I woke up to the scent of incense. A hushed chant danced in my ears while tiny bells rang in the distance. I could tell my Indian mom was deep in prayer. I smiled.
With only a slight knock to announce her presence, Magi walked into my bedroom.
“Good morning, Rose. Happy Thanksgiving. Get ready, we’re going to the temple soon,” she said with a smile.
Although I’ve participated in a number of Hindu religious events, I had never been to a temple with Magi before. I was excited about learning all about a religion I have always been quite curious about.
When I emerged from my bedroom I observed Magi’s altar, which was right outside my door. Half a dozen pictures of different Hindu deities were neatly placed on top of a tall dresser. A white candle and an incense burner completed the ensemble. The incense was still burning. Its sweet sandalwood scent permeated the house.
I looked at the deities. Who had Magi prayed to? All of them? Just one?
The most prominent picture on the altar was of a man draped in white cloth. His skin was the color of cinnamon and he displayed piercings in both ears. He sat with one leg crossed over his knee. He was looking directly in front of him, almost as if staring at me. Although he was not smiling, his eyes appeared calm and inviting.
After a quick breakfast of buttered toast and coffee, I reached across the table for a banana before making our way to the temple.
Magi informed me I was about to eat a blessed fruit. Was she serious?
“So, what makes it blessed?”
“It was an altar offering. Everyone who visits the temple brings a fruit and offers it to the god. Before you leave the temple you receive one of the fruits that were blessed. ”
Magi handed me a coconut. “Here,” she said, dropping the heavy fruit in my hand. “This will be our offering today.”
I shook the coconut and the water inside swooshed around. My instinct was to cut it, drink the coconut water and then thinly slice and eat its snowy white pulp.
Of course, this coconut was not for me but I was excited about offering it to a god. As a chef, the greatest gift I could ever give anyone is food. This tradition seemed like something I could get used to.
We set out for the temple during a very cold day in Dallas. The temperature had dropped 50 degrees from the day before. As soon as the first blow of winter air hit, I missed Miami immediately.
Magi parked the car at a strip mall. If I hadn’t just moved to Dallas from Florida (strip mall capital of the world), I would have been shocked that a temple could be sandwiched between a dollar store and a donut shop.
I had no idea what to expect as we made our way to the temple. Once inside, Magi instructed me to take off my shoes. Removing shoes is a must at Indian homes and temples. This is an Eastern tradition I practice in my own home so it was second nature to me.
As I walked in my socks, I looked around. Thanksgiving morning did not seem to be a popular time to visit the temple. We quietly joined the handful of people who were walking in a circle around a grand statue located towards the back of the room.
The statue was of a man sitting on a throne. His head and body were draped in a cloth and he wore a wreath of flowers around his neck. Both his ears were pierced. I recognized him from the picture on Magi’s altar.
“That’s Sai Baba. No one really knew his name or where he came from. He was very poor and accepted and helped people of all backgrounds. He never identified with any religion but we believe he was Hindu because of his piercings.”
What Magi said next really caught my attention.
“Sai Baba believed in feeding the needy. Anna, our Hindi word for food, is the principal of Sai Baba’s beliefs. No one should go hungry. That is why we offer fruits at his altar.”
I did not know much about Sai Baba but I knew all I needed to know for now: He loved food and so did I. This was a soul I could pray to.
For the next half hour I followed Magi and repeated everything she did. She knelt to kiss Sai Baba’s feet. So did I. She walked around his statue with her hands clasped in front of her chest praying. So did I. She stopped and anointed her forehead with gray ash. So did I. Finally, she put money in a bin labeled Hundi.
As she slipped bills into the bin, she said, “They say that whatever quantity of money you put in the Hundi , it multiplies.” Without hesitating I made my contribution.
After our prayer, we approached a buffet set along the far end of the temple.
Magi instructed me to eat.
“But I’m not hungry,” I protested.
“You must eat at Sai Baba’s temple, even if it’s just a bite. The food honors his legacy of feeding the needy.”
How could I not eat? I looked around and settled on eating some sooji (sweetened cream of wheat with nuts and raisins) and lemon rice. Both were delicious.
After our small snack, Magi informed me we should sit for at least two minutes of prayer. I followed her to some mats on the tile floor. At first I hadn’t noticed it but now it hit me like a ton of bricks. There were no pews, no chairs and no seating aside from the mats on the floor. This was definitely not any of the Catholic churches I grew up in.
Magi prayed in silence while I pondered the seating situation. Snap out of it, I told myself and focused on my prayer to Sai Baba.
I prayed for the same thing I have been praying for since my mother’s death.
“Sai Baba, I’m tired of feeling hurt. I don’t want to feel pain anymore. Please, Sai Baba. No more pain, my heart can’t take any more loss. Please Sai Baba. That’s all I ask for. Please make the pain go away.”
My hands were clasped in front of my chest as I meditated on my prayer. I thanked Sai Baba for the many blessings in my life, including the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve become who I am because of my trials.
Magi gently tapped me on the shoulder indicating it was time to go. I opened my eyes and we enjoyed a quiet moment of admiring Sai Baba.
I wondered what Magi had prayed for. As if reading my mind, she said, “I prayed for you and my son.”
“Oh, Magi. You don’t have to pray for me,” I began saying but she interrupted me.
“Of course I pray for you. You are my daughter. I pray for you and my son. I want you both to get married and be happy.”
Oh, marriage. Something I never thought of but was always being brought up by my relatives.
Mami had always told me to “not wait too long” to have kids. How will I know when the time is right? It made me sad to think Mami was no longer here. I guess Magi will be there to guide me.
“I’m not kidding,” Magi said. “I already have the dress I’m wearing to your wedding. Sai Baba, please let my children get married soon!”
You can’t blame an Indian mother for wanting her children to be married. My Indian brother and I are 30 years old. According to traditional Indian and Puerto Rican standards, we are way past our marriage expiration date.
“It’ll happen, Magi. It’ll happen,” I said as we slipped into our shoes.
“Now we are going to a second temple,” she said as we made our way to the car.
I had gone from never going to a Hindu temple to visiting two in one day. Not bad for a novice, I thought.
The second temple had three Hindu deities but none of them were Sai Baba. We stood before them and prayed to each one. Although Magi explained them all in detail, the explanations were so extensive that I would literally need her to go over them three more times before I even think of writing about them.
The temple attendant wore a beautiful sari in bright hues. She offered us “blessed” water which she poured from a small bronze ladle right onto our hands. It tasted like water out of a garden hose but I drank it anyway because I knew it was supposed to bring good luck.
We sat in mediation again. Cross legged before the gods, I prayed for a completely healed heart. “Please god or gods, I don’t know who you are but I ask you to please erase the pain from my heart. I’m so tired of hurting and feeling loss over and over again. Please make the pain go away.”
When I was done with my prayer I kept my eyes closed. I meditated on bringing positive thoughts to my mind. My lips curled into a smile when I thought of Magi’s marriage plea to the gods.
I opened my eyes and saw the pretty lady in the colorful sari had come to say goodbye. As if she could hear my stomach growling, she offered us fruit from the altar. I mistakenly stuck out my left hand to grab one of the oranges she presented us. She kindly instructed me to use my right hand. How could I forget such a fundamental rule of Indian culture? You never touch food with your left hand.
Magi and I walked over to the shoe rack. I didn’t ask where we were headed next because I knew an Indian feast awaited us. We quickly slipped into our shoes and headed for the door.
“Magi, thank you for bringing me to the temples,” I said as we walked in the cold.
I may have left the house this morning with empty hands but I walked away from the temples with two oranges in my pocket and a heart full of hope.