Recently, the valley below where we live has been alive, day and night (literally, all night) with music and chanting. The music is a mix of loud Hindi pop, Bollywood tunes and even some American top 40 hits. The chanting, accompanied by tabla drums, shehnai flutes and car horns, is led by mic’d pundits, and rises from the temples below in Mussoorie. We wake, live and sleep to these sounds echoing through the valley and peaks because India has been in the throes of wedding season as well as Durga Puja, known as Dussahara in Uttarakhand, the state in which we are living. Dussahara is a ten-day Hindu festival celebrating the goddess, Durga and her ten forms, one of which is the goddess Kali, who is often rendered in pop culture, her tongue hanging from her mouth, her foot powerfully on a supine Shiva (we’ll save that story for another time). Durga is believed to be primordial or pure energy, and is thus the supreme soul—she is responsible for creation, existence and destruction (Kali, for example, is Durga’s form of necessary powerful female destruction). Each of Durga’s ten forms is given its own day for worship and commemoration during Dussahara. On day nine, we journeyed to Surkanda Devi, a famous Hindu temple near the small Himalayan town of Dhanaulti, to learn more about this dynamic deity—her forms, lore and the religious commitments to her—and to witness the power and beauty Durga elicits from her followers.
To get to Surkanda Devi, we had to catch a shared jeep at the community hospital. Shared jeeps are a common, inexpensive mode of transportation that connect the spread-out, small mountain towns. We walked around the bazaar for a minute trying to determine which jeep was trekking to the temple. When we found the correct jeep, the women sitting inside were very excited that we also wanted to go to the temple, and began to animatedly share stories of the warrior goddess, Durga, with us. Miss S had done some research on Durga, so despite our basic Hindi, we were able to follow along and understand the performative narration. One young mother in a beautiful red and gold saree, told us that the Durga idol at Surkanda Devi commemorates Sati, a woman who is eventually reborn as the goddess Pavarti, who is actually part of the triad (along with Saraswati and Lakshmi) of feminine supreme powers emerging from Durga. Through these powers, Durga lends primordial energy to creation, existence and destruction.
Hinduism is complex, so stick with us as we try to bare-bones explain the history of the temple. The story of Surkanda Devi goes like this: A god-king was unhappy with his daughter, Sati’s marriage to Shiva (we aren’t sure why, but marriage choices seem to be common reasons for disowning daughters in Hindu lore and, sadly, in real life). Sati and Shiva were uninvited by her father to a significant Vedic sacrifice. Out of rage and pain, Sati went to the ceremony and threw herself onto the sacrificial fires, knowing that it would ruin her father’s ceremony. Being wed to Shiva, Sati was the mother-goddess, and was thus reborn as Parvati, goddess of fertility, devotion, love and divine strength, and was created directly from Durga’s supreme soul as part of the triad. Grieving, Shiva vowed to not abandon his wife’s body until it had completely rotted away. Vishnu, one of the triad of Durga’s masculine supreme powers, secretly followed Shiva to calm him with his flute while he mourned. Feeling bad for Shiva, he also used his powers to disintegrate the body. As Shiva walked with the body, parts of it fell at various places across India, many of which are holy sites. The woman narrating this story for us passionately mimed Sati’s jump into the fire and a fallen head, emphasizing that on Shiva’s journey, Sati’s head had fallen at the temple to which we were traveling; she said that sur, means head in Hindi, thus the name of the temple is Surkanda Devi. So the temple commemorates the fallen head of one of Durga’s supreme manifestations in Sati, and thus Parvati, as well as the devotion between Shiva and Sati/Parvati. On a side note, Shiva is said to have created Durga from his left, and feminine, side. So worship of Shiva is also worship of Durga—together Shiva and Durga created other deities, such as Ganesh, Parvati and Lakshmi.
In broken Hindi we asked the women in the jeep which of the ten days of the festival it was and what form of Durga was thus being worshiped that day. We were told that it was the day of Siddhidatri, the ninth form of Durga, who awards her followers with supernatural powers and meditative abilities. She fulfills wishes, said one of the women, holding out her cupped palms towards us, so we each began to think of wishes we might bring with us to the temple.
As the jeep made its final attempts to leave the bazaar, more and more people crowded in, and on top of the vehicle. A jeep that comfortably but snuggly fits ten bodies, had sixteen inside and six or seven on top. We followed suit, opening the windows and squishing-in. As soon as we began our one and a half hour ascent through the foothills, a girl in the front seat began throwing-up out the window. We could see her in the rear view mirror, poor girl was crying and was so miserable the entire journey. The roads were narrow and full of hairpin turns, and the driver wasn’t slowing down for anything. Miss K began to feel woozy of her stomach, she put her head down, channeled the gift of mediation from Siddhidatri and was able to stay calm and steady in her stomach.
The drive was beautiful, displaying the ever-immense valleys and dramatic slopes of the intensifying Himalayan range. We went through three small towns in which the jeep stopped to let passengers off and on—the jeep stayed as crowded as ever. Just as we passed a sign noting that we were one km from the temple, a sigh of relief filled the vehicle, along with a sudden burst of vomit from a child who had just awoken. The mother, in her beautiful red and gold saree, and grandmother were covered in the child’s continuous upheaval of regurgitated lunch. Before the car could come to a complete stop, we all tumbled out to avoid the stench.
The temple was the town. Everything was catered towards temple goers; the shops were full of offerings, called Prasad, to purchase for the gods: coconuts, puffed rice, sugar lumps, red and gold fabric and other tokens signifying gratefulness and blessings. Miss S asked an old man drinking chai about how to get to the temple. The man pointed directly up, to the top of a near peak, smiled and, gesturing to ten ft. across the road, said in English, “you start there.”
From the shops, this 13th century temple seemed to float at the base of heaven, its flags drifting slow as clouds, its brightness inviting, its steep height soul-lifting and cleansing. We began our ascent-by-foot along with other worshippers up to the temple awaiting us 10,000 feet above sea level.