Garlands of Shame

Over at the Worst Horse blog there is an entry about a garland of shoes that have been hung over a statue of Buddha in Geneva Switzerland.  It originated from a story at the Bhutan Observer taken from The Times of India. And the comments everywhere are vitriolic.  Here is what all the fuss is about.


To many Western people this may not seem to be a big deal. In poor taste perhaps but nothing to start a riot about. But in the cultural context of South Asia this is a very big deal.

The practice of garlanding is very old in India. It is the method by which people are honored and it is also a religious practice in that statues of gods are also often garlanded. This garlanding is usually done with marigolds-a sacred flower due to their saffron color.

Even take the concept of the Rakusu in Zen traditions or the mala worn around the neck in other Buddhist traditions. It is very much like a garland. Or even the name of the Avatamsaka Sutra-Garland of Flowers.

Recently I went on a little hike in the hills and was staying at a small village where I have some friends. There was a ceremony going on in that village and I was invited to be “felicitated”. That means someone speaks a few nice words about you and then you are garlanded.

Here are some photos of the occasion.The date was April 10, 2009 and the occasion was the official opening of Dodital which is a high altitude lake and holy place that is said to be the birthplace of the elephant headed god Ganesha. The whole route is 22 kilometers to Dodital. Agoda village, where this ceremony is taking place, is 7 kilometers from the road.

The festivities included the usual dias of people to be felicitated. Along the back wall of the tent are the officials and guests seated and taking tea. It is about 6:30 in the evening.  The ladies on the left of the picture as you view it are local Panchayat heads (elected village mayors) , the gentleman in the center with the white vest is the local member of the legislative assembly (that’s like a congressman or member of parliament-it was just before the election so politicians really like to make themselves visible-even walking  the whole route rther than taking a mule) , and the men on the right are also some panchayat heads and other guests. I am sitting wearing the black jacket and beige pants forth from the MLA. As a foreigner I get to sit with the men. Partly because the women don’t speak English and partly because some of these men are relatives of the people I know in Agoda.


There were speeches, flowery and bold in language as is the usual Indian way and then some music and a vegetarian dinner was provided by the village for all attendees.  There were probably 200 people there in total. All were accomodated.

Throughout the night the dhols (big drums) were played and chanting and shouting was heard.  As it was just before the full moon the local goddess was taken in her palanquin (sort of like a stretcher with a decorated little house on it where the idol is carried by two men on their shoulders) from her home in the neighboring village temple up to Dodital to greet Ganesha and pay homage. Every full moon this ceremony takes place but this one is particularly well attended since it marks the start of the pilgrimage season to Dodital.

At the felicitation ceremony preceeding the next day’s pilgrimage  the Panchayat leader from the next village did me the honor of placing the marigold garland around my neck. I couldn’t get the photos that were taken by a photographer from a local newspaper and I haven’t seen the article that was written for that paper yet. But you get the idea from these photos.


On a bit of a tangent there were 3 other foreigners in the village but they were not invited to the ceremony. The reason was that local people thought they were hippies. When people in India go to a holy place or a festival they put on their best clothes and jewelry. Women do up their hair and children all wear clean clothes. These foreign “hippies” while having a lot of expensive trekking equipment were, according to comments I heard, dirty. That means unkempt hair and clothes. They talked loudly and acted in a “superior” manner to the locals. (There was actually a discussion about whether to invite them or not but they had already wounded the feelings of several people with their brashness) That is something that is common in foreign travelers in India unfortunately.

Some advice for those going to pilgrimage places, since I am talking about honor and shame here, consider yourself an ambassador for both your country and for other foreigners. Behave appropriately for the country you are in.  Just because you walk about on the beaches of Ibeza or California in a string bathing suit that does not mean it is appropriate in some other places. Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean the sensibilities of local people are irrelevant.  Just because you are with a few friends of your culture does not mean you are travelling in some impenetrable bubble where the person next to you on a bus or in a restaurant does not exist. A lot of offensive foreigner behavior is due to both ignorance and fear. But once the ignorance is overcome a lot of the fear and insecurity of being in a strange place also disappears. And besides, learning a little bit about local happenings and comportment can get you some really great dinners (and garlands)!

Now there is another side to garlanding in India that has to do with community shame and often vigilanteism.  For example a principle of a school was accused of molesting some young girls in his care. His school was stormed by angry town residents and he was dragged from his office into the street. His hair was cut off (tonsuring), his face was blackened with tar and a garland of shoes was placed around his neck as people nearly beat him to death with fists and sticks and shoes before police arrived.

So that is the meaning of the shoe garland. It is reserved for public shaming.

8 comments on “Garlands of Shame

    • Sure Arun. I read the comments over at the Worst Horse and the Times of India and found I had a lot to say.

      In Switzerland, like Canada and India but not like the U.S. freedom of expression has certain limitations. It is an agreement among citizens about what is appropriate and respectful. It recognizes the interdependence of cultures as well as individuals. Probably why I like being a socialist.

      I am no paragon in terms of curbing my words for sure some times, but ridiculing and debasing other’s beliefs and culture for the fun of it or for some commercial enterprise is unnecessary and cruel.

      Some people at the Worst Horse blog thought the Indian folks had over-reacted. In comments it always seems like the Indians, the Asian Buddhists, the Muslims are the ones who over-react but any expression by the financially dominant majority is Okey-Dokey including suggestions that the brown people just sit down and shut up about it so Freedom of Expression (and commerce) can carry on with it’s business as usual.

  1. I can see why the family was shocked – it’s clear the people in the shoe store had no clue. They probably thought the Buddha statue looked “cute” with the shoes. And isn’t it funny how quickly dismissive a few of the folks making comments on the WorstHorse were. And the one even lumping it in with the cartoon protests that occurred not too long ago. Interesting how same guy goes off about freedom of speech and yet doesn’t seem to recognize that their negative reaction to the use of the statue all falls under the category of freedom of speech.

    • You know Nathan that hypocrisy in that particular comment was something I noticed as well. It seems to be OK for the swiss to make any statement they please in public but a letter to a government official written by an Indian person is not OK. Another thing that struck me there was the suggestion that someone should go in and talk to the store manager or something quietly. How would that guy feel if some kid wrote an offensive slogan somewhere he came across it. Would he go and speak to the kid quietly and personally or would he call some government representative ie the police?

  2. Howdy
    My comment at WH was because I’m tired of people of any stripe trying to dictate to me what I can and can’t say/do based on their religious sensitivities. Religion needs to get it through its collective head that it gets no more automatic protection than any other idea or symbol in a post-theocratic world. Had the people in question not tried to invoke the authorities, I doubt it would have rankled me as much. It’s certainly not a white vs brown issue, as much as one may want to frame it that way for easy points; it’s a fanatics vs freedom issue. Frankly, to frame it that way is so intellectually dishonest as to invalidate much of this message. I’m not under any more obligation to walk on eggshells around “Eastern” Buddhists and Muslims than I am around “Western” Christians or for that matter Western Democrats and Republicans. It certainly falls under the aegis of freedom of speech for these people to complain; when they try to forcibly use diplomatic channels as they did, it becomes coercion. And it falls under freedom of speech for me to be disgusted with their behavior, just as it falls under yours to all address my and other comments here instead of directly at WH.

    As for me, you’re free to deface any symbol I’m a fan of. As long as you’re not harming anyone or damaging property that you don’t own, I have no right to stop you. I won’t call the cops either!

    • Dave you are certainly free to say what you want. And take whatever consequences of that which may arise. And writing a letter as the family did is hardly forcibly coercing diplomatic channels. They didn’t storm the embassy with assault weapons or the like.

      The question arises in your statement “As long as you’re not harming anyone…” Who defines the harm-the bystanders, the perpetrator of the act or the victim? And just because you don’t feel victimized or wouldn’t in a similar hypothetical situation doesn’t mean others are similarly numb to such things.

      As for addressing matters here… WH doesn’t allow photos in the comments and such a long post is better presented in this format.

      Thanks for your response.

  3. “Dave you are certainly free to say what you want.”

    Glad you think so.

    “And take whatever consequences of that which may arise.”

    Happy to. Though if I’m legally sanctioned for saying it, it would appear I wasn’t free to say ti after all.

    “And writing a letter as the family did is hardly forcibly coercing diplomatic channels.”

    They were trying to use diplomatic pressure to get Swiss authorities to forcibly remove the display, if the WH article is to be believed. This is coercion no matter which way you squint.

    “Who defines the harm-the bystanders, the perpetrator of the act or the victim?”

    None of them. We define harm ahead of time because allowing everyone to decide that they’ve been “harmed” every time they’re offended by something is both unmanageable and impossible.

    “because you don’t feel victimized or wouldn’t in a similar hypothetical situation doesn’t mean others are similarly numb to such things.”

    I’ve been very disturbed by some things I’ve seen and heard. I’ve just never believed I was within my rights to force everyone to see the world as I do.

    As for the comment thing, I used to have a blog, and now I don’t.

    I do appreciate that I was disabused of my ideas of Buddhism being different from other religions, though. I used to think because Pali scriptures said things like “I teach only suffering and its end” that Buddhism was more concerned with humankind than supernaturalism and repression, but the last few years traditional Buddhists have convinced me that yes, western convert Buddhists are wrong and it’s every bit the superstitious, anti-human twaddle every religion is. Your attitude sums it up perfectly; you criticize a Swiss store for (probably unknowingly) showing a form of disrespect to a statue that you seem to see no problem with South Asians painfully inflicting on real human beings. Incidentally, the store very likely might take down the display if approached in a polite manner, whereas I don’t think we’ll convince rural South Asians to stop meeting out lynch mob justice anytime soon. But yes, Westerners who go to Asia and wear a bathing suit are far more disrespectful than Easterners who come west and angrily try to restrict freedom of speech. You really nailed it.

    Incidentally, I find Buddhist criticisms of Carvaka really offensive, so please don’t wear Buddhist symbols around me, I’ll feel victimized if you do and demand that you stop oppressing me.

  4. Dave said: “We define harm ahead of time because allowing everyone to decide that they’ve been “harmed” every time they’re offended by something is both unmanageable and impossible.”

    Who is We? Where is this definition?

    “you seem to see no problem with South Asians painfully inflicting [suffering] on real human beings.”

    Where has it been stated that this is my view? And are not the family in question “real human beings”? What would be your definition of “real human beings”?

    What South Asians do in the context in which they live doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Buddhism. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, colonialism, poverty, lack of education and resources, racism (both from the developed nations and yes within South Asia itself), casteism, corruption, nationalism, sectarianism, globalization, competition for resources and about a thousand other things also play a role. Just like the thousands of things in the US and elsewhere that bring about violence, injustice and other suffering.

    Am happy not to wear Buddhist symbols around you. You are clearly a delicate individual.

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