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.