From sky-clad devotees to chappals in plastic bags, a short survey of dress codes in religious shrines
Photo Credit: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters
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For a country that celebrates the spectacle of ash-covered Naga Babas leading Kumbh Mela processions with full frontal nudity on display, the dress codes for temples in Tamil Nadu, enforced from January 1, are somewhat out of place.

According to the code, which the state government challenged in court on Monday, men may visit temples suitably clad in trousers, shirts, pajamas or dhotis, meaning the white wraparounds that go by the name of veshtis in Tamil Nadu and mundus in Kerala, while women may wear saris and kurta-pyjamas and, of course, blouses and jackets. Children cannot be uncovered. Little girls may wear gowns but no “modern dress”, that is to say, trousers, shorts, jeans, thongs or T-shirts with distracting slogans.

Next door, in Kerala, the preferred dress code for men excludes shirts. Male devotees to the famous Krishna temple at Guruvayur have to appear bare bodied from the waist upwards. A white mundu worn without trousers was the preferred attire. But these days visitors are allowed to wrap mundus over trousers and even wear a belt. Since leather is forbidden in most places of worship, perhaps a plastic or cotton belt is advisable. Till very recently, women wearing “Punjabi dress” or salwar kameez were not allowed. This rule has now been relaxed.

What is significant is that checked lungis are forbidden. Caste lies at the crux of the matter. Checked or plaid lungis are the badge of a certain community that shall not be named.

Special rituals

Non-Hindu visitors at Tirupati have to sign a declaration that they respect Hindu beliefs before entering the temple. This presumably includes observing a dress code. Earlier, non-Hindus were not allowed. One of the most special rituals witnessed by a select few is when the main deity, Lord Venkateshwara, is given a bath and dressed in all his splendor.

Jains have an enlightened attitude towards the display of the human body. Guardians of Jain temples don’t feel the need to avert the eyes of their devotees from the nudity of their magnificent monolithic male Tirthankaras. Jains even have their own brigade of sky-clad holy men, or Digambars, who are free to wander the world without the need to cover up.

One of the best temple visits I’ve experienced was to Jain temples in Gujarat. For instance, at Palitana, the city of the gods atop the Shatrunjaya hills, the very act of ascending 3,750 steps to the cluster of temples enforces a single-mindedness of purpose. The worshipers are disciplined and neatly clad as they walk up. Villagers from the plains below offer devotees thick, salted yogurt set in black terracotta bowls to mitigate the stress of climbing. The temples are beautifully maintained. There are facilities for bathing and for changing into un-stitched garments made of fine ahimsa silk (obtained without killing any silkworms) that Jains prefer to don before performing a puja. The priests do not intercede between the devotee and the deity. Each believer appears to be disciplined enough and educated enough to observe the codes.

The same can be said of the Parsi, the Sikh and orthodox Christian places of worship. The followers of each of these faiths have a collective responsibility to make the experience one of reverence. It’s not just in obeying the injunctions of a priest, or a set of rules, but in returning the trust that such a membership implies. Of course, the fear of a hereafter may also play a role, just as the rewards of a next life may be an incentive.

This is particularly true of the depictions of the various hells as described in Buddhist monasteries with Tantric affiliations. The variety of tortures and humiliations, sexual and otherwise, depictions of decapitations and the boiling alive of transgressors in cauldrons of oil are enough to remind the visitor that following the middle path might be a good thing.

Taking it with you

Again, at the Golden Pagoda in Myanmar, one of the penances undertaken voluntarily by visitors sees them use a giant swab to ritually clean the floor around the main place of worship. Religion, one is reminded, is a social contract between believers and the reason for their belief. It has nothing to do with imposing sanctions and rules.

One of the customs I really admired while visiting the mosques in Istanbul was that visitors were enjoined the carry their footwear in plastic bags and wash their feet before entering the main hall. I’ve tried to carry my chappals in my bag when visiting South Indian temples but was met with embarrassed remarks from my fellow visitors about taking leather into the temple.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve had on the subject was at the Rajneesh ashram in Pune. A sign advises the visitor: “Please leave your shoes and mind behind.”

Then again, isn’t it mindfulness that we seek when we visit a place of worship?