It all started off with me spotting Lord Ganesha in a dragonboat, sitting pretty on the dashboard of the Uber I got into on a September morning in 2018. That’s a rather unusual Ganesha you have, I mentioned to the cab driver.
That was all it needed to get the driver talking. Appasaheb, that was his name, liked unusual designs and was very particular about what he surrounded himself with. Like the Ganesha in the dragonboat he had picked up from a shop in central Mumbai — he knew it would be perfect to adorn his cab dashboard. The conversation flowed and when I arrived at my destination, I was surprised to find that 40 minutes had elapsed.
A few days later, I was in a cab again and the first thing I noticed was the Ganesha on the dashboard, this time with a mini parasol. Like with Appasaheb, I got chatting with Sanjay, the cab driver. Thereafter, it became a habit to look at the dashboard as soon as I got into a cab and chat with the cab driver about the God placed there.
Little did I realise about the significance of that conversation with Appasaheb. What began as a series of fun capture about the Gods on cab dashboards soon turned to random shares on Instagram Stories. But over weeks and then months, these shares turned into an entire series with its own hashtag called #DashboardGod and conversations which I did not share.
It was twilight, that magical time between day and night, when she arrived at the gates of the Jalakandeshwar temple in Vellore, Tamil Nadu. Though it was a summer day in May, the gentle breeze going around made the heat bearable.
She stood diffidently at the entrance, looking around and wishing she were elsewhere — maybe exploring the Fort within which the temple was located… She didn’t really believe in God or rituals and found temples to be noisy, dirty places. But she had promised her father that she would visit the temple while in Vellore, so there she was.
She entered the temple complex hesitantly and looked around. To her surprise, the temple wasn’t overly crowded and there was a pleasant buzz in the air. While some devotees were offering prayers at the various shrines, many others were sitting around talking, socialising, relaxing and presumably waiting for the evening aarti to begin.
As she was wondering which way to head, the faint strains of music wafted her way and decided to follow the sound. It led her to an old man sitting on the ground outside a small shrine with a shruti box and singing Rama nannu, a Tyagaraja kriti. The old man had a beautiful voice, full of devotion and passion, and she immediately entranced. She sat down near the old man to listen to him and was soon caught up in the emotions of the song, which was about the all-pervading nature of God (Rama) and His existence in every living being.
When the old man finished singing, she realised that her cheeks were wet. As she wiped her face with her dupatta, she heard a voice whispering to her:
I wonder about the concept of “faith” sometimes. Faith in a belief, faith in a religion, faith in people, faith in relationships, faith in God… Faith. An abstract, nebulous concept for some; yet, a strong, clear path for others.
My faith in the concept of faith was tested during my recent trip to Pune, when the annual Palkhi Festival of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar passed through the city on 5-6 July 2010. The palkhi or palanquin of Sant Dnyaneshwar carries his footwear on a silver bullock cart; I am not sure what the palkhi of Sant Tukaram carries.
According to the Maharashtra Tourism website, the Palkhi Festival is a 1,000 year old tradition where devotees/pilgrims, known as varkarisaccompany the palkhis on foot to Pandharpur over 22 days in June (the Hindu month of Jyeshta)–July (the Hindu month of Ashada). The Palkhi Festival ends on Ashada Ekadashi.
Thousands of devotees make this annual trip every year. This year, the ToI has estimated that 3 lakh varkaris joined the 2010 Palkhi Festival. On the day the palkhis pass through Pune, roads get blocked, traffic diverted, and schools and colleges declare a holiday.