Meenakshi Shedde: A pillow for Buddha

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

It was the final Ganesh visarjan in Mumbai last week. According to media reports, about 1,07,600 public and home idols of the elephant-headed God were immersed in the Arabian Sea. The dhol-tasha drummed up a frenzied beat that made your heart throb and the windows shudder. The bulbul tarang has been replaced by a keyboard. As thousands of processions from all over Mumbai wound their way to the beach, here is Ganpati's send-off playlist: Lungi Dance from Chennai Express, Zingat from Sairat, Hee poli sazuk tupatali from Timepass, Bring It On from Jaundya na Balasaheb, and evergreen favourites Ek Do Teen from Tezaab and Choli ke peeche kya hai from Khal Nayak.

Aha, so that's what Ganpati likes. In many cultures worldwide, devotees offer God whatever they like or value. It seems a reasonably reliable option, as He's not tellin'. In the absence of a gift registry system, if He can't stand it, well, He's stuck with it. It is fascinating to observe what devotees offer God in different religions. At some churches, like St Michael's in Mahim, Mumbai, you find wax miniatures of men, women, babies, dogs, arms, legs, houses, offices, even airplanes (I guess for a pilot's or hostess' job, or for your beloved to wing back to you — unless you're a wannabe Vijay Mallya). You pick out your favourite wax miniature from the streetside pile of dreams and offer it to God; add-on novenas are believed to expedite matters. In fact, they are wax petitions for what you want, not for what He wants.

Once, when I was on the international jury of the Taipei Film Festival in Taiwan, I had visited the Longshan Temple in the city.

Devotees clearly believe that the Buddha is a big foodie, for long tables in its courtyard heaved with devotees' offerings, including noodles, chicken, Coke bottles, fruit baskets with dragon fruit, and local mithai boxes.

At Dharamsala, along with thousands of flickering butter lamps, devotees' offerings to the Buddha similarly included fruit baskets, cashewnuts, wheatgrass, barfis, Amul Butter slabs and Cadbury chocolates. However, I loved it that the pride of place, within His easy reach, was given to His top favourite: orange cream cracker sandwich biscuits.

No doubt, the most unusual offering I saw was to the Buddha at the Gangaramaya temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka. There was a cupboard full of used spectacles and wristwatches that devotees had offered the Buddha. I was thoroughly charmed. Did they want to offer their most valued possessions? Did they want Him to see better? Hurry up and grant their wishes? My good friend Saroja Siriwardene from Colombo explained that the relatives of the dead often offer temples their belongings — in the villages Buddha is offered mattresses and pillows — in the hope that they will earn merit on the road to nirvana. "But the priest can't donate them to charity because the sons might come and inquire where the donations are. What is the practical use of such donations unless the spectacles are useful to someone?" she asks. So I guess their merit remains in limbo. Nirvana may be more than a pillow away.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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