The Bell Temple – properly known as the Chitai Golu Devta Temple – is just a short walk from our guesthouse, and it’s a wonderful place to visit: full of tradition, incense and of course, the ringing of bells. (I wear earplugs.)
We’ve visited the Chitai Temple several times now, and it’s always pretty crowded, whatever time of day and whatever day of the week. The temple is dedicated to Golu Devta, a manifestation of Shiva, a god who is said to dispense justice for those who pray to him.
Worshippers come to Chitai to petition Golu Devta for what they desire. They visit the temple again after their wish has been granted, to thank the god by making offerings, including offerings of brass bells. People tie the bells, ranging from tiny to huge, to various places around the temple, using red chiffon ribbons edged in gold. People also tie letters they’ve hand-written to Golu Devta, petitioning him for what they desire.
Visitors walk up the short path from the road to the temple with trays of offerings: flowers, food to be blessed as prasad, money, and other traditional items. As they pass beneath each red gateway, people ring the bells that hang there.
Many visitors are beautifully dressed, especially the women, whose outfits often feature sequins and metallic edging. Some ladies wear an orange-and-red printed shawl over their saris; it’s a special item meant for temple visits.
The first time we visited Chitai, I walked (after removing shoes, of course) down a kind of hallway of bells. It’s an open structure, but so many bells have been hung from the top and sides of the roof structure that it feels like an enclosed space.
The closer I got to the central shrine where most people make their offerings to Golu Devta, the more enclosed it felt. The bells are hung so thickly that there are layers upon layers of them, along with the red chiffon ties and hand-written pieces of paper. It’s quite dark inside this area, and with the incense, the bell-ringing, chanting and drumming, it could make a person feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed.
But for me the experience was neither of these. For one thing, as soon as I heard how loud the bells were, I inserted foam plugs in my ears, a strategy I’ve found really helps in large noisy gatherings, and when walking city streets where drivers are continually honking their horns. The earplugs make me feel like I’m swathed in some kind of muffling fabric that surrounds my entire head, but still allows me to see everything clearly.
I moved slowly among the crowd of worshippers, sidling here and there to avoid bumping anyone. A priest summoned me close, murmured a blessing, and taking first a pinch of yellow and then a pinch of red powder from his brass tray of blessing supplies, pressed the powders in turn on my forehead. He placed a few flower petals on top of my head, and tied a length of red cord around my left wrist. He looked up, and, knowing what was wanted, I put a 10-rupee note on his tray.
Turning towards the dark approaches to the Golu Devta shrine, I watched men and women tie bells to the strings of the thousands already in place, watched parents lift children up to tie bells of their own. I looked at the patient faces of those waiting for darshan in a queue that switchbacked to the shrine. In the gloom of the packed waiting area, sheltered from the sun by thick walls of hanging bells, the sequins and metallic trim on the ladies’ clothing caught bits of light, like tiny silent explosions in the dark. And all the time, all around us, the chanting, the bell-ringing and the constant drumming filled our ears, as thick incense filled our nostrils.
I slid past the curtains of bells, past the bell-tying worshippers and the squirmy children, and made my way to the courtyard. People stood in the dazzling daylight of the temple’s open courtyard, while families who’d already visited the god rested on concrete benches in the shade of the deodars, nibbling on prasad and chatting.
The fresh air rushed into my lungs, displacing the incense, and I removed my earplugs. I could hear birds again, and people’s voices, and wind in the deodars. Monkeys sat on the fence between clusters of bells, waiting to pounce on any dropped prasad or other foodstuffs. Children scampered around, releasing energy.
It was on subsequent visits that I noticed the regulars. Not just the vendors outside the temple entrance, selling brass bells and other puja items, but also the beggars who sit to one side of the temple path, beside the red gates.
I have given money to all of them at one time or another. The two lady beggars, always together, call out to me in their magpie voices each time I pass, whether I’m entering or leaving. The man in the blue headscarf, however, looks at me on my third visit and gives me a nod. “You already gave,” his expression says.
Just inside the temple, a tiny lady sits to one side, snacking on small morsels she plucks from the folds of her clothing. Her long hair hangs in mats beneath her veil, and the printed patterns on her clothes are muddied by age and grime. Her toenails were painted a long time ago, but I can’t quite tell what color. I look into her face with a smile at the ready, but her eyes slide past me, lost in whatever she’s seeing behind the crinkled lids.
Like the beggars, she’s there every time we have visited the temple. Sometimes she’s walking fast down the corridor of bells. Sometimes she’s resting, and sometimes she talks to herself. Whatever she’s doing, she’s as much at home in the temple as anyone else. Perhaps more so.