Due to the difficulties in finding accommodation in Shillong online last night….our decision was to have another day in Guwahati and to try to catch up with our new friends we met at the zoo in Darjeeling, Rupam Saikai (nickname Babu) and his 23 year old daughter Roshni (nickname Ko). We had sent an email last night telling them of our change of plans but had not heard back so thought we may end up with a very quite day…..but we were pleasantly surprised around 9.30am when we received word they would come to meet us at 10.00am at our hotel. We had no idea what was in store…..but what an adventure we had!
It was so lovely to see them again and they greeted us so warmly….like we had known each other for years…it felt just like being in Pakistan again. They pointed out the local sites as we passed in their car…such as the Assam Legend’s monument, the Gate where the British first arrived and the various Puja’s set up for the celebrations from 20th -24th October for Durga Puja. Roshni explained that this is when the Goddess Parvati/Sati (wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesh) comes to earth each year in the form of Durga (with 10 heads and 10 arms) and she is very powerful and even killed the devil. The temple they were taking us to, Kamrup Kamakhya (named for the presiding deity, Goddess Kamakhya), is the most sacred shrine for Parvati/Sati, as it is where her reproductive parts fell when Lord Shiva carried her body over India in his grief after she died and it fell in 21 parts. The temple is closed for a month each year when the sacred water turns red ….this has been investigated as a miracle as no one can explain it.
We stopped at some lookout points on the way up the hill (Nilachala) to the temple and we saw the small island sitting in the Brahmaputra River, where the Goddess Sati and Lord Shiva first met and came together….it was very romantic. There were many other temples along the way….some with strange entrances such as a crocodile mouth.
The Durga Puja festival is huge in India and we were very fortunate to be at this particular temple on the special day that they honour small girls (pre pubescent) as they believe that the goddess resides in them….so they are pampered and treated like goddesses for the day. The place was so crowded, and a feast of colour and spectacle as far as the eye could see. The atmosphere was highly charged with excitement and yet at the same time strangely tranquil.
There were people everywhere….it was so interesting….beggars, holy men, widows and pilgrims from all over india in a kaleidoscope of colour and form in their magnificent traditional clothing….. usually specially purchased new for the Puja. Roshni explained the significance of the red, yellow and white themes as this is what the Goddess would wear.
The walkway towards the temple had many colourful stalls selling offerings and our host, Rupam, had surreptitiously already organised what we needed….females have to give the offerings for their families to receive blessings…. so Roshni and I had important work to do and I was to just follow her lead. There was a red scarf which would need to be tied around an idol of the goddess inside the temple …she needs to wear it….and there is incense to burn and sweets and food to offer. A little further along we had to take off our shoes and someone took them to store for us before we entered the temple complex…..this proved most exciting when we tried to retrieve them later….as I could have chosen from a series of beautiful and intricate shoes offered to me….none of which were mine!
Inside the complex, it was very crowded….the line for the entrance was massive….some people had been waiting since very early morning to get in. We saw some people placing coins on a statue of Ganesh, others were breaking coconuts in a special place….this is also a type of offering. There were animals being sacrificed…..Vince watched this but I soon scurried away when I realised what was happening….thankfully I was spared from seeing the actual events due to the crowds and my short height (there had to be a benefit to being short eventually)….but the sounds of goats bleating, smell of fresh blood, and seeing entrails being hung above the crowd’s heads on hooks on the wall was quite sufficient for me to understand. Vince told me they say a mantra and then the head is severed in one blow from a very sharp cycle shaped blade. Today it was goats, but they also had an area for buffalo that happens on other days! The head and some blood is taken into the temple and offered to the Goddess and placed at the shrine we would later circle. There were many goats of all kinds, as well as sheep and birds throughout the temple grounds…..some of these were gifts and would live at the temple and some would be sacrificed after being washed in the sacred pool.
Roshni took us down to a sacred pool where Vince and I followed her lead in washing our feet and hands before offering a prayer. We then were blessed and had a small red dot put on our foreheads by a priest. Next we proceeded to walk around the temple in a clockwise direction. Along the way we met some of Rupam’s friends, a high court judge, his wife and mother so we chatted a while. As we proceed further we saw an area where people were making offerings and ringing bells. Back at the entrance we met a Brahman priest who would guide us through the temple and instruct us along the way on what to do. He would recite the mantras and prayers in Ancient Sandscript for us to repeat. On our VIP tickets, our hosts had organised, we had special privileges including a fast track entrance into the temple.
It was very hot inside…even with fans on….and very crowded…we slowly weaved our way around a shrine to the Goddess (showing 10 Heads and 10 Arms) and into a little alcove to turn around. Our Brahman gave us flowers which we had to throw into the shrine after repeating the mantras and prayers he was saying….I did my best but the words were very difficult for me as I had never heard this language before. Next we were led down into the actual place were the body parts fell…..it was very very dark and the staircase hewn into the rock going steeply down was narrow and difficult to negotiate…at one point I became wedged as the space for the two lines going down and up narrowed and a lady with large hips came past….but a quick sideways manoeuvre managed to free me….she was unperturbed by the whole thing….personal boundary space is a none issue in India due to the density of population. At the bottom a priest instructed me to kneel down and take some of the sacred water and wash my face and then put a little in my mouth…I did this trying hard to dismiss any thoughts of potential health risks. He asked my name and then gave me a blessing. I made my way back up the staircase and at the top our Brahman presented me with a red and gold shawl and a pomegranate. Vince got a larger shawl and a special ivy type wreath placed around his neck….this had to be released at a later time into a body of water (NB we did this on 24.10.2015 at the river just before Dimapur). We found it a magical experience and very unique….we felt very privileged to have been allowed to participate in this very holy and sacred ritual….even though we are obviously not Hindu.
Outside we again had to circle the temple in a clockwise direction and then we had some photos taken….during which time a very large black goat took a shine to me and wanted to photobomb! He was friendly enough ….no horns involved this time thankfully….unlike my earlier Varanasi encounter with a bull. We met a local family whose children were quite fascinated with us (I’m fairly certain we were the only Westerners there) so we took some pictures together and they allowed me to photograph their daughter’s hands which had been highly decorated in henna.
After we left the temple we headed for the new home that the Saikia family are building. Rupam has designed and planned it all….and it has been a long journey punctuated with difficulties, including some very serious health issues he has overcome…..such a strong and determined man. You can see the love in the home already in the customisation and design for each of his family members. It will be a “palace” when it is complete, hopefully before the end of the year. He explained the third floor will be a fully self contained apartment….. so we can stay there not “IF” but “WHEN” we “come back to India (Assam)” …..he is so sweet.
Next we were taken to their current house and meet the rest of the family….who had been busy calling frequently….. enquiring when we were coming, as they were all so excited to meet us…..it made us feel so special and wanted. Rupam’s wife (Juri), middle daughter (Rodali 16yrs – nickname Dickley) and young son (Randip 9yrs – nickname Baba) were just as loving and welcoming as the rest of this beautiful Indian family. We all enjoyed a delicious home cooked lunch around 3.00pm and chatted long into the evening…when I admired some photos displayed around the room, we suddenly found ourselves sharing stories and family photograph albums. The family is very unique as Rupam is Hindu and his wife is Muslim….so they had quite an exciting love story to share. Juri and I sat and talked for ages about all kinds of things…..and I felt that we really connected with each other. The two girls even straightened my hair for me when I complained about my “side show Bob” look……we all had such fun! Although Vince and I love our travel and feel so fortunate to be able to see the world, the cost is being away from our family….but most of the time we try to push that aside and live in the moment to make the most of our adventure and avoid getting too homesick…..however, our evening surrounded in the bossom of this lovely family left us both quite homesick for our own blended family (5 children and 5 grandchildren (and one on the way)).
The family also presented us with special hand embroidered towel which is a traditional custom to welcome new guests. They are going to Shillong tomorrow and wanted us to come too….phone calls to contacts were made but even they could not pass the accommodation hurdle for us….everything was just booked out…..we were all a bit disappointed but I was quite philosophical about it ….if it was meant to be it would have happened.
Quite late….around 10.30pm we all went out for dinner after taking a drive past the many colourfully lit up Puja’s. Back at our hotel the children wanted to see the ANIMAL so we went and uncovered her….and they even got to sit on her….just this once we have broken our rule not to let anyone other that Vince and myself sit on the bike….but it felt so right and natural in that moment….a small but special treat we could give to them after their enormous generosity and hospitality all day. We had tried to pay our way several times and each time we were firmly rejected and told we would cause offence……we have heard this before…….India and Pakistan may not be as different as some people think. Incredibly welcoming, generous and hospitable!
It has been the most Incredible day……but again it is the people who have made all the difference and this wonderful family have made India very special for us….we are so lucky to have met them.