After Brussels, the plan was to drive to Berlin and spend four or five days there. There was to be a stop on the way, in a city called Hamm in northern Germany. You probably would not find it in the tourist guides; its attraction lay in a detail that made it special to us: the town was home to a Hindu temple, the largest of its kind in Germany.
We started from Brussels late afternoon on the 25th of July. An hour and half later we crossed the border into Germany, which meant we could speed up on the Autobahn. But a traffic jam along the way prompted the navigation system to suggest a detour, which took us on a smaller highway, through villages surrounded by corn fields. Each village had pretty cottages with large gardens in front; families were cycling leisurely along the bicycle lanes next to the motorway. The setting was idyllic, and it made us slow down – we were no longer in a hurry to get back on the Autobahn.
“What a beautiful place!” dad exclaimed loudly.
The remark did not surprise us. In the week since his arrival he had found most places beautiful, well-organized, highly evolved.
“And look at the lane just meant for bicycles!” he continued. “In India bicycles cannot find an inch even on the main road, let alone a separate lane for them!”
And a little later: “I want to explore Berlin on a bicycle.”
P and I looked at each other and tried hard not to break into a fit of laughter. We had the same image in mind: a 200 pound baby elephant on two wheels navigating the streets of Berlin.
Hamm, an odd mixture of sloping roof cottages and tall concrete buildings, seemed like a village that had grown into a city but hadn’t come to terms with the change. Our hotel was a large cottage, and everything about it seemed stuck in a different era. The old German lady who checked us in and showed us our rooms had a high-handed and authoritative manner that was out of place with the attitudes of the present. (Dad, always the extrovert, tried to make conversation with her in English but was stared down, much to his surprise. He joked about it later, but I could see that he was a bit taken aback). The rooms smelled as if they hadn’t been aired in years, and the furniture had a vintage look, with contours that were a stark contrast to the simple straight-lined stuff from IKEA we saw everywhere. I had to switch on the TV and look at a few channels to convince myself that we hadn’t travelled back in time through a wormhole.
We checked out next morning after breakfast – a simple bread, butter, cheese and jam fare, which probably hasn’t changed for centuries – and headed towards the temple, a fifteen minute drive from the hotel. The Gopuram, visible from a distance, was of moderate size, much smaller than the structure I’d seen at Bridgewater in the U.S. The car park was empty; we appeared to be the first devotees on this Saturday morning.
Inside, a short passage lined with devotional offerings opened into a large hall with sparkling white tiles on the floor. Every few meters there were brightly coloured pillars, some carrying signs in German that gave instructions indicating what was allowed (sitting on the floor) and what wasn’t (photography, touching the idols). The walls were covered with paintings of various Hindu gods, and there was a soft devotional melody playing in the background. I felt I was in a museum, not a temple.
A priest soon appeared, and dad immediately drew him into a conversation about the origins of the temple and the people behind it. “They are Sri Lankan Tamils,” he remarked, joining us as the priest walked into the shrine for the puja. Apparently there are close to a hundred thousand Sri Lankans living in Germany and Switzerland:
Tamils from Sri Lanka and South India have come to Germany and other European countries since the late 1970s. Due to the escalation of the civil war in Sri Lanka, thousands have fled the island since the early 1980s. Some 60.000 Tamil refugees presently live in Germany, some 40.000 in Switzerland. Despite their comparatively short stay in both countries, since the 1990s Tamils vigorously have started to establish Hindu temples and places of worship. Within a decade, in Germany more than 20 different new homes for the Hindu gods have come into existence, from small rooms in a cellar to impressive halls in former and now converted factory halls. Also, since a few years Tamil Hindus have begun to celebrate the annual temple festivals with public processions, the biggest event in Hamm (Westfalia) attracting some 15,000 visitors and participants. The construction of a South Indian styled, traditional Hindu temple with a 50 feet gopuram (entrance portal) started in March 2000 and in July 2002, the one week long consecration ceremonies inaugurated the impressive temple.
Behind the main shrine the wall had a collection of scenes, mythological in character; upon closer examination they turned out to be gory scenes from tales we had never heard of. There were naked women everywhere: being paraded through streets, tied to a tree and being whipped, inside a large pan over a fire, on all fours – like horses – pulling a cart. The men, shown as gods or demons, were punishing the women, and it wasn’t clear why. I was amused, but mom was a little disturbed. “This cannot be our Hindu mythology,” she said, “It must be some Sri Lankan variation.”
Later, my cursory searches on the Internet revealed one Sri Lankan legend which hinted at such practices, but the depictions in the temple were far more gruesome than the tale in this legend:
Tradition recounts that during the Kandyan period human sacrifices were made to propitiate the demon of Bahirawakanda. The first such sacrifice is credited to the fancy of a 17th century childless queen. The queen dreamt that Bahirawa manifested himself to her in a dream and demanded a human sacrifice if she were to be with child. The king in his anxiety to beget an heir soothsayer the king decreed that a virgin of noble birth be selected as the victim.
On the evening of the appointed day the young girl was led up in a procession to a clearing in the wilderness of Bahirawakanda and left there secured to a stake. Their gruesome task accomplished the crowd deserted the place leaving the girl to her fate. Morbid terror, exhaustion and exposure to the chilly mountain air had done the work that Bahirawa was supposed to have done to her. The following morning her remains were found with the lower portion of her body severely mauled and partly eaten by those relentless scavengers of the jungles – jackals.
Outside the temple a board advertised a South Indian tiffin house about 2.5 kilometers away. I called the number listed and learned that they opened only in the afternoon. Our hopes of tasting some crispy vadas were dashed, but it did not dampen our spirits: Berlin was only a few hours away.
To be continued…