The first thing I noticed entering the temple compound of Chotti Dadabari mandir was the wildlife. There are chipmunks here, a genus that I did not expect to see so far from the global North and West. They are different from the ones in Indiana. A bit larger, more rat-like, but with beautiful fur, and a striking contrast between their cream and auburn stripes. They’re not at all nervous of humans, and scamper about the compound, sometimes as thieves, but mostly as agile residents. There are hundreds of geckos, too, which emerge in great abundance at night, when the lanterns create more marked zones of light and shadow. The geckos are friendly fellows, and mostly serve to look out for the other residents of the compound by stealthily consuming any of the insects that they encounter. This is particularly important for the Jain residents of Chotti Dadabari, who have no power to engage in such violence. And of course, there are the monkeys. They crawl across the ceilings of the temples, paw over paw, chattering and chewing on fruits and nuts. Apparently, some years back, a student of this program found the monkeys so endearing that she grabbed one and sat it in her lap. She was promptly bitten, and spent the next two weeks—the remainder of the program—in the hospital. Oops.
Chotti Dadabari is named after a Jain dadaguru, a sadhu who functioned as a leader to other Jain priests, finding ways to accommodate and protect them amid their rigid vows. All Jains take five core vows: ahimsa (non-violence), aparigraha (non-possessiveness), asteya (non-stealing), satya (truth), and brahmacharya (celibacy). However, the vows for sadhus and sadhvis are far more strict than those for the Jain laity, who instead take what are known as anuvratas (minor or lesser vows). The restrictions upon priests mandate that they stay in one place for no longer than three days, lest they develop an attachment to that place, or start to accumulate possessions there. At the same time, they must travel everywhere by foot, so as to minimize the amount of violence done to critters and to the earth by travelling. This means that Jain sadhus and sadhvis need the aid of their laity in order to have a place to stay and food to eat wherever they go.
During the rainy season, however, the restrictions on stay change somewhat. Because so much is growing and emerging from the soil during the rains, the violence done by traveling, even by foot, becomes much more drastic. Thus, the sadhus and sadhvis are instructed to settle in one place for four months. Many years ago, a dadaguru and his monks and nuns stayed at this compound. He was a young dadaguru, and so was known as chotti dadaguru. To accommodate him and his followers, the compound was gradually constructed to contain housing, food, plumbing, and other basic amenities necessary for the period of their occupancy. Eventually being something of a dharamshala, the compound was named Chotti Dadabari after the dadaguru, and continues to be a place where travelling priests, pilgrims, and wanderers can reside. There is also a hospital in the compound, and family members of patients receiving medical attention also stay at this compound. And of course, we students, too, can make our abode here.
Residing at Chotti Dadabari is not free to the laity, of course. I had initially wondered if the compound served as shelter for the homeless or for victims of violence. But, alas. No such luck.
Chotti Dadabari has a mandir, though it actually opened just a little over a week ago. One of the things that often confuses students of Jainism–and indeed, confuses me–is that even though Jainism is in theory atheistic, and prayer cannot lead to any intervention by the powers of the universe, still Jain mandirs often have many statues of gods and goddesses, some of whom bear weapons and some whom are traditionally Hindu. Some view these gods symbollically, as a metonymy for some greater concept that the supplicant is striving for, but others seem to take them quite literally. This temple was no exception, and indeed, as is growing increasingly common, these other gods, path guides and obstacle removers for those of us still treading the road to liberation and enlightenment, actually have a more prominent place in the temple than the traditional figures of Jainism, the Tirthankaras. The twenty-four Tirthankaras (literally fordmakers) of Jainism are saint-like figures, people who have gained liberation from the painful cycle of rebirths, but who nonetheless carry the burdensome karma of compassion, and thus try in the remainder of their earthly life to help others along the path to enlightenment. Yet their souls are now gone from this world, according to Jain theology, and praying to their statue, icon, or memory cannot evoke any response from them. It is at best an occasion for self-reflection and for role modeling. The emergence of these other gods, though, have brought with them Hindu notions of idol worship, which while well-established, seem to rub against the fundamental tenets of Jainism.
We asked one of our professors why this contradiction was so common, and she answered us very simply: Because people need it. Even Jains are emotional and rational beings, and even if they rationally know that the gods they pray to in the temple do not exist, and that only the individual has the key to salvation, they still feel called to pray at the mandir during hard times. And so what if they do?
The compound has three main living quarters: one for sadhus, one for sadhvis, and one for laity. Electricity is available, but as in many parts of India, it tends to go off and on. Food is provided at specific times, fully vegetarian, and absent of any onions or garlic, as is the custom in Jain cuisine. India has no lack of spices to choose from, however, and the cooks manage to savor the food such that it’s hard to tell that it lacks onions. Everything we have eaten so far has been delicious and variegated. The chai, too. There is always some available at any time of day, and I am probably drinking too much of it. It is served in stainless steel cups, making the tea a bit hot to the touch, but when the hot afternoon is metabolizing your senses, a sweet cup of chai or a cool glass of salted lime water is as refreshing as it gets.
As students of this program, we have access to an internet café outside the compound, in a street market a little ways away. We were given a business card with then name of the place, Pawan Communication, and were told generally what direction to go, as it wasn’t far. Then we walked around the market complex six or seven times searching for the name, with no luck. We found a cyber café, but it wasn’t Pawan Communication. We found a Pawan, M.D., but he didn’t have a cyber café. And we found just about everything in between. Grocers, pharmacies, cell phone stores, schools, parks, temples, bookstores, and cows. Thousands of tiny businesses with thousands of signs on a small city street. We asked a number of the local merchants, security guards, and residents, and all of them seemed to know where the place was generally, pointing us toward the same approximate location. But the language barrier made our comprehension imprecise, and we unknowingly passed by the location many times under the auspices of these directions, getting continually closer but never quite reaching it, like a mathematical limit. Finally, somebody explained to us where the street numbers were written. We followed the numbers until we reached the one on our card. After an hour of walking, we finally noticed a small sign that read “Pawan Communication” tucked behind another sign. We had made it.
But, it was closed.
To end on a happier note, and by special request, here is a picture of me dressed up as some kind of demon for one of my mom’s plays.