Field Notes: An(other) Experience

9 July 2016
Serangoon Road
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

We arrive at a nice early time of the morning, my field partner and I. I’m a mix of emotions as I stand at the temple’s gate, facing its grand, colourful facade, thankful that I could get a ride from the nearest train station to the temple because it’s a drizzly morning, yet my footsteps heavy because I don’t know how this site visit is going to turn out. Will the chief priest entertain our questions? Or will we be stared at, stared down, and then forced out? Anyway, we are here, and field work we must do if we would like a decent grade for our term paper. I inhale deeply and exhale just the same, not because the air is fresh and crisp just after the rain, but because I need to calm my nerves. I glance at my partner, he’s just inhaled-exhaled too. Great, that makes two of us.

We walk through the gates. There is a whole pantheon of deities to look at as I try to trace the tall, imposing but impressive facade with my eyes, its trapezoid design leading my gaze high and skyward. The temple is a piece of Singapore’s history tucked in the heart of today’s trade hub for the Indian community. Just across the road is an alleyway I recognise: today it’s empty but I’ve seen how bustling it is during Deepavali. Eateries, jewellers, garment and general sundry shops flank the sides of the temple.

We remove our shoes, doing so as casually as possible lest our mannerisms betray our cluelessness. We climb up the steps past its elaborate bronze doors into its inner court. My eyes are immediately greeted by the same splash of colours I tried to trace earlier over its facade. The inside of the temple is just as elaborately decorated as its outside. My nose is greeted by wafts of what smells like sandalwood and spices coming from incense being lit everywhere in the temple.

Now we’re squarely facing the inner sanctum, divided by partitions into three sections. The concrete partitions are so stocky we can barely see what (or who) is enshrined inside. Some peering and rubbernecking gives me glimpses of statues in sitting positions. In front of the central partition, however, a prominent statue presides. This must be the image of the Goddess Kali, the resident deity of the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple.

Enough looking around. My partner and I try to scope out the headman to target for our interview, but we can’t make out the ranks of the priests to decide who we should approach. Some have ash streaks decorated across their chest and arms, others have red lines, some dress in white robes while others are in green. Behind us is the administrative office, so we decide to ask the staff inside, who directs us to our man: the chief priest.

Rajesh Sivam is the man we want. We approach him cautiously, furtively, and I rehearse a suitable greeting silently in my head. He sees us coming from ten steps away from his vantage point at the corner of the temple, where he supervises the proceedings of the morning. He breaks the ice with a slight, careful smile, no teeth. I take that as a welcome.

Inhale, exhale. “Hi, good morning! We’re students conducting some fieldwork on religious sites in Singapore and we would like to ask you a few questions, if that is okay with you?”

Rajesh’s smile opens up, I can see teeth now. “Let’s begin…”

We navigate the maze of his accent, phrasing and rephrasing our questions, my curiosity about topics he’s bringing up versus the questions we planned to ask, trying to maintain his attention as “a few questions” stretch into 45 minutes of q&a, and as the duration of our interview grows I am impressed at Rajesh’s patience and ability to converse with us (or, whatever we understood of each other) while contemporaneously inspecting the steady stream of devotees making their prasadams. These are offerings of fruits and sweet treats with precious items or money on silver trays to the priests who would collect these and in return give a blessing of either presenting a flame, to be encircled quickly with bare hands which then are touched to the devotees’ foreheads, or dipping a finger into a red substance and placing a dot on the forehead. I took note of some facts that made Rajesh a fascinating character to me.

Rajesh is an Indian national who currently lives in Singapore. He studied for six years in India to become a priest, and this was all done in Sanskrit. He proudly shares that rituals must be kept, that despite modernisation in Singapore, the traditions of pujas in this temple have been strictly maintained. His tone falls a little as he describes next that in the recent twenty years, there have been less devotees who come to the temple, and those who come seem to seek blessings more than guidance from the gods. I reckon materialism is a tough stain to wash off anyone who has spent considerable time in Singapore, my beloved Singapore, my urban, fast-paced, pragmatic Singapore.

Out of courtesy we end our questions. I ask if he has any questions for us in turn. He thinks for a while, then asks: “You are students, yes? And you’re studying this, Hinduism?” Yes, we’re studying a course on world religions, and we want to find out more about Hinduism and how it is practiced in Singapore, we say, and thank him again and again for being patient. We begin to step away when I inhale-exhale once more and ask him if he would oblige a we-fie picture with us. Pose, ready, click! I examine the picture, and he’s given a smile, no teeth. My partner and I look okay in the photo, though I regret not washing my hair in the morning because it all looks so greasy, but nevermind that because chief priest took a we-fie with us, yo.

We walk around the temple some more and there are so many interesting things to see, so many different smells to take in. Soon, a wedding procession starts and a small band plays festive traditional music. The quiet, moving lines of devotees are now replaced by family and friends of the bridal couple. Amidst saris and the throwing of rice grains, smart phones are held overhead, pictures snapping away. How does an ancient religion survive the swash and backwash of urban trends? My guess is the flexibility which Hinduism affords, so much so that every now and then I want to give the name of this religion an additional alphabet and make it Hinduisms.

Through my three months of study and today’s field visit, I have seen the beauty of a people who have made this their way of life and a lens through which to view the world. I am reminded that my Hindu neighbours are not the Other, and that when I stop Other-ing Hindus, I am less afraid and also less ignorant. Where I once saw a barricade to any chance of sharing the Gospel with my friends, I know now that there are many points of entry through which I can share the Christ I know with them.

 

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