Saturday, 7 February 2015

Time for Swachh Teerthsthal Abhiyan

There was an eye-opening article in The Hindu Magazine of 1st February 2015 by Malathi Ramachandran.  Titled 'Unholy mess', it highlighted the deterioration of discipline and cleanliness in our so-called holy places.  She lists scenarios from temples such as Ramanathalingam at Rameshwaram, Jagannath at Puri, Kamakhya at Guwahati, and Mahakaleshwar at Ujjain, which are but a few examples of utter disdain shown towards maintaining decorum and bhakti - both by the keepers of these places, as well as the throngs of people visiting them.

I am reminded of my own trip to Tirupati, the richest temple in the world.  We were allotted time slots to wait in the queue, which went well to begin with.  After the entry slots, given in the form of wristbands, were checked by the authorities, there was a complete breakdown of the queue.  People starting jostling and shoving each other.  Every one rushed, as though afraid that the Lord inside would be leaving the place shortly.  Some broke the barrier and created short-cuts for themselves.

When I was about to enter the sanctum sanctorum, a man and a woman who were standing behind me, started verbally abusing each other loudly.  By the time I looked behind and turned around, I was already in front of the Deity, and was being shoved towards the exit by the volunteer sevaks.  In about two seconds, the darshan - something that we had waited for hours for - was over, and that too in a less than divine atmosphere.

Cut to Pandharpur - the place where the greatest of great saints of Maharashtra frequented, to make it the prime centre of the bhakti movement.  The Chandrabhaga, the holy river coursing through Pandharpur, was littered with discarded pooja items, plastic covers and filth.  Reluctant to 'purify' ourselves in its waters, we dipped our toes in the water tentatively and made for the temple.  After fighting for a place in the queue, and after much shoving and squeezing through narrow entry points, we were fortunate enough to be allowed to touch the feet of the Lord when we got to the sanctum.

The priests and authorities were shouting out instructions that only the feet of the Lord were to be touched, and not the upper torso.  A woman - a villager by the looks of her - made the mistake of touching the upper part of the Lord.  The security man who was in the sanctum, gave a resounding thwack on her back, which startled the woman so much that she retreated, roundly castigated.  I couldn't help wondering what the Lord thought of the whole incident.  What a change in human behaviour He would have witnessed from the days of Namdev and Chokhamela to now!  

How is one to maintain bhakti in such environments?  What is the point in scrubbing yourself clean from head to toe, if you only end up dirtying the premises of holy places?  Why is it that we pray inside the temple, and spit outside it?  Why do some people find it appropriate to relieve themselves on temple compound walls?  What is the point in designating these temple towns as holy, if stench, cesspools, beggars, stray animals fill their streets?  What is the solution?

Ramachandran offers the example of the Vaishno Devi temple, which has made the whole process of visiting the shrine a divine experience.  Apparently, even beggars are employed here in the development works of the temple.  There is also the example of langars and gurudwaras, where the pilgrims themselves are involved in the upkeep of the shrine.  In addition to contributing to the cleanliness and decorum of the place, this practice can also instil a sense of service, duty and humility in the pilgrim.

It is high time that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is extended to cover Swachh Teerthsthal Abhiyan as well.  I wish the Prime Minister, in addition to cleaning the Ganga, also considers uplifting our pilgrimage places as well.  

It is also up to us, as devotees visiting these places, to maintain discipline and civic sense, and if possible, to volunteer for the cause.       

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