Culture shock in Malleshwaram


Ninth-generation priest Gangadharadixit, left, and his nephew and fellow priest, Sharath, at Kaadu Malleshwara (Photo: Krysten Massa)

Ninth-generation priest Gangadharadixit, left, and his nephew and fellow priest, Sharath, at Kaadu Malleshwara (Photo: Krysten Massa)

Saturday, May 30–Our first day on the ground in Bangalore, and it was noisy.

“Beep, beep, beep” we heard as the bright green-and-yellow auto-rickshaws, the quick cars and electric scooters—some carrying as many as two adults and three children—squeezed their way down the narrow roads. The traffic never really seemed to stop on these roads. Colors were everywhere. Blue, green, purple sarees—any color you could imagine. The bright colors of the flowers and the fresh vegetables were captivating. We do not see things like this back in New York.

This is Malleshwaram, one of the districts of Bangalore, once a suburb of the main city but now well within the limits of the rapidly expanding urban area.

Poornima Dasharathi, a Bangalore native, was our tour guide for the day, and she walked us around Malleshwaram explaining its history and how people live there today.

Our first stop was Kaadu Malleshwara, one of the oldest temples in the area, exact age unknown. Poornima showed us part of a boulder, protected inside a walled niche, that bears an inscription showing that the temple was around in the 1600s.

As we stood outside at about 11 a.m., we watched people of the community climb up the temple steps barefoot, some old, some young, some dressed in sarees and some in more Western-style clothing.

Poornima explained that this specific temple is dedicated to worshipping the god Shiva. In Hinduism, Shiva is one of the main gods, along with Vishnu and Brahma. Poornima said that although Shiva is sometimes referred to as “the destroyer,” he does not destroy anything. He ends one life so a person can go on to the next, according to the Hindu belief in reincarnation.

When we climbed the stairs and entered the temple ourselves, we saw the people of the town praying. Children ran around, splashing the bits of water that were on the deities or the religious idols, and people stood by the “womb” of the temple, where they were greeted by the priest. Nobody goes into the womb of the temple. It is where more deities sit. The priest, draped in a traditional yellow lungi, walked up and down the row of people carrying a tray with a small brazier in which a fire burned. Those who came to the temple to worship waved their hands over the fire and then waved their hands in front of their eyes. Then the priest came around with holy water, which he poured into the cupped hands of the people for them to drink. Finally, he gave everyone a flower. Poornima put hers in her hair.

Poornima said that Hinduism was more a way of life than a religion. She said the reason the priest gave those items to worshippers is that they are the basic components of life. Humans need fire, water, and flowers or fruit. Sometimes, the priests hands out fruit instead of flowers, depending on the day of the week.

On our way out of the temple, we saw idols of snake deities. In Hinduism, a snake represents fertility. Poornima said that if a woman is having a hard time becoming pregnant or finding a proper husband, she will pray to the same snake idol a certain number of times. Near the rows of stone idols depicting snakes were trees wrapped in string by women seeking to find a good husband or boyfriend.

Every one of the little shops you pass while walking down Malleshrawam’s streets brings a different kind of sensation. The potent, sweet smell of the jasmine flower that the woman at the flower shop told us to put in our hair, the aromas of food vendors, the old woman wrapped in a purple saree that covered her head like a hood, sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk breaking apart seeds with her hands—all of this is a part of the culture.

The aromas of New York are nothing like those here.

Bangalorean snack food: a medu vada atop an idli. (Photo: Krysten Massa)

Bangalorean snack food: a medu vada atop an idli. (Photo: Krysten Massa)

The street snacks are also different. At one place we stopped at, we stood outside around a metal table and ate medu vada, a fried doughnut, and idlies, rice patties, with a sauce of coconut chutney.

Poornima said these are typical snacks that an Indian person eats between lunch and dinner if he is not too hungry.

Another refreshing snack that you won’t find in New York is a cut coconut with a straw in it. A man stood at a street corner with a cart full of green-skinned coconuts. With his forceful hand and large knife, he chops through the coconut and gets to the center where the water is and sticks a straw into it.

A street vendor prepares "tender coconut" for a passer-by. (Photo: Krysten Massa)

A street vendor prepares “tender coconut” for a passer-by. (Photo: Krysten Massa)

The idea is to drink the water quickly, then give the coconut back to the man so that he can chop at it some more. The man is very smooth with the large, curved knife, and he slices through the coconut like it is nothing. After he cuts it some more, he returns it to the customer. The coconut looks like a little boat and you can eat the inside, using a piece of the husk as a scoop. The coconut meat is soft and juicy.

A similarity of Malleshwaram to New York City is that they both have a street grid. Malleshwaram’s main streets run north-south, like the avenues in Manhattan, and its cross streets run east-west, like Manhattan’s streets. Any city-savvy person should be able to find his way around.

Malleshwaram is a mix of traditional and modern. There are science universities in the area, like the Indian Institute of Science, yet old temples and historic houses still stand. The area is packed with the traditions of Hinduism, such as flower garlands for sale to drape over idols in the temples. The streets are packed with beeping cars and scooters—which do not want to stop for pedestrians—and little shops that give character to the area.– Krysten Massa



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