In order to wipe away the traces of the morning’s perplexities from our minds, Sham Rao invited us to sit on the verandah, by the wide entrance of his idol room, whilst the family prayers were going on. Nothing could suit us better. It was nine o’clock, the usual time of the morning prayers. Sham Rao went to the well to get ready, and dress himself, as he said, though the process was more like undressing. In a few moments he came back wearing only a dhuti, as during dinner time, and with his head uncovered. He went straight to his idol room. The moment he entered we heard the loud stroke of a bell that hung under the ceiling, and that continued tolling all the time the prayers lasted.
The Babu explained to us that a little boy was pulling the bell rope from the roof.
Sham Rao stepped in with his right foot and very slowly. Then he approached the altar and sat on a little stool with his legs crossed. At the opposite side of the room, on the red velvet shelves of an altar that resembled an etagere in the drawing-room of some fashionable lady, stood many idols. They were made of gold, of silver, of brass and of marble, according to their im-portance and merits. Maha-Deva or Shiva was of gold. Gunpati or Ganesha of silver, Vishnu in the form of a round black stone from the river Gandaki in Nepal. In this form Vishnu is called Lakshmi-Narayan. There were also many other gods unknown to us, who were worshipped in the shapes of big sea-shells, called Chakra. Surya, the god of the sun, and the kula-devas, the domestic gods, were placed in the second rank. The altar was sheltered by a cupola of carved sandal-wood. During the night the gods and the offerings were covered by a huge bell glass. On the walls there were many sacred images representing the chief episodes in the biographies of the higher gods.
Sham Rao filled his left hand with ashes, murmuring prayers all the while, covered it for a second with the right one, then put some matter to the ashes, and mixing the two by rubbing his hands together, he traced a line on his face with this mixture by moving the thumb of his right hand from his nose upwards, then from the middle of the forehead to the right temple, then back again to the left temple. Having done with his face he proceeded to cover with wet ashes his throat, arms, shoulders, his back, head and ears. In one corner of the room stood a huge bronze font filled with water. Sham Rao made straight to it and plunged into it three times, dhuti, head, and all, after which he came out looking exactly like a well-favored dripping wet Triton. He twisted the only lock of hair on the top of his shaved head and sprinkled it with water. This operation concluded the first act.
The second act began with religious meditations and with mantrams, which, by really pious people, must be repeated three times a day—at sunrise, at noon and at sunset. Sham Rao loudly pronounced the names of twenty-four gods, and each name was accompanied by a stroke of the bell. Having finished he first shut his eyes and stuffed his ears with cotton, then pressed his left nostril with two fingers of his left hand, and having filled his lungs with air through the right nostril, pressed the latter also. Then he tightly closed his lips, so that breathing became impossible. In this position every pious Hindu must mentally repeat a certain verse, which is called the Gayatri. These are sacred words which no Hindu will dare to pronounce aloud. Even in repeating them mentally he must take every precaution not to inhale anything impure.
I am bound by my word of honor never to repeat the whole of this prayer, but I may quote a few unconnected sentences:
«Om… Earth… Heaven…. Let the adored light of…. [here follows a name which must not be pronounced] shelter me. Let thy Sun, O thou only One, shelter me, the unworthy… I shut my eyes, I shut my ears, I do not breathe… in order to see, hear and breathe thee alone. Throw light upon our thoughts [again the secret name]… »
It is curious to compare this Hindu prayer with the celebrated prayer of Descartes’ «Meditation III» in his L’Existence de Dieu. It runs as follows, if I remember rightly:
«Now I shut my eyes, cover my ears, and dismiss all my five senses, I will dwell on the thought of God alone, I will meditate on His quality and look on the beauty of this wondrous radiancy.»
After this prayer Sham Rao read many other prayers, holding with two fingers his sacred Brahmanical thread. After a while began the ceremony of «the washing of the gods.» Taking them down from the altar, one after the other, according to their rank, Sham Rao first plunged them in the big font, in which he had just bathed himself, and then bathed them in milk in a smaller bronze font by the altar. The milk was mixed up with curds, butter, honey, and sugar, and so it cannot be said that this cleansing served its purpose. No wonder we were glad to see that the gods underwent a second bathing in the first font and then were dried with a clean towel.
When the gods were arranged in their respective places, the Hindu traced on them the sectarian signs with a ring from his left hand. He used white sandal paint for the lingam and red for Gunpati and Surya. Then he sprinkled them with aromatic oils and covered them with fresh flowers. The long ceremony was finished by «the awakening of the gods.» A small bell was repeatedly rung under the noses of the idols, who, as the Brahman probably supposed, all went to sleep during this tedious ceremony.
Having noticed, or fancied, which often amounts to the same thing, that they were wide awake, he began offering them his daily sacrifices, lighting the incense and the lamps, and, to our great astonishment, snapping his fingers from time to time, as if warning the idols to «look out.» Having filled the room with clouds of incense and fumes of burning camphor, he scattered some more flowers over the altar and sat on the small stool for a while, murmuring the last prayers. He repeatedly held the palms of his hands over the flame of the tapers and rubbed his face with them. Then he walked round the altar three times, and, having knelt three times, retreated backwards to the door.
A little while before our host had finished his morning prayers the ladies of the house came into the room. They brought each a small stool and sat in a row murmuring prayers and telling the beads of their rosaries.
The part played by the rosaries in India is as important as in all Buddhist countries. Every god has his favorite flower and his favorite material for a rosary. The fakirs are simply covered with rosaries. The rosary is called mala and consists of one hundred and eight beads. Very pious Hindus are not content to tell the beads when praying; they must hide their hands during this ceremony in a bag called gomukha, which means the cow’s mouth.
We left the women to their prayers and followed our host to the cow house. The cow symbolizes the «fostering earth,» or Nature, and is worshipped accordingly. Sham Rao sat down by the cow and washed her feet, first with her own milk, then with water. He gave her some sugar and rice, covered her forehead with powdered sandal, and adorned her horns and four legs with chains of flowers. He burned some incense under her nostrils and brandished a burning lamp over her head. Then he walked three times round her and sat down to rest. Some Hindus walk round the cow one hundred and eight times, rosary in hand. But our Sham Rao had a slight tendency to freethinking, as we knew, and besides, he was too much of an admirer of Haeckel. Having rested himself, he filled a cup with water, put in it the cow’s tail for a moment, and then drank it!
After this he performed the rite of worshipping the sun and the sacred plant tulsi. Unable to bring the god Surya from his heavenly altar and wash him in the sacred font, Sham Rao contented himself by filling his own mouth with water, standing on one leg, and spirting this water towards the sun. Needless to say it never reached the orb of day, but, very unexpectedly, sprinkled us instead.——
It is still a mystery to us why the plant tulsi, Royal Basilicum, is worshipped. However, towards the end of September we yearly witnessed the strange ceremony of the wedding of this plant with the god Vishnu, notwithstanding that tulsi bears the title of Krishna’s bride, probably because of the latter being an incarnation of Vishnu. On these occasions pots of this plant are painted and adorned with tinsel. A magical circle is traced in the garden and the plant is put in the middle of it. A Brahman brings an idol of Vishnu and begins the marriage ceremony, standing before the plant. A married couple hold a shawl between the plant and the god, as if screening them from each other, the Brahman utters prayers, and young women, and especially unmarried girls, who are the most ardent worshippers of tulsi, throw rice and saffron over the idol and the plant. When the ceremony is concluded, the Brahman is presented with the shawl, the idol is put in the shade of his wife, the Hindus clap their hands, rend everyone’s ears with the noise of tom-toms, let off fireworks, offer each other pieces of sugar-cane, and rejoice in every conceivable way till the dawn of the next day.