Last night I stood in the dark at the edge of the beach watching Indian families huddle around small fires they'd lit in the sand. Each family had an idol that they were worshipping, and amidst the commotion and ringing bells, a few members of each family would take the idol, wade shoulder-deep into the ocean, and drop the idol into the water.
Yesterday was the festival of Dussehra, the culmination of the nine-day festival of Navratri. Navratri celebrates the goddess Durga, and on all nine nights Hindus visit temples and bring offerings to the various idols. They hold special dances called Garba and Dandiya where participants dance in concentric circles tapping long wooden sticks with the person opposite them. Housing societies hold lavish meals and celebrations featuring fancy dress competitions, communal worship, and more jalebis than I could possibly eat.
My friend Dov and I would go walking in a different neighbourhood each night after work. Strings of festive lights lined the streets, and when we saw an apartment block or courtyard that looked like they were having a party, we would go in a celebrate. People were amazingly receptive to having us there, inviting us in, taking photos, and teaching us the dance steps. Each party came with an aunty who would eagerly offer us a ladoo, a sticky Indian sweet made of cream and jaggery, and then watch as we tried to finish them (we never could). Often there would be a band playing traditional music, and we spent hours dancing under the black sky participating in the festivities.
At times the attention was a bit much. One night we ended up at quite a fancy party, which was by invitation only. Still they invited us in, and the host ushered us immediately to the curtained-off VIP area, where six waiters attended the two of us and fed us individual servings of appetizers until we couldn't eat anymore. Outside, glamorous women in glittering saris were photographed by a slew of photographers, as young girls in elaborate outfits showed us the dance moves. Everybody stared at us. It was obvious that we didn't belong there.
On Navratri, everyday has a different colour of clothing that people wear. One of the shops I pass on my way to work changed the whole window display each day to reflect the colour, and the streets were full of women in colour-coordinated saris on their way to work or to visit friends. There's also a tradition to plant seeds in a basket full of soil on the first night of Navratri, and then on Dussehra to offer the sprouts into the ocean.
The building just behind mine hosted a meal on the last night. We stood in the Temple, surrounded by the white smoke of burning coconuts, and were brought into the adjacent courtyard where long tables were set with big metal plates. Five elderly women were crouched on the ground rolling out little bits of dough called puris, which a man was dumping by the handful into a massive pot of boiling oil. Men came around pouring big spoonfuls of different curries and sides onto our plates, which we ate with our fingers. I was sitting next to an old hunched woman named Asha, which means hope. She watched me eat, smiling the whole time. Afterwards they brought us back to the Temple courtyard, where the dancing was spilling out onto the street, which had been cordoned off with a blockade of motorcycles.
Navratri seemed so festive. Each night was a full party, and I had so much fun exploring the city and sharing in the celebrations, being welcomed by total strangers into their homes and their lives. Dussehra, in contrast, seemed somber. As I stood alone on the beach, surrounded by families engaged in their own rituals, I was reminded of my mom, who keeps organized boxes of holiday decorations on shelves in the basement. Each box is labelled for the holiday, and when I was younger, a few weeks before each holiday we would take out the box and set up memories of festivals past. The beginning of December would mean reading through Chanukah books from my childhood (love The Flying Latke) and putting out menorahs collected from all different sorts of places. There would be stacks of holiday decorations I'd made in school, and little apple and honey bowls covered in glitter and papier-mâché that had been collecting dust for 15 years, but they brought back memories of a lifetime of Jewish practice.
On Navratri families set up elaborate idols. Some are quite large, and others much more modest, but each is heavily decorated with mirrors, embroidery, fabric, glitter, coloured powders, and long strings of marigold blossoms. Over the nine days, the families gather to pray, worship, celebrate, and eat, and all of those memories and experiences are compounded into the material of the idol.
It's as if the intangible memories become compounded in the physical object. There's an idea in Judaism that people's intentions take on reality in the world. Even though Jewish philosophy might reject the concept of idols and their power, the Rabbis teach that so many people believing in one thing can give certain powers to the spiritual energies of idols. The same is true of the Western Wall (lehavdil), even if it may be just a stone wall, the compounded energies of so many Jews praying there for 2000 years gives it a special energy.
And I think the same is true with the ritual objects in our lives. My prayer book is mine. I've dragged it across many countries and several continents, and the dust that lines the pages is the compounded dust of my experience. I light my Shabbat candle in Mumbai in an old recycled olive jar, which on its own has no significance, but the melted wax collected over a years worth of Shabbats creates its own significance. The pile of holiday crafts my mom keeps in the basement are just bits of glitter and paper, but they tell the story of Jewish life.
But here I was on the beach, watching families cast their idols into the sea. Such fancy idols, far fancier than my macaroni-art menorah, worshipped for nine days and then never seen again. Idol immersion is a big part of the Ganesh Chaturti festival which happens in September, so I've read about it but never seen it. In pictures it seems grand and exciting, but here, on Dadar Beach at 9:00 o'clock at night, the families huddled together seemed so foreign to me.
Parts of it were familiar to Judaism: the candles, the whispered prayers, even the idea of immersion in water. But when Jews immerse things in water (their dishes, themselves), it's for the purpose of spiritually cleansing the immersed object for future use. These idols were immersed and discarded, offered to the sea. Women who had spent the last nine days worshipping and nurturing their seed baskets dumped the sprouts into the ocean and left the baskets on the trash-strewn beach. That night it rained aggressively, which is unseasonal for this time of year, as if the ocean was reacting to the hundreds of idols it now sheltered.
I recently celebrated my India year-iversary - twelve months since I first landed in India. Some things are beginning to feel very familiar - the language, the streets, the weather, the mannerisms, the food. But as I stood on the beach everything felt so foreign to me, like this place was something that I knew nothing about. Which is a good reminder I suppose, that I can hail taxis, and order vegetables, and get around and live my normal life here, but I still know nothing about it, I still don't understand.
And now it's Friday morning. My challah dough is rising, my Shabbat food is prepared, and I'm sitting in my regular Friday morning cafe, drinking my cappuccino and reflecting on the week. In a few hours I'll light my Shabbat candle, and have my friends over for the same Shabbat dinner we have every week. And when I light my Shabbat candle I'll think about the women crouched on the beach, lighting their oil lamps nestled in the sand and casting away their idols. Because even though we have different ways to celebrate, it's a nice reminder that even though some things seem so foreign, there are always ways to find something familiar.