Our driver seemed determine to make sure we got our share of temples and after two Buddhist temples and monasteries, he took us back into Kalimpong town and dropped us at a third. He didn’t tell us anything about it so it was only once we were inside and saw the paintings at the front of the room that we realised it wasn’t a Buddhist temple, but a Hindu one. The main icon was of a man with a moustache, backed by pictures we recognised as other holy leaders. We saw Guru Nanak, Jesus, Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu, and a couple of Buddhas as well as a few holy folk that I didn’t recognise. After the ornateness of the Buddhist temples, the room itself was very simple without the intricate wall paintings of the buddhists. It was quite a modern building, opened only in 2008, with marble floors and almost no furniture inside.
A young woman came over to speak to us with her father. She was one of those people who positively glows with enthusiasm and faith. She explained that they were followers of the man in the picture Satpalji Maharaj and that he took key learnings from many other major religions. She pointed to the writings around the walls - most of them in Hindi - and one in English, a quote from St John’s Gospel. "In the begining was the word and the word was god". She also explained that today was a holy day - Desserah - and that they were there to get blessings from their teacher, a woman in an orange/yellow robe who was described as a sort of nun. I quipped that it was nice to see a nun with hair and she explained that hair isn’t important, it’s what’s in the heart that matters. I was impressed that their leader was a woman as I’d not seen too many holy women in Hinduism.
The girl asked if we’d like a blessing and a tikka (head mark) from the teacher and we said that we would so long as she didn’t make the marks on our heads too big. Most people were walking round with massive tikkas about two inches in diameter and I knew we’d never get through the day without getting all the goop in our eyes. We knelt down, she put the red dye and the pink rice on our foreheads and then the girl gave us some bananas. Who were we to say no to a holy banana? She then asked if we’d like to eat prasad with them. Prasad is holy or blessed food and is usually gooey sweet stuff. We’d got quite addicted to the Sikh prasad after spending a couple of days at the Golden Temple so we said yes and then discovered that what she was actually offering was a full meal.
We sat down with the girl and her father, and her mother brought us each a tumbler of warm water and then a plate of food. I made a complete booboo by not realising that the food in the small dish on the plate was actually a pudding and mixed some of mine with the rice. I don’t think anyone noticed but I learned very quickly. The food was delicious and entirely vegetarian. My guide told me that she’d been a strict vegetarian since birth and then told me about the story of Desserah which commemorates Ram slaying the evil Ravana and represents the triumph of good over evil. Her mother told her I looked like ‘A very fine Brahmin lady’ which was very sweet of her. She told me a lot more about their guru and about her life with the group and her job as a school teacher. Whilst I’m not a particular fan of organised religion, occasionally in life, if you are lucky, you get to meet people who are lit up from within by their religious joy. She was one of these people. We were clearly not contenders for any rapid conversion, and all she wanted was a chance to chat to us and tell us a bit about her life.
I’d have been happy to stay longer but we were worried our driver might think we’d been kidnapped by the people at the ashram. He wasn’t to know that our five minute visit would turn into sitting down and having a delicious full meal. We took some photos of our new friend and her father and waved them goodbye, wishing them a happy holy day.