Hindus, Catholics, and Unitarians

All these faith traditions and many more are readily available in Chennai, a port city on the east coast of India, on the Bay of Bengal.

First stop, the Ashta Lakshmi Temple, overlooking the beach where we could see horses available for rides and people dotting the sand as vendors or beach-goers.

Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth, both material and spiritual. How fitting to begin here, to start a journey of such spiritual bounty. We had no idea at the time of the depths of this journey, only that it was called Sacred Places and we expected to visit many.

Lakshmi is shown as a beautiful woman with four hands who is seated or standing on a full-bloom lotus blossom and holding a lotus bud. Her four hands represent the four aims of human life: dharma (righteousness), kama (desires), artha (wealth), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death. She is a mother goddess who is addressed as Mata (mother) instead of simply devi (goddess).

A full description of the temple can be found here: http://saigan.com/heritage/temple/8lakshmi.html including professional photographs. I have uploaded some of my pix, but we were not allowed to photograph inside active temples. Ashtalakshmi is a very colorful temple, unlike some that we will see later on our journey.

As we ascended levels of the temple we encountered various deities. Lakshmi, of course was on the top, fourth level, facing east. Keep in mind that the pantheon of gods and goddesses in Hindu mythology are all manifestations of the Supreme God, Brahman. Devotion to one deity or another is acknowledgment of the desired aspect in one’s life.

Next stop was St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Though Christianity is a minority religion in India, it boasts 2.4 per cent of a huge population. St. Mary’s is not fancy by any means but its focus on Mary is so refreshingly different from the symbols of crucifixion in most Catholic churches. Mother and Child overlook the altar and evoke the love and peace felt by countless mothers with their infants.

Lunch was enjoyed at a fancy Sheraton buffet. We were able to eat more quickly and with a wide array of options than ordering from a menu would offer. After all, some of us needed to ease our way into Indian cuisine. (Not I! Throughout the trip I feasted on marvelous dishes that varied by region and delighted my palate.)

After lunch we went shopping at Spencer Mall, where many of us first visited an ATM. The two shops Abhi recommended included fabrics, shawls, and scarves in one; and a large variety of good quality Indian merchandise. I was not ready on day 1 to purchase anything, but I thoroughly enjoyed looking at all the beautiful items.

In the evening we visited Madras Unitarian Christian Church. It is located in a working class neighborhood, and that makes it easier to invite people of multiple social classes to feel comfortable. It was a Thursday evening, not easy for people to travel on a school/work night, but the place was packed.

The minister is Harrison Kingsley, who was a gracious host. We were greeted by members who presented each of us with a flower. It was artificial, to be sure, but unlike fresh flowers I still have something to show for my visit!

We were ushered to the front rows of the church as honored guests. A program began with song. While Madras members sang in Tamil, we guests were directed to the English section in the back of the hymnal. Jointly and lustily we sang, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” They had wanted us to feel comfortable with a familiar hymn.

The evening’s entertainment included songs and dances by children and youth, repeated from a recent special event. We saw a slide show of the history of this church. As the program came to a close, the three ministers (Abhi Janamanchi, Justin Osterman, and I) and one director of religious education (Jennifer Halperin) were presented with colorful shawls. The closing hymn, also familiar and sung in either Tamil or English, was “Abide with Me.”

Social hour followed on the front patio. We were invited up to the Fellowship Hall for tea–plus a thoughtful selection of sandwiches, homemade potato chips, and a mildly sweet pastry. Most of the members continued to socialize downstairs! We enjoyed our repast and easily decided we had no need for a restaurant dinner.

Thus ended our first day in Chennai. We hit the ground running–no time for jet lag!–and fell into bed at the lovely Hotel Pride.

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