An unlikely spiritual encounter on Papanasham Beach

Today is Lord Shiva’s birthday. The Brahminy Kites have woken me earlier than I would have liked, so I make a bee-line for the beach in the hope of seeing the Bali Mandapam Temple in a less crowded setting than the previous evening. Descending the sandy steps, I see a line of women in golden Saris exiting the Temple in the direction of the Arabian Sea, where surfers are already catching waves in the early morning light. Under the shade of colourful umbrellas, sit cross-legged holy men waiting to hold the next Puja (prayer ritual). I watch as young families pick a priest, and recite their prayer offerings to Lord Shiva (the destroyer / transformer).

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One of the priests, wearing a bright orange Kurta and scarf combo waves me over. For a minute I wonder if I might be in trouble for taking a photo… but he opens his palm and signals for me to sit at his humble shrine. As a non-Hindu, I had been turned away from a couple of temples in the region, but here I was being offered a chance to immerse myself in this mysterious religion. I recite the Sanskrit words, foreign to my tongue, and am surprised with my ability to repeat back the lengthy and complex sentences. The priest intermittently gives me simple translations. He places two banana leaves on the sand between us, and asks if my grandparents are still alive. I confirm that my grandfather has passed. One banana leaf represents the deceased family on my father’s side, and the other for my mother’s side. The priest pours water over my hands to purify them, then incense is wafted in circular motions and a sacred thread is tied around my finger. Next, gains of rice and orange flower petals are scattered on both leaves. A triangular shape, which represents the masculine, is made on my father’s leaf. My surf instructor from the previous day trudges past with raised eyebrows. Many more tongue-tripping verses later, and the ring is removed from my finger and placed on my father’s leaf.

I carry my mother’s leaf away and place it on the sand. My father’s leaf, I take all the way to the sea and standing with my back to the water, as if throwing a bouquet at a wedding, I toss the leaf behind me. The waves engulf the leaf, regurgitating the flower petals to create a delicate orange decoration along the shoreline. I kneel back down in front of the priest and he smudges 3 lines of sacred ash, made from purified cow dung and sandalwood paste, on my forehead. He says “your grandparents will be happy now”. I thank him and offer him the crumpled face of Ghandi on a 500 rupee note (roughly a fiver). The ritual is complete.

Walking away, I feel a sense of meaningfulness, as I ponder my ancestors.  Interestingly, this beach is named Papanasham, which translates as ‘to wash away or destroy sins’.

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