Leaps of faith

Updated on: May 19, 2017




In the time-worn temples of Southeast Asia — thousands of miles away from the glare of lathi-wielding vigilantes — Hinduism is a diverse, absorbent entity

The Indian man, obviously a tourist, with family in tow, is confused. He scrutinises the 11th-century Gunung Kawi temple in Bali, carved into the hillside, surrounded by green terraced paddy fields, and asks, “But where is the god?”

The guide stares back uncomprehendingly.

“Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha?” the Indian man says, pointing at the empty chamber.

I half-expect him to mimic an elephant.

The guide, still confused, replies, “But god is everywhere.”

Bali is a Hindu corner of Muslim Indonesia and it’s overtly Hindu indeed. Every family compound has its own temple with its stout dwarpalas in checked sarongs. The stores have offerings of betel nuts, cigarettes, salty biscuits and flowers outside. But it’s a Hinduism that puzzles many Hindus like me. It’s without murtis . It’s devout, but beef is common. Our taxi driver casually asks us our caste. At the beach, during sunset, a PSA over the loudspeaker warns us: “Please be careful on the beach. It’s high tide. Om Shanti Om.”

I grew up Hindu in India. We were not a family that regularly went to temples. But our Hinduism was unquestioned. Every year my great-grandmother did the Saraswati puja at home and in I brought my algebra textbooks, my dog-eared Wren and Martin grammar book and my fountain pen to be blessed. It was an annual ritual in faith (and hope). Every Thursday, after her bath, my mother read her Lakshmi prayers, and if we had any pressing questions right then, she frowned at us and answered in vigorous pantomime.

“You are thinking aloo-potol shopping, about what needs to be cooked for lunch,” we teased her, but she persisted in her weekly ritual. My father, a non-believer, was for years the “president” of our local Kali Puja committee in Kolkata.

Hinduism was hard to explain to friends abroad. They could relate to Buddhism, which had become a sort of anodyne religion for the irreligious in the West, but Hinduism felt exotic, a throwback to some darker age, dotted with elephant heads and goddesses whose tongues dripped blood. I thought it was a religion that did not travel well across oceans.

And then I went to Southeast Asia.


In the great temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I did not see very many Indians, at least not in the numbers in which they throng the malls and ping-pong sex shows of Bangkok. But if they had been there they would have heard guides in thick Cambodian accents telling the stories of their epics — Ramayana and Mahabharata — to groups of Japanese and German and Americans. The largest religious monument in the world, a temple to Vishnu, Angkor is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods. In one gallery there’s the churning of the sea of milk in search of amrit. In another the battle for Lanka. Our guidebook talks of some exquisite carving in the northeast pediment — or is it the southwestern lintel — and we scour the carved stone in directional confusion, looking for a particular apsara whose teeth can be seen in her smile. But we are really looking for echoes of our heritage, preserved in stone, thousands of miles from home.

The Sistine Chapel has its own wonder. But there’s a different thrill in climbing up a forested hillside in Kbal Spean, near Siam Reap, looking down into the rushing waters of a clear mountain stream and seeing carved in the riverbank an image of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta, eroded by time and water, but unmistakably the same god as in my Amar Chitra Katha stories. This is the river of a 1,000 lingas, the gods carved right into the river bed in the 11th and 12th centuries by kings with names like Suryavarman I and Udayadityavarman II.

Our history books, obsessed as they are by the rulers of Delhi and their wars, told us too little about these histories that spread from the ports of India on ships that carried cotton textiles and carnelian beads but also Sanskrit scripts and Ramayana stories, and habits such as chewing paan. We learned nothing of the gods who found homes in temples in Java and Vietnam and the Naga kingdoms of Cambodia where monarchs slept with serpent princesses. That history still exists, preserved in temples and rituals, if we care to look.

In his book The Ocean of Churn, Sanjeev Sanyal finds Khmer art in the temple walls of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kancheepuram just as Indian gods show up in the Khmer temples of Angkor. The tide clearly flowed both ways for many centuries. When the Pallava kingdom found itself without an heir in AD 731, it looked across the seas to a distant kingdom, probably in Southeast Asia, for a king in a land where, five generations earlier, a Pallava prince had married a local princess. One of his descendants, a 12-year-old boy came back to India and became Nandi Varman II, king of the Pallavas.

Now these stories, these histories have become Unesco World Heritage sites. But when I walk in the courtyard of the Prambanan temple in Java I do not just admire the architecture. I marvel at the Indonesian faces to Indian gods — three shrines for the trimurti of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, the last having few temples even in India. In front of them are three smaller temples for their respective vahanas — Garuda, Nandi and Hansa. My great-grandmother would tell me stories about the gods but I was always more interested in their mounts — the lions, tigers and swans. In Prambanan, far away from home, the stones themselves are whispering my great-grandmother’s bedtime stories.

I climb a set of steep steps and walk into a dark chamber. A tour guide flashes his torch. Bats flutter, and I hear him mention a name that sounds like ‘Dugout’. As the light picks out the image, I realise it’s Durga slaying the buffalo demon. In Indonesia the locals call it the temple of Rara Jonggrang or slender virgin, the temple of a Javanese princess of legend, but it does not feel as if the old Hindu story has been erased, supplanted by newer Javanese legend. Instead history is like sediment here, stories layered upon stories, creating a rich mulch of lore.


In India, temples are living entities, smeared with sindoor and flowers, wet with the footprints of devotees. It’s sometimes hard to remember how old Hinduism is against the daily clamour of devotees and temple bells and hustling priests with mobile phones set to Om Shivaya ringtones. All that has its own vibrant power but in the lost temples of Southeast Asia, especially the quiet ones off the beaten track, recovered from jungle and volcanic ash, you can feel the hushed presence of centuries past.

“See the brick on these temples,” the guide tells us as we walk into the Champa temples of My Son in Vietnam. “See how one part is so clean. See how one part is greenish with mould from the rain. Guess which is older.” The clean part is older, the original brick, held together without mortar or cement. The mossy bricks are the new ones, part of a modern restoration. No one knows what mysterious technology the Champa architects possessed so many centuries ago to make bricks that did not turn mossy in the monsoon rain. Those temples stood for centuries, some dating as far back as the fourth century AD, marvels of faith and engineering. Then the Americans carpet-bombed Vietnam and turned most of them to rubble. They are restoring the temples now carefully, brick by brick, but they have kept the great gaping craters in front, a reminder of how easy it is to destroy the heritage of centuries in hours, even minutes.

There are still pockets of Cham Hindus in Vietnam. Sanyal says they believe that when they die, the sacred bull Nandi comes to take their soul to the holy land of India. I can only hope they are not scared by what they find there.

In India sometimes it feels as if my great-grandmother’s homespun Hinduism, as familiar as her turmeric-stained old sari, is turning into an Abrahamic religion of sorts, more rigid than absorbent, suspicious of diversity, where cow vigilantes roam the night and angry thugs enforce moral purity with their lathis. But standing in the temples of Southeast Asia, where, in the southern chamber of some long-lost temple the great sage Agastya still stands guard, I can see a different Hinduism — an older faith, its features weathered by the salt of many monsoon winds, its bloodline mixed thanks to wars, weddings and ocean journeys.

The guide showing a group of schoolchildren around is not sure who Agastya was. He was an ancient Hindu god, like Vishnu and Shiva, he tells the children. I am tempted to jump in but I desist. He has his story. I have mine. And Hinduism has room enough for both. I think I have found my Hinduism in his country but, in truth, old Agastya belongs to both of us, quietly giving us a glimpse of a world that was interconnected long before there was a world wide web.

Sandip Roy is the author of Don’t Let Him Know

Published on January 11, 2018

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