In India, deity decorating a calling for Hindu temple artist

Jan 15, 2023, 3:32 PM | Updated: Jan 16, 2023, 5:41 am
S. Goutham lays the foundation for an elaborate decoration of a deity at the Anantha Padmanabha Swa...

S. Goutham lays the foundation for an elaborate decoration of a deity at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. Goutham is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)

(AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)

              Visitors to the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, take photos of the fully decorated idol of the goddess Durga on Nov. 29, 2022. S. Goutham, who spent nearly three hours decorating the idol, is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              Deity decorator S. Goutham places a garland woven with red and yellow roses on an idol of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. Goutham is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              An idol of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. S. Goutham, who spent nearly three hours decorating the idol, is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              Deity decorator S. Goutham holds a specially crafted piece of jewelry that would adorn the chest of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. He says the jewels and weapons on a deity tell a story and give each decoration its unique personality and character. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              Deity decorator S. Goutham steps away from the altar of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022, to view his work from the perspective of temple visitors. Goutham is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              Deity decorator S. Goutham is seen at the altar of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. Goutham is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              Deity decorator S. Goutham picks out gem-encrusted jewelry to decorate an idol of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. He says the jewels and weapons on a deity tell a story and give each decoration its unique personality and character. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)
            
              S. Goutham lays the foundation for an elaborate decoration of a deity at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India, on Nov. 29, 2022. Goutham is a fifth-generation practitioner of this millennia-old spiritual art of decorating temple deities. (AP Photo/Deepa Bharath)

CHENNAI, India (AP) — The former computer professional — now a very specialized type of artist — locked his gaze on the deity before him.

On a recent afternoon, 33-year-old S. Goutham was perched on a ladder at the altar of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India. Goutham — his hand moving steadily — was pleating a green silk sari to adorn the deity.

“You cannot get tense when you are doing this work,” he says. “You can’t do this if you are not patient. You need to become one with her.”

A computer science graduate, Goutham quit his job nearly a decade ago to pursue his calling. He has since followed in the footsteps of his ancestors as a fifth-generation decorator of temple deities.

In Hindu temples, idols are mostly made of materials such as black granite, white marble or five-metal alloys that have sacred significance. These deities are worshipped as physical, tangible representations of god (Brahman) who is believed to be infinite, omnipresent and beyond comprehension. Worship in a Hindu temple includes bathing these deities in milk, decorating them with colorful clothes, flowers, perfumes such as sandalwood, jewelry, and even weapons such as swords, clubs and tridents. Oil lamps are lit at the altar, and sacred chants and foods are offered to the gods.

Decorating the deities is a millennia-old practice that is described in the Hindu epic Ramayana, and Goutham has been learning the art since he was a toddler. He crafted his first formal decoration when he was 13 — at the very altar where he stood 20 years later on a day in November.

He has done thousands of decorations, ranging from relatively simple ones that take an hour or two to complete, to others that are more complex and take several days.

Goutham said he became interested in decorating deities as a child because of his father.

“When you are little, your father is your hero,” he said. “I wanted to be just like him.”

The first lesson Goutham got from his dad was about the weapons each god would hold. He heard stories about the power of each weapon and how gods would wield them.

“The personality of the deity and the story of the god or goddess could change depending on their weapons, the clothes they wear, the expression on their face or the position in which they are sitting or standing,” he said.

When he sets out to decorate a deity, Goutham says he has a concept of what to do, but doesn’t start out with a sketch. He goes step by step — placing the deity’s hands, feet and weapons. Then, he moves on to the clothes and jewelry. Gradually, the god’s form manifests.

There are rules about the types of materials that can be used on deities.

“The human body is made up of earth, water, fire, air and space, and everything you see naturally occurring on Earth is made of these elements,” Goutham said. “To show this, we decorate deities using things that occur in nature and are a representation of these elements, like copper, cloth, coconut fibers and so on.”

He says decorating a deity combines elements from art, dance and yoga, in terms of the hand gestures and postures the deities assume. Man-made materials such as plastic are prohibited. Goutham says he uses little pins to hold fabric together, but makes sure the pins don’t directly touch the idol.

He sources the deities’ arms and legs, mostly made from copper or brass, as well as the weapons and jewelry, from artisans.

He has also created an app and website for those who wish to learn more about this art and dreams of establishing an institution to train artists who can maintain the sacred tradition. While most deity decorators are men, he sees no reason why women cannot learn and practice it.

“Everyone is equal under god,” he said.

Storytelling is an important part of what he does. One of his favorite installations depicts the friendship between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Kuchela.

“It shows Krishna washing the feet of Kuchela, a poor man, conveying the message that humility is a virtue — whether you are a human being or god,” Goutham said.

The term “idol worship” may have negative connotations in some faiths. But for Hindus, deities — which are kept in temples, homes, shops and offices — serve as focal points “for to us channel our devotions, our actions and serve as a reminder of all the positive values that are associated with those deities,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.

Shukla says this form of worship is a way for her to connect with her ancestors.

“As a second-generation Hindu American, I didn’t grow up with all these things around me where I could absorb through osmosis,” she said. “But just knowing that I’m part of a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation is personally powerful for me.”

In U.S. Hindu temples, community members come together to help create the costumes for the deities, and it is an act of devotion, Shukla said.

“No one has to sit there and embroider a skirt or sari for a goddess, but they do it as a display of love,” she said. “It’s humbling and empowering.”

Goutham says he doesn’t view his job as a vocation.

“You can call it service because it brings pure joy to so many and plays a role in our spiritual awakening,” he said. “But in my view, it’s much more than that. It has the power to transform people.”

Goutham has decorated deities in temples abroad as he has in tiny Indian villages and little-known temples. He remembers stopping once at a village tea shop and hearing the locals praise his decoration of their temple deity.

“It really warmed my heart,” he said.

As Goutham placed a crown and garland on the deity at the temple in Chennai, neighbor Sucharithra Surendrababu watched awestruck, snapping images of the decorated goddess on her cell phone.

“I love seeing mother Durga whether or not she is decorated,” she said. “But, when I do see her all decked up and looking gorgeous, it makes me so happy. It’s uplifting and empowering.”

There are some decorations which bring tears even to the artist’s eyes.

“It’s not just something that is pretty to look at,” Goutham said. “It’s about love and faith. When you touch the deities, clothe them and decorate them, you think of them as your friends or parents. You need skill and vision to do this. But above all, it takes heart.”

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A shopper checks out an item in a Target store in Pittsburgh on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. On Friday, t...
Associated Press

US inflation and consumer spending cooled in December

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Reserve’s preferred inflation gauge eased further in December, and consumer spending fell — the latest evidence that the Fed’s series of interest rate hikes are slowing the economy. Friday’s report from the Commerce Department showed that prices rose 5% last month from a year earlier, down from a 5.5% year-over-year […]
13 hours ago
Associated Press

Federal appeals court hears case of hidden murals

Associated Press (AP) — A federal appeals court in New York is considering whether a law school in Vermont modified a pair of large murals when it concealed them behind a wall of panels against the artist’s wishes after they were considered by some in the school community to be racially offensive. Artist Sam Kerson […]
2 days ago
FILE - This undated file image provided by the United States District Court for the District of Col...
Associated Press

Man who claimed he had bomb near Capitol pleads guilty

WASHINGTON (AP) — A man who caused evacuations and an hourslong standoff with police on Capitol Hill when he claimed he had a bomb in his pickup truck outside the Library of Congress pleaded guilty on Friday to a charge of threatening to use an explosive. Floyd Ray Roseberry, of Grover, North Carolina, pleaded guilty […]
2 days ago
FILE - Ted Henifin, left, the City of Jackson water system third-party administrator, addresses med...
Associated Press

DOJ appointee releases new plan for ‘tenuous’ Jackson water

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The interim manager appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the troubled water system in Mississippi’s capital city released a new financial plan Friday to change the way Jackson bills for water and spend hundreds of millions of federal relief funds paying down the system’s debt. The plan would […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Police: 29-year-old posed as teen to enroll in high school

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — A 29-year-old woman used false documents to enroll as a New Jersey high school student and attended some classes over a four-day period before her scheme was discovered last week, authorities said. It’s not yet known what the woman’s intentions were, officials said. She reportedly got the phone numbers of […]
2 days ago
Associated Press

Closing prices for crude oil, gold and other commodities

Benchmark U.S. crude oil for March delivery fell $1.33 to $79.68 a barrel Friday. Brent crude for March delivery fell 81 cents to $86.66 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline for February delivery fell 2 cents to $2.59 a gallon. February heating oil fell 13 cents $3.27 a gallon. February natural gas rose 17 cents to $3.11 […]
2 days ago

Sponsored Articles

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.
SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
In India, deity decorating a calling for Hindu temple artist