The Art of Worship

Article excerpt


For millions of Hindus in India, religion interweaves

private worship, public ritual, and ephemeral art.

Story and photographs by Stephen P. Huyler

It is dark as Padmasini Ramachandran steps between the sleeping bodies of her children and opens her front door. Just as she does every morning, she pours water from a small brass pot into her hand and sprinkles it over the dirt beneath her feet, making it firm enough to draw on. Bending straight from her waist, she takes a large pinch of rice flour from a little metal bowl and quickly drops it onto the ground, followed by another and another, all evenly spaced, until she has created a diamond-shaped grid of white dots about five feet long on each side. Then, with further pinches of flour, she deftly draws thin white lines between the dots-some straight, some curved-rapidly transforming this patch of earth into the petals, leaves, stamens, and stem of a lotus blossom. Because it is a special festival day honoring the gods, Ramachandran fills in her picture with colored powders before going inside to awaken her family and prepare breakfast.

In front of each doorway, all the way down the block and beyond, other women are creating kolams (known as rangoli or rangavalli in other parts of India)-decorations intended to protect home and family from evil and to encourage good fortune. Every day, following a centuries-old tradition, women in more than a million homes in this southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu draw a fresh kolam. They pride themselves on never repeating a design.

Each drawing is ephemeral. As the day begins and family members come out of the house and into the street, they walk over the kolam, smudging the design. Bicycles, scooters, bullock carts, cars, and buses all rapidly eradicate the artwork; within an hour, all traces of it are gone. To an outsider, the women's efforts might seem to be a frustrating waste of time, but to the artist they represent a moment of creativity, solace, and spirituality.

Most of India's billion citizens are Hindus, members of a religion of remarkable diversity. Hinduism is polytheistic, and although its adherents may believe in an all-encompassing, indivisible being-similar in many ways to the god of Christians, Jews, and Muslimsthey also believe that the many aspects of the divine may be viewed and worshiped through particular gods and goddesses that embody different aspects of the cosmos. Just as creation has innumerable facets, so Hinduism has innumerable deities, and the personalization of gods and goddesses makes possible an intimate relationship with the divine.

Hinduism is the world's third largest religion, involving one in every seven human beings. Unique among all major religions in that it does not proselytize, Hinduism also does not profess one right way, one set of beliefs, or one correct system of ethics. Young Hindus grow up learning to follow the tenets and customs of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which primary gods or goddesses they find inspiring. This right of personal choice of deity means that although young adults continue to practice many family rituals, they also conduct their own private worship in whatever manner seems most beneficial to them.

Beliefs may be individual, but rituals tend to be observed in common with large portions of the population. Ramachandran rises each morning to create her beautiful kolam just as her mother, grandmother, and greatgrandmother did before her. …