Bhoomi Pujan or Praying to the Land. The very first strike of the workman’s tools on the ground, literally breaking of the ground, to dig deep for a foundation, to then start raising a structure for a dwelling or any other use. I don’t know if other cultures treat it as anything other than a happy material development, but in our part of the world, in India, it is the most crucial first step and no home or workplace or any building would ever be deemed alright and ‘sanctioned’ to exist by the forces of nature and more importantly by something even beyond nature without the Bhumi Pujan being performed. I had always found this to be a bit of a empty ritual, and like most rituals carried out robotically, empty and disconnected from its essence in practice. Of course, I did not fail to notice how strong the force of the belief in and the need for this ceremony was all around me. Every MNC that has ever worked in India knows this truth and all ex-pat executives posted here have surely been to or even presided over at least one Bhumi – Pujan in their career here, no matter what they felt personally about it.
So, when we started work on The Birdsong cottage, we also had the Bhumi – Pujan for our cottage. Interestingly, the site supervisor on the cottage was our local contractor from Gurgaon, who had worked on our residence here, and he is a Muslim by religion. He was as much part of this supposedly Vedic, Hindu religious ceremony, familiar and at home with all the aspects of it, comparing it at times favorably, at times not so favorably , to other such ceremonies he had seen (this last, to the irritation of the local priest! ) and playing a leading role in the proceedings, as any of the others- the preist, the neighbors, the village children and anybody at all who happened to pass by. Secularism does run in the blood here, even though to make good sense of it politically appears be yet out of our grasp.
So, yes, we did have a Bhumi – Pujan, conducted by a local priest. But there is more to the story than meets the eye…I could not bring myself to blindly enact something in the context of my dream holiday home that was rather meaningless and therefore pointless to me. I wanted something very specific, meaningful and personal to me, and to my family, if anything at all did need doing symbolically, to augur well for the house. Something that with its symbolism expressed our underlying intention, that related to my vision for this project of a mountain home. I wondered how to put my feeling and wish into action within the structure of a conventional, traditional ‘Bhumi – Pujan’ ceremony .
As I quite often do when working through an issue in my mind and finding no clear sense or direction among all the thoughts and ideas floating around, I talked to my friends. One of my friends suggested I speak to our common mentor-guide, a young life coach and spiritual teacher we all discovered around the same time in our lives. That sounded like a great idea and I immediately called Nithya in Pune. He so well undestood my dilema, and asked me to hold clear my vision, my hopes for the home, and then helped me further crystallise my intentions. Thus I was able to work out a vision for what this home in the hills was all about, what it represented to me, why we wished to create it and what we saw as its future and our relationship with it, and its relationship to the place,the local life and people, to the people who we hoped to have visit there. These were the ideas to be affirmed, set as intensions, and celebrated in our Bhumi – Pujan Ceremony. If one wished, Nithya suggested, one could further relate them to specific attributes of specific deities, and bring in invocations to those deities in the priest’s traditional prayers. I asked the priest if he would invoke the deities as per our choice and he said yes, he would even invoke the special thoughts we wished to invoke. So this started to look very interesting and finally I was glad we did go ahead with the Bhumi – Pujan in a syncretic, somewhat original way.
Already, by now, in 2011 we were 4 years further down the line from when we bought the land, and many trips with family and friends had given shape to certain ideas for the future direction of this new home. From all of this- my dreams, the hopes of family and friends, and some new ideas that had lately been arising, I worked out a ceremony of intentions and goals, visualized by me and articulated through the symbols and acts of the Vedic Hindu ceremony conducted by the local priest. To give you a simplified sense of what I mean, imagine that a if rich prosperous life lived at the cottage was my intention, we expressed it through the invocation to Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity and plenty. A great wish for a joyful sense of learning, discovery, exploration, self knowledge and connection was symbolized and articulated through the Goddess of all learning, Saraswati, and so on.
I find, on observation and reflection, that ceremonies, rites of passage particularly, are really a familiar part of village life. Everybody understands their meaning and is deeply connected to them. And in fact, come to think of it, most situations in these areas are rites of passage, some cyclical and patterned, others bit less certain and fraught with tension. Having familiar, understood rituals to see you through them make the transitions that much smoother perhaps. What it also may lead to, of course, is a difficult time when it comes to innovation and adapting to a fast changing world that is now definitely approaching these remote areas at a fast pace.
Meanwhile, the ceremony was over and the priest symbolically hit the first blow on the field, after which the workers took over and digging started in earnest. Digging for the retaining walls, to bolster the edge of the plot, to make it stand firm and strong so that further foundations could be dug and a building made to stand . The old retaining wall was demolished, and a new reinforced stone wall started coming up in its place. Those were heady and exciting days for me, and for my little team, my project team as it had become. Everyday we would catch up on the progress- how many feet were dug, how was the pace of work, how was the weather, what were the ground conditions, how many more days….the hardworking and tough digging crew from Nepal was efficient and fast and we were pretty soon ready for the next big thing, the foundation of the guest annexe.