Meanwhile, far to the East: Car Pooja in Suburban Virginia
In which I go to get my car poojah'd, but don't bring nearly enough bananas.
Tucked like an exotic rose behind the aluminum-sided ear of this suburban neighborhood, the Rajdahni Mandir Temple is a pale pink pyramid blooming out of the woods and housing developments of Chantilly, Virginia. I had come to have a poojah, or blessing, said for my new car. There are a variety of occasions in a Hindu person's life in which a poojah is warranted. Some people perform a spiritual cleansing poojah every morning, other poojahs mark pivotal life events performed to show thanks and to protect the new things from disaster, thus, there are engagement poojahs and new job poojahs, there are house-warming poojahs (there's a special one for rebuilding a house that's been clobbered by an earthquake), there are new car poojahs, and poojahs for new babies. The priest can come to your house, or you can go to the temple. Sort of carry-out or delivery.
But here's the thing: I'm not Hindu. So, mostly, even as I was parking in the space labeled "Reserved for Car Poojah", I was hoping I wouldn't be thrown out as a nut or imposter or some kind of wannabe Hindu groupie. Coming in from the blazing hot parking lot, the temple was quiet and dim and smelled terrific, like sandalwood and carnations. The air conditioning was on full blast. I stashed my shoes in a cubby with everyone else's and pushed my way through the double doors into the huge pink prayer hall. Standing there in my socks, Protestant lineage, and L'oreal highlights, I was as out of place as this pink temple was, popping up among the split-levels.
The prayer hall was ringed with large milky marble statues of Hindu gods sitting, sometimes on tigers or black peacocks, in their own little booths in the walls. I only recognized Ganesha, who has an elephant's head and is not hard to spot, and Hanuman who is a monkey. They were all draped in gold embroidery and necklaces and ropes of chunky glass jewels with little gold crowns hovering over their heads. There was an impressive and festive amount of plant material mounded up and flung around. Each god was festooned with wreaths of fresh marigolds and his niche is full of vases of chrysanthemums. Ganesha had a hank of onion grass and fescue in his lap and there were rose petals and big, happy Gerbera daisy heads flung around at his feet. There was fruit everywhere: D'anjou pears, nectarines and piles and piles of bananas.
For as ornate and ritual-packed and symbolic as the room was, though, things were rather informal. For one thing, the cleaning lady was vaccuming up from last night's goings on, which must have been something, since the vaccuum was sucking up what sounded like rice and bolts. A lady in an orange sari was pottering about up on the main dias tidying up the the big pale blue statue of Shiva, pouring milk from a gallon jug of low fat Shenandoah Pride over roses in a pot and arranging white chrysanthemums, and stacking bananas around his feet.
Hopping over the the extension cord and dodging vaccuum jabs, a few women in saris with big pocketbooks, and a man in a peach golf shirt who had suddenly prostrated himself, startling the woman beside him, were milling around the big empty room queueing up for the young priest in a white robe who was sitting on the edge of the dias at the front of the room doling out quiet blessings and scoops of what looks like trail mix. The priest spots me and interrupts the last lady who is talking to him in what sounds like urgent undertones, and says to me, "Yes? You are here for?" and I say, "I'd like a blessing said for my car. Is that ok?" and he says something in HIndi to the urgent undertones lady who picks up her pocketbook with a jerk and leaves.
He says patiently, "I may be wrong, but I don't think you're Hindu. Why do you want a car poojah?" He has a saffron yellow dot, or tilak, and a yellow line drawn acoss his brown forehead. His temples are greying, but his eyes are young, and I say something completely lame like, "Well, er, no, I'm not actually Hindu, but, um...I like the idea of a blessing ceremony. I think it's a good idea and nice...really...and I am rather fond of Ganesha....and Durga is (I suddenly recall that Durga is the blood guzzling Goddess of Destruction whose followers ritually strangled thousands) well...she's nice..." He did not say, "Oh for heaven's sake, why are you wasting my time?" What he said was, "OK. Let's go. I'll have to get a few things."
So he takes me to the office where I give him $21.00 and he writes out a receipt that says "Paid: $21.00 for Car Poojah" and says, "Do you have anything else?" which threw me at first since all I had, really, was some cinnamon Altoids and gum, but I thought fast and it was a complete coincidence (or was it?) that I had bought a bunch of bananas, Fig Newtons, and a bottle of Smart Water all of which was at that moment sweltering in the trunk of the little car, and I said, "Well. I have bananas." and he seems to look a little weary but said, "Alright. More bananas."
Then he glanced out the window at my little red car in the "Reseved for Car Pooja" parking space wavering in the heat, and stands up and says, "There are things I must get." and then looks at me and says, "Turn to outward facing," which at first I took to be spiritual advice, but which actually meant, "Back the car in, please." So I put my shoes on and went outside where it was broiling hot and the cicadas were roaring in the woods. And he comes out in his wooden sandals clacking across the parking lot looking very cool in his white robe carrying a copper tray aloft loaded with little copper bowls of burning candles and pots of yellow saffron, grain, pink carnations, canary yellow marigolds, a mound of rice, a pot of water and a whole coconut.
The parking lot was volcanically hot and we opened all the car doors and he sat in the driver's seat and turned the car on, and dipping a yellow marigold in the water, and began chanting a pleasant mantra and splashing the dashboard and the gear shift and the seats with the wet marigold. He scooped rice from a bowl and mounded it behind the steering wheel and daubed vermillion in a swastika and an ohm on the dash and ripped the petals from the marigold to sprinkle them on the radio. Then he got out and walked around the car blessing it and wrote an ohm and a swastika on the hood and mounded on more rice and marigold petals.
And then he called me to come over and told me to say "Ohm." and then something that sounded like "SriSanverashnikum", which is what I ended up saying and he winced, but continued bravely, and told me, with his yellow tilak sweating down his nose, "This poojah is done when a person gets a new car or a new job or a new house. It makes people remember their good fortune in having this new thing and their responsibility. So you will be safe when you drive. Also, sometimes there are people who are jealous of your new thing. So this ceremony keeps out the bad things and keeps in the good things." Then he daubed a tilak mark on my forehead with saffron.
With that, he scooped up the coconut and Ka-blammo! smashed it on the pavement and said, "OK. Congratulations." and I laughed and said, "Thanks very much." I gave him my bananas and Smart Water, and I drove back to work with rice and marigold petals flying from my hood.