Putting the Gods to Bed

As you may know all the scheduled routines in Hindu temple worship are replicas of imperial routines for Rajas and Ranis (Kings and Queens), including the very last puja every evening which beds down our deities for a good night with all due courtly ceremony. So listen to how we put our gods to bed:

First both sanctums receive a puja - a little ceremony in which all the five elements partake in acknowledging the supremacy of the god and goddess. The lingam/yoni - the primal symbol for the Supreme God - is in the Siva sanctum, and the Abhithakuchalambal stands in the inner sanctum of her own temple, the Devi Shrine. A sweet little palanquin is made ready in the Devi's hall, musicians begin the melodies to accompany the goddess to bed, and food is brought in huge bronze platters for the supper snack. One little goddess, Bhumi Devi (Earth Mother) is carefully brought out of the shrine and placed in the palanquin, with accompanying music, and long torches of ghee-soaked cloth on the end of long poles are lit ready for the procession which will take the goddess ceremoniously into the bedroom.

Night Chamber through Silver Doorway at Right

The bedroom is in the mandapam or hall of the Siva sanctum. A lovely little room it is, entirely lined with mirrors; thousands of little mirrors cover the walls, ceiling and floor. The mirrored room contains only a swing, a wooden seat suspended by bronze chains from the mirrored ceiling. Outside, opposite to the doorway of the bedroom and across the granite arcade of the great hall, hangs a huge mirror so placed that when the divinities are finally seated on the swing they will look out at their own reflections.

Back in the Devi shrine preparations are reaching a crescendo. With a great fanfare, the Goddess in her palanquin with her musicians in full swing, blazing torches streaming flames, her supper carried aloft by bare-chested priests, others swinging incense burners, and the hangers-on of the night trailing along behind, all parade out of the Mother's shrine and across to the bedroom in Father's shrine. Here the Goddess is taken from her palanquin and carefully put on the swing. Her garments are arranged provocatively, flowers delicately added, incense lit, and the musicians keep her entertained while Lord Siva is brought out of his shrine. No need of a palanquin here, because the Siva who is brought to sleep with the Earth Mother is the Formless Siva: the priests carefully carry out an empty pedestal. More musicians follow and lovely smells waft in the musty temple night air.

The pedestal of the Formless Siva is lovingly put on the swing next to the Devi. Now the two of them are garlanded and honored in the wonderful ancient manner: Water is sprinkled first since water was created first, fans move our air now smoky with incense because incense represents earth. The dancing flames of lamps remind us of fire. Bells ripple sound out into our space. Thus are all the ancient elemental deities also honored. The Divinities are offered their supper. Then the music and bells reach the big crescendo as the camphor flame - which leaves no residue - is passed lovingly before their eyes symbolizing to us all the light of consciousness. Finally the swing is set in motion.

Happily the gods rock back and forth in their majesty, music envelopes them and us also. Their reflections are gleaming in the motion of thousands of facets from the walls and ceiling and floor, and across the arcade they can contemplate themselves and our backs. The divine couple looks out across the heads of their adoring human beings into the huge mirror opposite, and they smile. The Devi is always smiling; we can't see the formless Siva smiling of course, but we expect he is in his inner eye, since the devotee adoring the formless god has a personal god in his heart. Then the door of the bedroom is shut and everybody goes home to bed.

Our exit is very unceremonious; everyone shuffles out, eating our share of the divine supper -Prasad, which means 'pleasure of the gods'. Priests are locking up, clanking, and arcade shops are closing down. The temple elephant is often asleep by now, snoring loudly. In the morning there is another ceremony to greet the god and goddess and carry them back to their public places, their audience halls.

The relationship between Mythology, ritual and devotion is very complex and interesting. Here the Formless, Supreme Godhead is treated to his due as a Great King, whereas on a different occasion the same god may be represented as disreputable enough to offend his bride's family. All those mirrors indicate that the ancient opulent setting for his nightly dalliance with his Queen is a metaphor for infinity. We devotees can go to our own little beds secure in the knowledge that our beloved Earth Mother is suspended with her husband: not the badly behaved hero mythology, but the immutable, omnipotent, eternal and Absolute God. The One and Only, known by so many names.

[Apeetha Arunagiri]