A note to the reader, I’ve included a glossary at the end for indigenous words.
It is a common belief that Mother Divine’s presence can be unmistakably felt during Navratri.
January 2019, Bangalore, India
My friend Nikhil Garg, an ardent Devi worshipper and one who has always supported me in my quest, urged me to visit the Ma Mookambika Temple. At the temple, I was met with Mataji, the respected mother of the Guru, Satyendra Nayak Ji, with whom I entered an eye-opening conversation…
Mataji: You have had Devi worship in your family.
Me: No. Absolutely not. My family has been Christian (Catholic) ever since.
Mataji: Not possible.
Me: How can it be so?
Mataji: You won’t be here otherwise. Rather you can’t be present here in this temple premises.
The strangeness of this conversation has stayed with me since then. Many uncomfortable silent moments laden with blankness. No clues. No answers. Then all of a sudden, some faded or rather selectively locked out memories began to peep at me from some closed hazy window panes in my heart. Along with this came the uncomfortable realization as to why I had been unable to connect deeply and truly to God as ‘Mother.’
I was born into a religion where God was distinctly male. He is ‘God The Father’. God was again a male when I became acquainted with Sikhism through my husband, where the Divine is addressed as ‘Rab.’
1973 or 1974 Jamtoli
I was on one of our long summer vacation trips to my father’s village called Jamtoli, in the then district Ranchi, Bihar. These alternate year visits were my favourite despite the arduous train and bus journeys we had to undertake to get there. For a city born and bred girl, the lofty mountains, the unnavigable dense Oak and Sal forests, and the mighty river ‘Shankh’ unceasingly filled me with inexplicable awe.
I remember this particular visit quite clearly. I may have been nine years old then. I used to hang around from morning till evening, playing and helping some of the kids with their English coursework. In exchange, they taught me to identify ripened Jackfruits on trees and break them open with my tender bare hands. They even taught me to climb the tallest of slender trees about 8 meters high and swing myself down to the ground holding onto its tapering tip.
In addition to exploring the forests, I also learned how to watch over our cattle as they grazed the lush mountains, be a farmhand, separate the chaff from the grains, and even draw water from our wells. I always felt the spirit of the ‘Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew’ alive in me. Adventure- I wanted it all.
Come Saturday, the village women used to go to the riverside to do their weekly laundry. Men and cattle were strictly barred along the long stretch of the river Shankh, along which the village was situated.
One particular Saturday my parents let my cousin sister Francesca (affectionately addressed as Siso) and me off on our own to bathe in the river. A sight to behold, way wider and grander than how I had seen the river Yamuna from the ITO bridge in New Delhi, the Shankh was magnificent. The bank areas were about neck deep. We had arrived late at about 10 am, the usual time for ladies to return home. I remember seeing most of the women walking back home in a single file through the forest, their necks and heads steadying their oversized laundry baskets on their Bindos.
“Swim around. Don’t venture too far and keep your eyes and ears on me,” Siso had said.
Soon we were both in the water. I still remember the silence that had suddenly befallen after some time. One by one, the women were all gone. I was more overjoyed with privacy and just when I was enjoying it all…
“Manju! Run!” shrieked the otherwise soft-spoken Siso.
I couldn’t see her anymore. When I did, I saw her off the river bank and then running uphill. I followed suit barefooted oblivious of the rocky ground.
“Faster!” she had once again screeched.
I was hysterical but not sure of what was happening. We had both run up some distance, before stopping at a clearing from where we could see the river again. Gasping, she had pointed at a man, the only tall man in the distance walking away with his hunting dog. He had a huge sickle in his hand that flashed in the sunlight. She had made me wait for a while in the thicket before returning to retrieve our caddy and fast pacing back home.
“The Orkas were out there today and had carefully zeroed in on us. One of them, clad in a loincloth, had come really close while the two other men pretended to fish. I spotted his dog first and then him. We ran!” Said Siso to my father. Father had looked at me and fearing a scolding, I had kept quiet. I didn’t quite understand.
The Orkas were occult practitioners who believed in some form of Devi. They also ritually offered human sacrifices. It was the norm. I was then told by my father. I still didn’t quite understand.
January 1990, Jammu, India
Our Airline crew decided to pay a visit to the Shrine at Vaishno Devi. I didn’t want to go but was coaxed into it. I didn’t want to come back home and narrate a pagan tale to my parents.
“Come on as you would on any outdoor trip,” one of the crew members had encouraged.
I remember being overwhelmed by the climb, the ecstasy filled loud chants of Jai Mata Di, the country musicians who sang devotional songs to their Ma, the slide through the ‘ArdhKuwari’, and above all the entrance through the Tiger’s jaw at the main cave which one could only pass through if they greeted Ma with a Jai Mata Di…Though disappointed to see just the three rocky mounds which the Pundit claimed was the presence of Ma, I remember bowing and feeling the unmistakable surge of energy that made my throat tighten and eyes to well up.
January 1991, New Delhi
During the year I got married, I started to trace my family’s religious belief history. On asking my father if he had always been a Christian Catholic, he informed me that while he was baptized as a child, his father was initially a pagan who once worshipped the forces of nature.
“So why does their God want a human sacrifice?” I asked my father remembering my experiences as a child, opening the topic on Orkas.
He couldn’t give me an answer that I could understand but went on to share his experience, “Well, I was in University and had just come home for the summer during the vacations. It was customary for educated people to be called in for an audience, and so some men came on the pretext of escorting me to meet the headman of the adjoining village. In reality, it was a kidnap. I couldn’t say no. Upon reaching the house, I was made to wait in a room. Few men stood guard. Soon screeching sounds of some metal being sharpened started recociating in my ears. I heard all the sounds involved in the preparation that was being made to sacrifice me to their Devi”.
“He will make a perfect offering,” he had heard them comment, “not only is he smart and of the right age but above all, educated.”
“While they got busy, I escaped,” said father watching my expressions of utter disbelief.
These accounts and experiences caused a stir in me, a new emotion arose – Fear. Fear of the Lady God.
Going further, I then asked him how our family came to be Catholics. He apprised that the first Belgian Missionary had come to live in the region as early as 1880 and who not only educated the locals but also motivated them to stand for their rights against land spoliation. My grandfather and a few others accepted Christianity based on the good deeds and support that was given to them to protect their land. My father also shared that he was personally mentored by Rev. Fr Walter Pillan SJ, who had put him on the path of religion and education through the years. He personally taught him not only English but Latin too.
I still remember my meetings with Fr Pillan, the most wonderful man I have ever known.
Content with my spiritual beliefs & practices that revolved around Christianity and later Sikhism, life was happening till one day everything came to a grinding halt. On seriously questioning the presence of God amidst my dilemma, Gurudev Om Swamiji found me in 2016 and ensured I stayed close. Then came SriHari.Yes, God is energy, but I could never see the Feminine aspect.
Hari Ji, Yes. Sri Ji, No. I could not relate to her.
Somewhere along the way, a very patient and compassionate Swamiji put me on the path of Sadhana, and thus began the saga of The Devi, Her acceptance and Her worship. It’s taken me a long wait of three and a half years to know Sri, my Divine Mother, a little bit and to smile at Her. But this is also enough.
2018, Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore
Though I’ve resided in Singapore for a very long time, I had never visited a Devi temple. So before the Navratri season of 2018, I was inspired to visit this specific temple, and soon after I resolved to observe my very first Navratri. Though the brave decision was taken, I clearly had no idea what I was going to do. That day when I accepted her as Mother, she came home as a beautiful gift from a friend. Made of solid silver, an Incense stand with Sri ( in Sanskrit) modeled on it, large and beautiful. I realized then that only Her Grace brings one to Her Name and to dwell in Her Love. She was soft. She was Love.
I don’t know if it made Ma happy and made her nod her head or smile frequently while listening to me read aloud the Litany, The Lalita Sahasranam …as they say, Ma Lalitambika did when the first Sahasranam was recited by the Vac Devi’s (Lalita Sahasranama, A Comprehensive Treatise by V Ravi). I still felt I had taken my first step.
June 2020, Singapore: Reflecting on Gupt Navratri The verses now many a time flow gently like the river Shankh on their own within me, sometimes catching me unawares, receding the ominous tide and letting me rest gently in her bosom. The Divine Mother dwells in my beloved GuruDev’s gentle smile, His merciful glance, His roaring laughter, and also in His gentle chastising. She peers at me through His mountain peaked eyebrows and lets me take refuge in His Red Tilak. There is no fear. Only Love. For both are LOVE. And Love is everything there is.
Thank you, my GuruDev Om Swamiji.
With You by my side, I have nothing to fear.
1.Bindo – A flat thick ring made of straw to balance round-bottomed pots, baskets, etc on heads.
2.Orka – Occult practitioners. Native to the Language spoken by the indigenous dwellers who came to reside in many areas of the then unified Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa.
1.‘Aing’ in the language means ‘I am’.