Not all squirrels are blessed. Dozens and dozens of them I had seen in my time in India — they were touched by Lord Rama.
A bridge needed to be built. Lord Rama put to that task the monkey army, also called varanas. They were hefty creatures and willing to help in a big task to save Rama’s wife Sita, daughter of Mother Earth (Bhumi Devi). One monkey, carrying a heavy cargo of rocks, came across a squirrel. He scolded the rodent, saying that this was too substantial of a project for them; a squirrel with a pebble on the way isn’t partaking in anything worthy. Lord Rama, hearing this chiding, taught the monkey that even the smallest contributions, if done out of love, are as valuable as carrying boulders as heavy as an anvil. With that, Rama struck the meek squirrel’s back leaving behind three white stripes.
‘That is how the squirrel got its stripes’, a friend said, explaining the folktale in all its tangents. The great Sanskrit epic Ramayana is one of the oldest epics along with the Odyssey and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and longer than some of the longest epics in the world. Teachings like this from the Ramayana have intertwined cultures across the subcontinent for generations upon generations. Along with the Mahabharata, it has spread its roots in Indian folklore, and religion, like the heavy rain that fills all holes and slits giving life to even the smallest of living things.
Symmetry besieged every corner of the greeting hall of Hutheesing Jain Temple. The hall, shaped like a square, had entrances on three sides, and the innermost sanctuary, Garbhagriha, situated on the fourth. The curved lines of the ornamented arches led one’s head towards the sky, revealing the main cupola and glittering chandelier that draped downwards from the centre point of the smoothed round shape. I heard the statues on the eight pillars that held up the glorious dome were dancing out of celebration. The humbly sized statues above our heads, all in different positions, looked inviting, fulfilling their purpose. A pigeon flew over me and settled down on the feet of one statue. There was a nest; this was its home.
Closest to the main exit, opposite to the Garbhagriha, a statue’s body was twisted, one knee pointing to one side, upper body to the other direction. It had dangly anklets, bulky jewellery around its neck and its breasts were exposed. Arms lay flirtatiously on the hip and above the ear, as if pointing at something. Like the briskly emerged pigeon before, a squirrel swooshed on top and rested on the sturdy head of the statue, leaning on her pointing hand. It was a shame that photography wasn’t allowed. A representation of religion, joined by animal creatures seeking refuge in the midst of a lively urban city was a picturesque sight. It appeared as if the Jainist belief of the inherent holiness of all living life was incarnated in this.
The greeting hall and innermost sanctuary were surrounded by a cloister and fifty-two shrines of the Tirthankaras, the apostles of Jainism, who supposedly had completed the cycle of life, left samsara behind and attained liberation, moksha. The gallery seemed to be never-ending. One altar followed the other, divided by arches of half-moon shapes pointing down. The deities were frigidly shut behind thick bars, with the same intentions as an overprotective parent would their child. Looking around, the temple was like a composition of snowflakes; every part your eyes were drawn to was different but yet in its entirety everything was made of the same and merged together to hold up a great, delicate beauty.
I was told that constructing this beauty in the 1840s took only two years, and surprisingly everything was done during a famine, giving much needed wages to local artisans. Many kings and wealthy people, like the Hutheesings in this case, over the years have used the building of temples as a way to support the citizens suffering from hunger and poverty. Historically, Gujarat has long had a large population of Jains, providing a more available labour force. As I walked through the halls, I could not believe that only two years were taken in the construction. I compared it to Europe, where the same intricacy would have taken decades to build.
A strange woman approached us as we were talking about Ancient Indian religions. Some would say she herself looked like a goddess. She had long, black hair and the most beautiful Indian eyes. She radiated calmness and warmth, like a teacher’s calming insightfulness. She joined our conversation, and very quickly you could notice the passion she had for spirituality in India.
“You see, Jainism and Hinduism, in their core, represent the same India, but they separated because of certain practices and faiths, like using white clothes.”
“Nowadays they both have different beliefs, don’t they?” my friend argued.
“Yes, but if you look more closely, you can see the same base for all of it. It was just one Tirthankara called Mahavir who differentiated Jainism from Hinduism,” she answered confidently. “That’s why all the Ancient Indian religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism have so many similarities, such as the use of Ramayana and Mahabharata.”
Later on we came to realise that she was drawing strong conclusions from small pieces of history, which did not take heed of the complexity of the forming of these religions. The use of Ramayana and Mahabharata differs when you go from Hinduism to Jainism to Buddhism. Jainism doesn’t believe in a creator god like Hinduism does. In the end there are too many differences to consider the religions as the same matter. She was too idealistic of the religious unity of India but still, the encounter felt different. I felt a view-altering, somehow mystical atmosphere in the conversation.
Joining eras into one, atmospheric space, the temple was a mixture of old and new. It used Maru-Gurjara, a temple style used from 11th to the 13th century that inspired the sharply carved, bold statues of the temple, and Ajeli, generally used as a term for traditional mansions in India, especially in the 19th century. The structure morphed a combination of elements from far far away, eighteen hundreds and today into one spatial structure that resonated a sense of eternity. Even as the sound of honking penetrated the medieval-inspired walls slightly, I thought of the agelessness the structure gave the place. Time did not feel like time inside.
The rapid traffic of Ahmedabad broke the spell of eternity. I noticed squirrels on almost every tree. Although India is much more than just religion, at this moment I didn’t feel that way. Rama’s touch was everywhere.
Author – Olga Knuth
Editor – Matthew Spall