All In The Name Of Culture?

Posted on January 2, 2011 in Culture-Vulture
The Puri Jagannath Temple

By Ipshita Mitra:

Culture: a hovering little term that knocks at the gates of your conscience at a time when our acts of behaviour or conduct seem to be threatening the codified bricks of norms and dictums of its edifice.

For instance, an attempt or say a tendency to emulate the western style of perceiving life can almost confirm an individual’s tryst with forces that proclaim to uphold the tradition and culture of their nation. For me, culture is not a homogenous term; it is heterogeneous in nature because it cannot be defined within a set of parameters that remain constant through ages.

Every decade and every millennium is supported by sociological changes which in consequence render a different definition, if not definition then certainly a perspective to “culture”. This perspective then examines the already existing cultural and societal norms with a critical eye and relevant questions arising from the contemporary socio-political scenario. It is an evolution therefore. The norms that are verified to be decadent and redundant which may have enjoyed an unquestionable acceptance in the primitive ages stand futile and degenerative in character in the present day.

Unfortunately we as a nation have failed to challenge the status-quo in so far as our strict adherence and reverence to “culture” is concerned. Temples, buildings with monumental value and other archaeological sites have often been worshipped as visible emblems of our cultural heritage that we more than often proudly boast about with a bloated chest. The moment we tend to associate cultural significance with these temples and buildings we automatically try to evaluate the same in the confines of property, possession and a restricted accessibility. This is where the problem arises.

To declare something as a “cultural” property of infinite value threatens a particular section of humanity of being denied permission to assert a legitimate proclivity for the same. An example will help illustrate my point.

My recent visit to the Puri Jagannath Temple in Orissa left me with a number of questions to ponder upon. An innocent and an unintentional entry by a foreign student from California University into the premises of the temple that in its threshold entry welcomes the pilgrims with a prominent placard saying “ONLY HINDUS ALLOWED” created a hue and cry once she was spotted as a “non-Hindu” polluting the sanctity of the heritage temple of cultural significance.

This incident has completely jolted me into a reality where the contours of the word “culture” have sadly drifted away from the realms of inclusiveness, harmony, peace and togetherness. Instead it has come to stand for exclusiveness and parochial thought. Apparently we live in a secular country where proclamations of this nature have reinstated the fact that secularism has succumbed to the conditions and compulsions of personal beliefs and systems of faith of a particular order.

The girl who was completely nonplussed was handed over to the police for disturbing and delaying the daily rituals of the temple conducted by the holy priests and saints. Her inadvertent act was deemed an “intrusion” which necessitated the cleansing of the sanctum sanctorum (the idol’s chamber) and a repeated cycle of traditional bathing of the deities of the temple; thus hitting the ceremonial activities with a thundering blow!

It is ironic that the girl in question was dressed in a traditional salwaar kameez (an Indian outfit) the reason why there was a delay in the recognition of the “non-Hindu” from the rest of the Hindu populace.

The fact that should be reckoned with is this that- the girl tried to assimilate herself into the cultural ethics of a nation in terms of her attire; she could have very well dressed herself in a comfortable outfit of her own choice that would have coincided with her own “culture.” She however chose to pay respect to the Indian culture in her own way, failing to foresee the dreaded outcome she was to undergo later.

Is this the way we ensure preserving our “culture” by dismissing the genuine sentiments of people who wish to participate as “one of us” as sacrilegious and profane? The girl did not commit any blasphemy but we did instead by interrupting with her divinely pure intentions to convey her offerings to the Jagannath idol.

When she can modify herself in terms appearance as a gestural evidence of her reverence to Indian “culture” and tradition why cannot we make a little space for her and embrace her as one of our own? Is this that difficult and unachievable?

Image courtesy.