Symbols, signs, and markings

Ever since I arrived here in Chennai I’ve been noticing these drawings in front of houses.  I was fascinated because I hadn’t seen these drawings anywhere else in India.  I think it could be that I haven’t been in residential settings and also in a state (Kerala) where there was a large population of non-Hindus.  Every morning when I walk outside of my apartment building I see a drawing right in front of our gate.  It looks as if the immediate vicinity of the front gate has been swept and washed clean with water, and someone has drawn an beautiful design.  I’ve taken a few photos of these on the way to and from school.

In front of my apartment building

My fellow yogis and I have been comparing our findings around town, and I finally got a chance to ask a local about these drawings.  His English wasn’t very good but what I learned is that the drawings are done by women early in the morning as a Hindu ritual.  Then a friend told me that these signs are made to welcome mother Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth, prosperity), into your home.  There are events where women compete to create free style designs and make big and elaborate drawings.  I was going to refer to these drawings as mandalas but I think they might be called yantras where the lines, geometric and flower signs represent the five elements, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, chakras, etc.  UPDATE: they are called kolam, not yantra

I know next to nothing about the Hindu religion but I can say that the word “devotion” comes to mind when I think of it.  There are no less than a half dozen temples within a few block radius of KYM, and every morning and evening there is a throng of devotees making offerings and praying.

In our principle of yoga class, we often talk about the distinction we need to make to separate yoga from Hinduism.  The concept of karma for example (karma in the sense of birth and rebirth, working out your prior actions in this lifetime, etc), is not part of the sutras and certainly not in the Krishnamacharya tradition we’re studying.  Our teachers at KYM are yogis but they are not all Hindus, and conversely all Hindus are not yogis.  Some of our teachers have bindis (dots) between their eyebrows and some have more elaborate markings on their foreheads.  Our asana teacher has three horizontal lines of ash across his forehead, a yellowish brown bindi between his eyebrows and on top of that dot he has another smaller bindi in red.  On both of his arms you can also see the white horizontal lines.  After seeing this everyday for two weeks I finally asked him this morning about the significance of those lines and dots.  He explained to me that the lines across his forehead represent Shiva (the “dissolve-r,” he didn’t like the term “destroyer” I used), the yellow dot is for Vishnu (he described Vishnu as the one who maintains or as the “operator”), and the red one is for Devi (or any other female goddess such as Lakshimi or Parvati).  Having these markings remind him that they are with him at all times and they also serve as a reminder for those who see him that the Gods are with them as well.  He told me that he either goes to a temple or does this at home, and they are done in the morning, afternoon, and evening.  Three times a day, everyday.  Yes, I thought “devotion.”

Kumkum powder, Devaraja market in Mysore

Some of our female teachers have red kumkum in front of their parting on their forehead as a symbol of marriage.  I believe this is called vermilion or sindoor in Hindi.  Even with the modern lives these contemporary Indians are leading, they find the time or I should say they make the time to follow these rituals and uphold their traditions.  I am inspired by their dedication and discipline…

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