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Mandirs, Holy Water and the Family Shrine: FLAS Fellow Maya Martin on Religious Diversity in Jaipur

October 19, 2017

Maya Martin with host mother and sister in Jaipur, India
Maya Martin with host mother and sister in Jaipur, India.

“…it is nearly impossible to escape the influence of religion in India in everything, and even in my limited time in the state of Rajasthan I was able to experience a small taste of the diversity of religious beliefs.”

Maya Martin, a South Asia Center FLAS fellow in Hindi and UW undergraduate student in Business Administration, traveled to Jaipur, India to study Hindi during Summer 2017.  She has now returned to UW, where she is continuing her study of Hindi and the economy and culture of India.   She writes:

“This summer I lived for two months in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India while studying Hindi with a FLAS Fellowship at the American Institute of Indian Studies. As it was my first trip to India, I discovered many things about this extremely diverse country. India puts on many faces, from the flashy facades of Mumbai’s Bollywood to ancient temples built on the tops of mountains and other natural wonders. However, it is nearly impossible to escape the influence of religion in India in everything, and even in my limited time in the state of Rajasthan I was able to experience a small taste of the diversity of religious beliefs.

Shrine in host family home

Host family shrine

During my stay in Jaipur, Rajasthan, I stayed with a Gujarati Vaishnava Hindu family. My knowledge of Hinduism was limited before this trip, but I soon learned that this denomination worships the god Vishnu and his avatars are the most studied or revered deity. Upon arriving to my homestay, I was surprised to notice that the household shrine, which was kept in my room, had an image of Jesus that was reminiscent of western icons of Jesus Christ. I was very confused at the idea that my Hindu host family would revere an image of a western deity in this way. I soon learned that most Vaishnavas believe in the saint Ishu, who Christians call Jesus, and subsequently I began to notice that images of Jesus were not uncommon in homes and businesses owned by Hindus. It was a small example of a cultural bias that I had held without knowing it.

Pushkar jheel (lake)

Pushkar jheel (lake)

The city of Pushkar is also located in Rajasthan, and I had the opportunity to travel to this site with my classmates. Pushkar jheel is a lake in the city that is known as the site where the god Shiva’s tears fell when his wife Sati died. The town is also significant for being home to one of the few temples to the god Brahma in existence. This city is surrounded by ghats, or stairs to the holy water where people can bathe to cleanse themselves both inside and out. This site is known by pilgrims from around India and also from around the world, as is evident by the number of hotels, tourist shops, and international restaurants located in this small but significant town.

Receiving a kalava at the Surya Mandir (temple)

Maya receiving a kalava at the Surya Mandir

In Jaipur as well, countless mandirs (temples), both old and new, are found throughout the city. A few of the most significant are the more recently built but grandiose Birla Mandir, the Moti Dungri, which only opens once a year, and the Galta Ji Mandir, known colloquially as the “monkey temple” because of the number of monkeys present there. There are a number of temples throughout the complex, but at the Surya Mandir my friend and I were greeted by a female priest who tied a kalava onto our wrists after praying. The water at this temple is considered holy, so hundreds of visitors come every week to cleanse themselves in the water, which by my standards did not seem to be very good for cleansing physically…

Another religion that has an important place in Jaipur is Jainism. While I am still woefully uneducated on the beliefs and traditions of Jains, my host mother admired the lifestyle and beliefs of Jains, and attends a weekly meditation and social group for Jain women at the local Jain mandir. Our Hindi class also had the opportunity to tour the oldest Jain temple in the world in Sanganer, where many Jain pilgrims from across India travel each year.

Jain Mandir (temple) in Sanganer

Jain Mandir (temple) in Sanganer

My host family had spent many years living in Punjab, where a large portion of the population is Sikh.  Jaipur also has a significant Sikh population, and my host family was invited to a langar at a local Sikh Gurudwara one evening. We attended, paid pooja (prayer or worship), and ate at the langar. A langar is a community kitchen where local Sikhs provide a free meal to any visitor. My host family, like many Hindus, considered Sikhism (as well as Jainism and Buddhism) a sort of sect of Hinduism, which is problematic for anyone who is familiar with Indian history.

It cannot be forgotten that India has a significant Muslim population. Since partition, Muslim and Hindu conflict in India has been one of the most important political and social problems to solve. Unfortunately my experience with the Muslim population of Rajasthan was very limited. I did have a rickshaw driver who drove me to and from school every day. In his rickshaw he had a metal disc with writings in Arabic on it, and when I asked him in my broken Hindi to tell me about it, he told me that he was Muslim and these were writings from the Qu’ran to remind him of what is important. However, while masjids (mosques) were present in Jaipur and the rest of Rajasthan, they were not as apparent as the numerous mandirs throughout the city.

street in Rajasthan

Street in Rajasthan

While walking down the street in Jaipur, one might run into people from hundreds of different cities in India, of any of these faiths (or others), and from any sort of class, ethnic group, caste, or background. The diversity can be overwhelming, yet the vast majority of the people one meets in Rajasthan consider themselves, first and foremost, proud Indians. I am looking forward to returning to Bharat (India) after my graduation and further exploring this diversity, particularly the role of these religions and how they intersect in the second most-populated nation in the world.”

FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.