Ten days of akhanda kirtan are an annual delight at the Ram Mandir on the edge of the quiet and lush green Dadar Parsi colony in Mumbai. The chiming of cymbals and mellifluous chanting of “Sri Ram Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram”, round the clock, begins eight days before Ramnavmi and concludes the day after.
For the third time, in my experience, this celebration of Ramnam took place amidst a frenzied Lok Sabha election. Both the contrast and consonance of bhajan and politics opens up endless possibilities for looking within and outwards. At a time when one often feels buried under and suffocated by “data” here is a chance to view the familiar with new eyes.
The Shri Ram Mandir in Wadala is perhaps unique for being directly opposite a Hanuman temple. Though the Albela Hanuman Mandir is much older, the Ram Mandir was designed so that that the Hanuman idol on one side and the Lakshman, Ram, Sita idols on the other are perpetually in direct sight of each other. Between them is a busy road and the overhead track of the monorail — which has been built with care so that a column does not stand between the two temples. From a modernist perspective, here stand two houses of worship in rather mundane buildings. Outwardly there is nothing unremarkable.
For those who feel a connection, there is sanctuary from the ceaseless hubbub at the heart of a megapolis. Yet, there is more than respite from the jostling of the mad race outside. What is this “more” and why does it feel more precious when the akhand kirtan is happening in an election year?
Ironically, the feeling of sanctuary derives partly from what is not there. The iconography is similar to what us older people are familiar with, akin to what was handed down by our grandparents. Completely missing is the feral, angry face which in many other places now masquerades as an image of Hanuman. Here, Hanuman is still a loving and lovable presence. Absent also is any hint of Bollywood style images — which have become common at many newer temples. At the Ram Mandir, the black stone idols are beautifully carved and utterly simple. Here Ram is not alone, as often depicted in many contemporary images. Ram is completed by the presence of Lakshman on one side and Sita on the other.
Exquisite flower decorations are always done in a traditional manner with meticulous care. This aesthetic, becoming more intense and elaborate in the festive mood of Ramnavmi, is an essential element of fostering a sense of welcome and respite. But all of this remains true year after year. Why should the feeling be any different because the experience is happening in an election year?
This question stayed with me, long after I had returned to the world outside. Here are some of the answers that have slowly become visible.
That lightness of being, experienced in the midst of the akhand kirtan, is possible because of what I am able to leave outside — most of all history and politics as a string of events and contestations. For that is the domain that houses all my angst and feelings of conflict with those who hold or promote a perspective with which I passionately disagree. Since these emotions are at fever pitch in an election season the sense of relief and respite in the sanctuary is proportionately more intense. Could this be the escapism of religion that in modern progressive jargon is called an opium? It might be, if the escapism — be it playing candy-crush or video binging — locks you away from social and political questions and choices that need to be addressed.
The proper function of a sanctuary is not escape but renewal and recharge. This can happen through a 10-day silence retreat within the Buddhist tradition or at an akhanda kirtan within a Brahmin tradition, as at the Ram Mandir, or in singing praises at the Vithoba temple next door which celebrates centuries of tradition of non-Brahmin saint poets.
An exhaustive list of such spaces within all the religions of the world would fill volumes. It is not that the disagreements and conflicts are dissolved. What constitutes justice, who should win in this election, what is at stake, who is endangering democracy — all these questions and more are waiting outside. The difference is that even a brief experience of sanctuary can alter the form that these questions take. To me, even the questions seemed to be waiting somewhat peacefully – as opposed to the usual images of pulling at a thin leash and baying for blood.
It is not the nature or complexity of the questions, the problems, that changes. But rather that they appear on a much wider, a more multi-dimensional frame or view of existence. Consequently, “reality” acquires nuance and appears less monochromatic. Why? Because the sanctuary is like an entry point into a space where we can reflect on the most basic questions of all: Who am I? Why am I here?
None of this is new. Long before the frenetic pace of life in industrialised society, the essentials may have been the same — that is why the ashram, the monastery have been around for centuries. Newer forms of such time-away sanctuaries are also growing in the contemporary world. But most require a considerable time commitment.
This is why the akhanda kirtan, right in the middle of the confusion and jostling of everyday life, is like the respite of a soothing gurgling stream of cool clean water on a blazing hot day.
Bakshi is a Mumbai-based author