Travel: Elephants

imageElephants are creatures that are revered in India. According to Hindu Cosmology, the earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions. Sanskrit literature even attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when the elephants tire of their burden.

The deity Ganesh(a) is the god of wisdom, and he is distinctively represented by a human form with the head of an elephant, which was placed after the human head was either decapitated or burned from the body.

imageHowever, this is not how the Elephanta Caves, with origins dating between the 5th and 8th centuries, received their namesake. In the 16th century, the Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” in honor of a huge, monolithically rock-cut black stone of an elephant on a mound; this unfortunately has been relocated to the Mumbai Zoo.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 Despite being just 7 miles east of the port, the ferry ride took an hour to get there! Fortunately, I caught some great views of the Gateway of India, the exit causeway through which the last British troops passed through on February 28, 1948, signalling an end to British rule and the beginning of Indian independence.

In each of the caves, Shiva or Mahadeva, “Great God” is aniconically represented by a Lingam, a single rock rounded at the top. Aniconism is the avoidance of using images to represent divine beings, prophets, and religious figures.

However, I happen to find the monolithic rock to be an appropriate manifestation of Shiva.

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At his highest level, Shiva is considered limitless and transcendent, unchanging and formless. Why not abstractly represent him as something from nature that also adheres to these characteristics? Are rocks not powerful? Do they not withstand the test of the time?

I may not be Hindu, but even I was moved. I couldn’t help but place my palm against the rock and close my eyes, taking some time to summon my faith, and chant the Buddhist Mantra I learned as a child beneath my father’s wing.

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Travel: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima

As a result of Saturday night, I woke up late and was unable to maintain our former schedule of events for the day. I spent the afternoon celebrating my friend’s grandfather’s birthday, and enjoyed a wide medley of traditional Portuguese food. This included cod, cauliflower and greens with piglet, rice with duck, and cake (of course). There was also lasagna, although clearly this is not of Portuguese origins :P.

It was delicious, and it was enjoyable to partake in a family celebration while listening to the conversations around me. I was able to pick up bits and pieces due to my background in Spanish. Some of her cousins did speak English and were kind enough to provide tidbits of information so that I could stay involved.

After, one of her cousins was headed to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, and was nice enough to let me tag along. Fatima is known for being the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three Shepherd children in 1917. It is said that Mary predicted 3 events would come to pass, and only 2 have occurred to date.

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Franciso Marto

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Jacinto Marto and Sister Lucia

She patiently explained the history behind each aspect of the square, and accompanied me as I took in the sites of such a holy place. We entered the main cathedral, and paid our respects to the tombs of the three children.

 

 

After we exited, we went to light candles in prayer. Some individuals’ purchase was body parts or full wax figures; these are lit and melted by the church. Many see this as sacrificing part of yourself when you are praying for help from God.

On the ground along the square, is a long raised path that is paved in marble. Patrons of the sanctuary will sometimes walk, crawl, kneel, or lie down as they advance this tremendous distance to the chapel, which lies directly beside the tree where the apparition appeared. It is a painful process, and is seen as the deepest way in which to show reparation, devotion, and respect.

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 It is difficult to describe the emotions that I felt. Let me preface this by saying, while I believe in a higher power, circumstances of life have made it difficult for me to be a true believer of any singular religion. I was raised as a Catholic, and spent years as a child attending church in addition to attending a private catholic school. However, my dad is currently a practitioner of Buddhism and I have also attained some of those values as well.

In witnessing the devout attendees of the sanctuary, an overwhelming sense of sadness hit me. I was jealous. In their faces, it was clear that they believed without doubt in the power of God, Jesus, and the mercy of Mary. They were willing to experience pain, and sacrifice symbolic wax figures, in hopes of answers for their prayers. I truly wish that I could also feel this, believe this, and accept this higher power without question. Even when my travel companions went to confession, I refused, having not been in confession for more than a decade. I wanted to attend, but I didn’t know how I could start when it’s been so long since I have had faith.

Is there a religion that you believe in? What keeps your faith strong and persevering?