Indian Culture Defined: Atithi Devo Bhavah
By Shailee Tanna *
India. The thought evokes varied responses and reactions. Colour, vibrancy, food, fear, history, religion. The list is endless. What about Indian culture? To pin that down is a little more difficult.
I have been living in North India for the past 4 odd months. Being an eternal explorer, I have become proficient in my little area, and thus often play local tour guide. Recently, the organization I work for hosted two American women. One day, over a meal, they asked, “So what exactly is Indian culture?” I stuttered, unsure, and launched into a detailed explanation of diversity in religion, cultures, people, and achieving unity in spite of it all. Seeing the confusion on their faces, I knew, somehow I had missed it
The next day, we went exploring in the nearby town of McLeodganj. Known as Little Lhasa, McLeodganj is the residence of the Dalai Lama, as well as a burgeoning Tibetan population that is flourishing in the hilly town. I love visiting this place, partly because of the amenities available due to the large tourist population, but mostly because this is India in action. A place where two very diverse groups of people (Tibetan and Indian), live together symbiotically and naturally.
As we walked around, one of my companions spotted a woman selling Tibetan street food (steamed dumplings called momos). She wanted to try one, but was unwilling to buy a whole plate. After lots of sign language and rough translations, the woman eventually understood. She bared a toothless grin, reached into the pot, scooped a momo onto a plate and handed it over with a flourish. Amidst much scrutiny, the momo was devoured and proclaimed delicious. When it came time to pay, the little woman waved us off with a smile. She was so happy that the foreigner had tasted her food, she didn’t want money. As we walked away, one other Indian visitor, who was present at the dinner conversation, sidled up to me and whispered, “Now that is Indian culture.”
A few weeks later, I found myself in Rishikesh. On my first day, I took my sweet time walking, ending up near the famed Ram Jhulla in the evening. Wanting to witness a Ganga arti, I made my way to the small ghat nearby, where boys from the local temple garbed in the yellow robes of Brahmins, ushered people to seats and made sure order was maintained. I sat there, swept away by the sincerity of the prayer. Three young priests conducted a small puja, and then Aarti to mother Ganga, while others circulated smaller plates to the congregation, making sure that everyone got a chance to offer Aarti. At the end, I overheard that the Aarti was organized by the priests at a small temple nearby, the Shatrugna temple.
In the Ramayana, an Indian epic, Shatrugna was the most obscure of Lord Rama’s three brothers. Lakshama’s glories are well known, and Bharata’s devotion to his brother is legendary. Shatrugna however, I profess to know little about. Thus, curiosity to learn more led to me to follow the Brahmin boys through the narrow streets to the temple, about 500 metres away from the ghat.
The temple, situated in a small compound, surrounded by lots of trees and greenery, seemed like a quiet oasis. The temple was empty, with the exception of the head priest and an elderly couple. The priest was explaining the history of the temple, so I stood and listened in. Soon, I was mesmerized Manoj Dviwedi narrated the history of his family in Rishikesh, and told riveting stories of saints and sages that lived in the city as he was growing up. Eventually, as I made a move to leave, Manoj reminded me that tomorrow was Diwali. “Please come by for puja, and do join us for some Prasad as well,” he added. I smiled, mumbled something vague, and left.
I woke up on Diwali morning with nothing special planned, just a desire to explore the city. Again, I walked everywhere, probing my way forward. Amidst yells of ‘Happy Diwali’ and vendors offering sweets to the masses, I made my way through Rishikesh. Around lunch time, I passed by a yoga centre, and noticed that prayers and Aarti were ongoing. Poojas and I are like opposite ends of a magnet; I get inevitably drawn to them. And so, with some hesitation, I inched into the room, and stood at the very back. The main priest looked around, caught sight of me, and gave a friendly smile and nod of the head, which I took as his indication of welcome. I stood where I was, planning a hasty exit once the prayer was concluded. However, I should have known that would have been a paramount sin in the eyes of those hosting the Pooja.
After Aarti was completed, I was heaped with troves of Prasad, consisting of fruits, nuts, ladoos, and a steaming cup of tea. As I tried to make my escape, I was unceremoniously dragged back. And so I surrendered, sat down and devoured my treats. The lady of the house went around ensuring everyone had more than their share of food and tea, while the yoga teachers went on the streets and brought the street vendors in to offer their prayers, and take Prasad. I sat there, a warm glow in my being, feeling so part of a family I had never met before. Finally, I decided I must leave. Expressing gratitude seemed to embarrass my kind hosts, and so I left, promising to return one day, and maybe take a yoga class. This, this was Indian culture.
The rest of the day was fulfilling. I watched the sun set over the river, and attended Diwali pooja at the famous Parmarth Niketan Ganga ghat, united with all that were there, in peace and goodwill. Later, I decided to attend another Pooja at another Ashram. I crossed the bridge, and made my way down narrow roads, and ended up surprisingly in front of the Shatrugna temple, quite without design. I peeked in and saw a small group of people, lots of light and an overall festive vibe. Thinking to pop in just to honour the invitation that was made by the priest, I made my way in. The temple was full of a kaleidoscope of people of various nationalities. The priest saw me and beamed in welcome. He dragged me to his wife, who was laying diyas throughout the temple complex, and insisted that I help her. The rag-tag group of foreigners and I sat with each other, devouring delicious home-made snacks and sweets, watching simple but beautiful firework displays, and lighting sparklers with each other. All throughout, Manoj, his wife and son darted between all guests and ensured everyone was eating, sparkling and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Soon, most left, leaving me and a young Israeli couple. I tried to leave, but strong protests prevented me. Eventually, I found myself sharing a delicious meal with fresh puris, kheer and various vegetable dishes, as Manoji regaled us with entertaining stories of the various people he has met over the years. His wife flitted in and out of the kitchen, refusing all offers of help. They introduced us to almost everyone that came into the temple, and spoke lovingly of all those that had touched their lives over the years. That warm glow returned. Eventually, when it was time to leave, I thought to sneak off with the couple, and find a rickshaw to take me back to my hotel. But the priest would have nothing of it. I was their responsibility, he explained. They had made me stay back, so they would make sure I returned safely. And so, I found myself bundled on the back seat of a scooter, as we wound up the hills of Rishikesh, right to the doorstep of my hotel. This, this was Indian culture.
Atithi Devo Bhavah. The guest is equivalent to God, a reflection of the divine. A cornerstone of Indian culture. It seems like a nice sentiment, until you experience it in the unabashed love and hospitality of the Indian people, from simple shop-keepers to large land-owners. To walk into a home, and feel welcomed without judgement, pampered and valued, is something that is so very Indian, ingrained in the value system of the culture. Any that comes to the door is treated as an embodiment of that God, to whom all actions are dedicated. This may not be consciously acted upon, but deep-seated values come to the surface. Anything given is done so without any expectations, without hesitation and without design. This even translates in business and customer services. No request is too much, no time is too much, and every request is catered to with joy. I am not saying that this is a given no matter where you go in India, but when it shines through, know that this, uniting all Indians across the country, this is Indian culture.
Over the next few days, I returned to that little ghat almost everyday. The Aartis at the bigger ghats were majestic to behold. Yet, there was a love that permeated at the Shatrugna ghat that touched me deeply. My last night in Rishikesh, I returned, and was seated at the very front. Manoj’s wife, a friendly face, came sat next to me. When I missed the Aarti due to my zeal of taking pictures, she ensured that the Aarti returned specifically for me. I told them I would return the next day to meet them before I left, but I didn’t get the chance. A part of me feels like I did not do enough (anything at all) to express my gratitude. The other part of me feels like it doesn’t matter. Their hospitality and love is not dependent on my gratitude, but rather just a part of who they are. I was not the first, nor will I be the last recipient of their care and generosity. All I can pray for, is that I too, can imbibe that same spirit of love and service, and see the Divine in all that cross my path.
Note: These are a few highlighted examples of Indian hospitaility, and not the only ones that I have had the fortune to witness. With the aim of keeping this article short enough to enjoy, only a few examples are included.
* Shailee Tanna, a perennial traveller, runs the risk of never settling down. Passionate about eradicating world poverty and being the happiest person in the world, she is constantly panning and implementing new adventures.