I had picked out my shoes carefully. Nice shoes that I would usually wear to church on a Sunday morning. Except it wasn't Sunday and, while the building was once a small church, I would be experiencing a different kind of religious service. Untying the laces, I removed my shoes, and added them to the edge of the pile beside the front door.
I was in my first year of university, with short-lived aspirations of completing a minor in Religious Studies. The final assignment for the course was field research that required us to visit a religious institution that we were not affiliated with. I had been raised Catholic, and had continued alter serving even when the floor length robes ended closer to my knees. So, I found myself shoeless, entering the main hall of the Vishva Shakti Durga Mandir (temple in Sanskrit) for a special Friday evening puja. I was probably wearing an unfortunately bright, thick pair of patterned socks that I had never meant for anyone to see.
I spotted my professor, Janet, as soon as I entered the main hall. Despite her attempts to blend into the community she studied, her blonde hair made it easy to spot her on the right side of the hall, among the other women in attendance. Thankfully, she sat cross-legged in one of the back rows, so I could discreetly slide into the open space next to her on the burgundy carpet. Some women were dressed as I was, in the clothes they had worn to work, but most wore brightly coloured saris or had scarves to cover their heads.
The hall was filled with rhythmic music, strong scents and brilliant colours. The chanting, in Hindi of course, started off low and slow but grew in volume and intensity as more people joined in. I found the smell of incense overwhelming. In my church we only used it in some masses during the Lenten season. The incense was mixed with a floral smell from the flowers adorning the elaborate display at the front of the hall, an offering to the Goddess Durga.
I had a figurine of the Hindu Goddess sitting on my desk at home; she was a souvenir from a business trip my father took when I was a teenager. This pale, wooden carving of the "Goddess of Victory of Good over Evil" showed Durga riding a tiger and holding objects in her many hands. My figurine was a novelty item, whose presence on my desk evidenced my interest in other cultures and willingness to accept all religions as valid forms of worship —or so I hoped anyway. My small figurine didn't prepare me for the large statue at the center of the magnificent display.
Draped in fabric, flowers and beads, she sat upon her fierce tiger, with her 10 arms outstretched. In each hand a weapon or object, like a trident, sword or conch shell. With her large eyes, Durga stared out over the people gathered; Hindus believe that the Goddess is present in the statues or images. The eyes act as a window that allows the worshipper to essentially make eye contact with God —a concept that I should have found somewhat blasphemous as a Catholic. Surrounding her were murtis, images depicting other deities, as well as bowls of fruits and sweets that were all part of that evening's offering.
After a speech (again in Hindi), which Catholics would call a homily, a new chant began. I couldn't understand the words but it still felt like I was participating in meditation or prayer. A man started to move around the room carrying a large, metal, smoking, circular platter. Stopping at the end of each row, people moved towards him. When they approached, they put their hands in the smoke and, using a practiced hand motion, directed the smoke towards their face.
A flame in the center produced the ominous smoke, and around the edge was a groove of sorts, where people put money before they blessed themselves with the smoke. The woman in front of me placed a five-dollar bill on the platter and, using the same fluent motion, pulled the smoke up towards her face and over the top of her head, then did the same for her son crouching next to her.
The man stopped in front of me and lowered the platter. I frantically looked over at Janet. In many Christian traditions, participating in sacraments, like Communion, is not allowed for attendees not baptised in that tradition. So, I wasn't sure if I was supposed to try to imitate the motion I had observed, or politely decline the opportunity to bring God's blessing over myself. She nodded her encouragement and demonstrated the motion for me. I started the movement a safe distance from the flame, trying to mimic what I had just been shown, and breathed a sigh of relief when he moved on to the next row.
When a new chant started, I took it as an opportunity to make a quiet exit; I had to take a bus to get home, and I knew that the puja could continue for a couple more hours. I was stopped by two women at the end of the last aisle. One of them handed me a pear and a banana, while the other gave me a shiny silver cardboard box; I later discovered it was filled with delicious squares and cakes. Consuming the blessed offering is an important part of the ritual. They smiled and bowed slightly and said (in English), "Thank you for coming."
The pile had expanded in the last hour. My shoes, which I had placed at the furthest edge, were not where I had left them. I dug around and finally found them under some pairs of children's running shoes. I hummed along with the chant as I put my church shoes back on.
is a student, teacher, and life-long learner. She currently teaches high school with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Allison studied English Literature and Education at the University of Ottawa. If she won the lottery she would spend her time tutoring and volunteering in a second-hand bookstore.