My journey of ten-thousand miles began with ten-thousand blessings.
In October 1963, I went on a pilgrimage with my mother and father to the temples they had frequented, throughout our state of Kerala in South India. I was to gather the blessings of deities they believed in, before I set out on my journey nine weeks later, to join my new husband, in far away Chicago.
When you are 23 years old and the farthest you have gone alone in your life is a bus trip to the tennis club two and a half miles away, ten thousand miles from home is an awfully long way to go.
I could not go any farther from my home, anywhere on this earth, if I wanted to. My hometown Trivandrum, India, and Chicago, Illinois are on the opposite sides of the earth. If I bored a tunnel straight through from Trivandrum, I would land less than a half inch to the west and barely three inches due south of Chicago, according to my world globe.
Packing for my trip to Chicago, the very first items that my mother and I placed at the bottom of my suitcase were sachets of prasadams, blessed offerings of dried sandalwood paste, from the temple at Guruvayoor, dedicated to Lord Krishna. This was one of the twelve temples we visited as part of my pilgrimage. When my father, mother and I, along with my sister and her baby boy arrived at Guruvayoor, about three or four hundred devotees were already pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of the idol of Lord Krishna. Waiting in line for over an hour, we finally made it to the sanctum sanctorum. I chanted my Krishna prayers as I watched the priest decorate the idol of Lord Krishna for the pooja services at noon. He covered the idol from head to toe in a thick layer of sandalwood paste. To make the paste, sticks of sandalwood were laboriously, unhurriedly ground on the surface of a stone mortar, andcollected into bowls with reverence by the priest’s helpers. I saw that it was a true labor of love and devotion.
Then, floral garlands made from white jasmines, bright red hibiscus petals, green Tulsi leaves and orange-red ixora blossoms were reverently hung over his chest. Vibrant gold ornaments were added to adorn him from the crown on his head, large studs on his ears, four or five long chains hanging from his neck, bangles on both forearms, an arinjanam or waist links, complete with gold anklets on both legs. The adornments stayed on Lord Krishna until after the evening pooja services.
The flickering flames of over a hundred oil lamps cast a surreal aura in the sanctum. The aroma of incense sticks, the chanting of the thousand names of Lord Krishna by the priests, and the ringing of about a dozen brass bells, transported me to a place where I felt the blessings emanate from the idol of Lord Krishna, thus dissipating any timorousness in my leaving home for the first time.
After the evening services, the sandalwood paste was removed and distributed to devotees as blessed offerings called prasadams. Mom, Dad, and I received our shares. We brought the sandalwood paste home and dried it in the sun into a light golden-yellow powder, for long-term preservation. This was then packed into small sachets to travel with me to the United States. Later, when I wished to invoke the blessings of Lord Krishna of Guruvayoor, all I would have to do is reconstitute a pinch of the sandalwood powder, using a drop of water, and then wear the paste on my forehead as a symbol of the Lord’s blessing.
In our Hindu household the religious fervor ranged from an occasional temple visit by my grandmother, to daily offerings of flowers to the nearest Devi Temple by my mother who said a prayer with every breath she took. My father’s practice had an air of great sophistication as a devout follower of a Guru who guided him and us in the path towards the Knowledge of God. I leaned more towards the ritualistic practice of my religion; the structured life suited me well. I took comfort in my prayers yielding results, and yet when what I prayed for did not come true, the Gods were my comfort in handling my disappointment.
Part 2 to follow