Every morning, as I cycle down the road towards the tennis courts, I pass the Ayyappa temple, the principal landmark of my neighbourhood. I can hear the morning prayers on the temple loudspeaker – on some mornings it is Suprabhatham, other days it is one or the other Ayyappa hymn. It’s a good way to begin a morning, and I often think I should get up a little earlier and reach the temple gates before it actually opens. The earliest I have been up and about is at 5:45, give or take a couple of minutes, by which time the temple is already open even if the music player hasn’t been turned on yet. I suppose 5:30 is when the gates open and the priest does whatever he does before opening the temple doors. The head priest at this temple has a somewhat imposing and distinctly un-avuncular presence, quite unlike the other four priests who take care of the lesser/subsidiary gods. Somehow I don’t imagine the head priest is the one who wakes up that early though I don’t really know. I wonder if there is some sort of hierarchy that determines who wakes up that early hour or if they just do it by turns. On the other hand, that 30-45 minute window at the break of dawn and just before is truly a godly time and it is when one is mostly easily transported spiritually – to that extent, if a priest were sufficiently devout, I would imagine he would fight for his right to do the morning’s first offerings to his God.
In today’s times, a priest’s life is probably a hard one. It is a job for the spirit, but in the administrative and religious chores of the job, there is truly little spirit involved. In the past, the priest was an integral part of the community even if that community was rather limited by caste. There is a certain reverence and empathy that comes with that intimacy, and by virtue of position and presence, he must certainly have had considerable influence in the community. Today that is hardly the case. I doubt very much that any of the priests of this temple actually stay in our neighbourhood, and certainly they have very little to say or do in anything of import that happens here. While I might be generalizing here, it certainly doesn’t help that there are very few priests who have studied the world beyond the scriptures and talk with wisdom of the more material issues of our times. What stops a priest from spending 30 minutes every day talking about environmental consciousness, cleanliness, civic sense, excessive consumption, factory farming of animals, debunking caste or whatever else have you. I don’t suppose many of us would listen to them even if they did – it is a bit of a chicken and egg problem – they have fallen off in esteem so much that we would probably think what the hell do they know anyway, who is he to preach to me? Ah, the sweet irony of that statement. Nevertheless, the temple does exist as does the priest, however irrelevant he has become beyond his role as an indulged mediator. It would be nice to know what my local priest thinks about himself and his own role in today’s scheme of things.