What Happens When An Agnostic Travels To A Religious Site

The answer is determined by trust, not belief.  
Photo  by Sudha Pillai.
Photo by Sudha Pillai.

First heard about the Puri Rath Yatra from a neighbour who couldn’t stop talking about her “divine experience”. All I heard, though, was “bone-crushing crowd”. Being 5’2” and borderline demo-phobic, there was no way I was going to attend the chariot festival anytime soon. But life likes to chuck corkscrews into your plans, and recently, I found myself hurtling across the narrow lanes of Puri, jostling around saffron clad, ash-smeared, godmen and countless devotees of Lord Jagannath (the presiding deity of Puri). I wondered about the ethicality of a non-religious traveller’s presence at a festival prefixed and suffixed with religiousness.

It might sound doltish, but let’s face it—you are sojourning in a place where the very air is infused with beliefs of generations of people in a particular God, a particular religion and its rituals. That is the fabric of their faith and root of their life. In short, everything a non-religious person abhors. Yet, there we are, travellers, the agnostics and atheists, in the thick of things, sometimes pretending to be one among the faithful lest we offend our hosts; indulging in rituals that make you grind your teeth till the gums bleed. Am I a voyeuristic peripatetic?

Nothing gets more religious and ritualistic than the Rath Yatra. We are talking about a God (Lord Jagannath) and his siblings, taking a bath in 108 pots of water, falling sick, retreating into the sick room for 15 days where they are served only fruits. And on the 16th day, the Gods decide to go to the Gundicha Temple at the other end of the road, dressed in their finery and newly built chariots. Thousands of people from all over the world throng the temple town to witness three wooden idols taking a ride on their chariots on a two-kilometre stretch of road. The atheist rolls his eyes. The agnostic smirks. But the faithful ‘believes’.

If you ask the devout, they will tell you that the iconic temple has been around from Satya Yuga—from the beginning of time. However, science and archaeology places the founding of the temple in a more modest 12th century. To the devotees, Lord Jagannath is more like an elder brother and a not a fearsome divinity. Their relationship with their God is informal—so there’s a lot of hugging and chiding of the Lord in the worship; they have long conversations, scold him and demand boons and blessings and believe that he will always deliver. In Puri, there’s always a scent of hope and reverence hanging in the air, along with the odour of camphor, flowers, boiled rice and the ocean. The believers believe that a visit to Puri gives one an easy and comfortable ride to heaven when the time comes.

Deep inside me there was a niggling feeling that my presence was mocking something which was sacred to millions of people. After all, I did not ‘believe’. Should I confess to the people in my group that I was a non-believer? Should I even be inside the main temple? At the main gate of the temple there is a replica of Lord Jagannath’s idol, the one found in the sanctum sanctorum. This is for the benefit of non-Hindus and foreigners as they are barred entry into the temple. No, I wasn’t worried about God punishing me for loitering around inside the temple. I was more worried about humans. Devoutness is the cling-film casing this temple town. I did, however, go in.

I avoid crowds like the plague. Any woman growing up in this country will tell you large gatherings are unsafe. As the chariots made its way to the Gundicha temple, the two-kilometre road turned into an ocean of humans, I was being tossed around in the human waves, swaying in the rhythm of faith. Strangely, I felt safe. Nobody grabbed me, pushed or pinched. Each one was an island of faith, yet unconsciously inclusive of those around. People were going out of their way to help each other. Residents opened their homes to strangers, inviting them to their balconies “for a better view of the gods on their chariot” and then sharing a snack with them. Men were mindful of the safety of women—young and old. Men and women sang and danced. They were trusting of each other. The place was striking with the reflection of human benefaction.

More often than not religion brings out the worst in people. But at holy sites and festivals, religion tends to bring out few sparkling qualities in humans. There is more to these religious places and feasts than religion. On that day, in Puri, I didn’t have to be a believer to feel spiritual.

  • Sudha Pillai is an artist, photographer, and writer. She writes about her encounters with people, places, art, and culture.

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