolution.

20) In the first part of the ceremony the priest performs a   Hindu ceremony of the puja type arranging offerings and using fire for purification.

21) Musicians then indicate a change in the ceremony by accelerating the rythms and loudness of sounds and beats.

22) Suddenly the priest jumps up, seizes the trident, runs out of the ceremonial hall and starts to produce gestures of agressivity. The dynamic part of the rite begins.

23) The priest again enters into the ceremonial hall and forms a kind of phalanx with his assistants and then suddenly takes a sword and attacks the ceremonial hall by wildly cutting the four symbolic cornerpoles into pieces.

24) Of course the peeled banana stems offer no resistance, the strikes with the sharp sword are very effective.

25) The whole neatly planned and richly decorated arrangement now looks entirely devastated

26) The place has been given back to chaos. The human order is destroyed. In its original cyclic setting of a village sanctuary - when there were no permanent temples with anthropomorphous deities -  the sequence must have been reversed. At the end of the year-cycle, the old symbolic structure was destroyed. This literally was the reason for the ek-stasy of the settlements' order, the dynamic and lively festival type we know from all over India. Then again, after a short time, the new order was established leading the settlements inhabitants to orderly normal life. In the present  condition the structure is defined by the permanently static place of the temples in the villages and  the evolved anthropomorphous deities which are usually put into a dynamic stage by carrying them around on carts and the like.  The non-durable fibrous constructions, the cyclic precursors, have become the merely temporary content of the rite. They wore preserved as the most important part for the local inhabitants because they were the most important content of the earlier cultic festivals. Thus, by describing the rites not from their inherent beliefs usually nurtured by historical concepts but as a behavioural tradition we might have found a new anthropological meaning which migt be much more ancient  than the historical interpretations based on beliefs.