By Deepti R Paikray
Home altars assume a place of significance in most homes, for it is where you can energise yourself and get in touch with divinity
Housed within cabinets, suspended from walls of cramped dwellings, behind curtained nooks or resplendent in individual space, home altars are sources of an intimate bond between the self and Divine, the confluence of our mundane lives with the sacred. This remains their vital purpose. From childhood I observed my mother perform mystifying rituals before a raised platform. She emerged with a serenity that helped her embrace life with its toil and traction. Mother made me understand the deities gracing the altar as my bigger parents or eternal coaches.
I learned that the sacrosanct space ablaze with flowers and enveloped in wisps of fragrant incense make visible our spiritual inheritances, inspiring us to keep and reinvigorate our traditions. Importantly, I realised the inspiration, succour and healing the home altars offer, diffusing their holy essence throughout our homes.
Altars may recall images of grandiose sanctums in a church or a temple, tended by a male priest or pastor. But home shrines are essentially
|Devotees need to see God, and therefore divinity, otherwise too subtle, is objectified|
created by women, who invest it with personal devotion and make it the gravitational hub of our worldly petitions and spiritual unfolding.
Across a span of centuries, the geographical spread of continents and customs of different religions, altar worship is marked by the personal love for the deities it holds, elevating this tradition into a devotional and flexible art form. A pastor talking on building altars concluded: “Beyond this, let scripture, conscience, and artistic sensibilities guide you.”
Home shrines in Asian countries are dedicated to deities; altars in the West are more informal, not necessarily dedicated to gods. They may house photos of loved ones or sacred objects. In various countries, altars of gay members are a creative throng of objects and banners: an acute expression of their rights subjugated in the complex world outside their doorway.
|Householder Santosh Joshi meditates at his home altar|
The intent driving the creation of these sacred spaces is the need to create a holy space that is condensed yet embracing in its benediction. Denise Linn in her book, Altars, writes, “The urge to create sacred spaces is so deep in the human psyche that, even when there is no formalised intent to make an altar, we often create them subconsciously by the way we gather our photos on a piano, or by the way that we carefully arrange objects on a desk or around a computer.” The longing for visual connection with deities manifests in the conscious arrangement of icons within the sacred space. Devotees need to see God before seeking Him, and therefore divinity, otherwise too subtle, is objectified (through images and idols) for perception through our five senses. An icon of the central deity is flanked by secondary gods and religious accoutrements like lamps, candles, incense holders and sandalwood. Although many faiths like Hinduism offer the freedom to worship God in formless (nirgun) or manifest (sagun) form, most of us need to see our gods in order to establish a connection with them. Says the Sri Sai Satcharita, “Our love and devotion do not develop, unless we worship Sagun Brahma, for a certain period of time, and as we advance, it leads us to the worship of Nirgun Brahma.”
Creating an altar in our homes is a conscious practice. Great care is exercised when selecting representational pictures or figurines of deities, be they intricately sculpted figurines or mass-produced
|“A home is not a home unless you have a sacred site, a place where I can go to touch inside of me and connect to the womb of the universe.” – African shaman|
coloured prints. The features are benign, the form statuesque, aura powerfully radiant and the demeanour showering love and blessings. Divinity is perfect and that’s what we endeavour to create in our home altars.
There are some shrines that leave us untouched whereas the peace of others envelopes us inexplicably. The latter are the spaces invested with the power of personal devotion through daily ceremonies, litanies and prayers. Sprinkling of holy water, lighting radiant lamps, burning smoky camphor, uttering entreaties of gratitude and devotion, activate the divine energies that emanate to bless the entire home. This preserves the sanctity of the altar and its power to bless and guide us in its function as a spiritual haven.
Sources of connection
The resolute presence of altars through centuries is validated by the deep connection they facilitate with Divinity, self and family; a connection developing self-worth, besides shaping individual and family destiny. The tradition, a feminine legacy inherited from our mothers, helps us stay connected to our ancestors. These sacred spaces always remain the hub of all rituals and activities in our lives whether families assemble to pray at twilight hours or during festivals venerating specific deities.
|A modern altar featuring a collection of revered portraits ranging from gurus to family|
Shrines in Hindu and Buddhist traditions are set in the East, connecting us to the radiant energy of the rising sun. Christian households too believe in this, “for as lightning that comes from the East is visible even in the West, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:27).”
The web of connectivity expands with relation to immigrants, for whom altars are a visual trope of faith amongst unfamiliar landscapes that helps them remain connected to their root countries and customs. In the United States, the world’s largest melting pot, various traditions of domestic altar were brought by immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, India and the Far East. Eminent folklorist, Kay Turner, discovered that even among the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose form of Protestantism abstains from use of images, women continued to maintain a form of domestic altar called a ‘Herrgottswinkel’ or ‘God’s corner’ for their personal devotions.
Women are called upon often to mend bruised egos and situational insecurities.
|Altar worship is experiential and intimate, allowing us to cry out the woes that gnaw at our heart|
Therefore for renewing personal strength we explore and affirm relation with the chosen deity in the quiet sanctum of our personal altar. Prayers are offered, problems discussed threadbare and as solutions appear on the worldly horizon under the benevolence of home deities, faith deepens.
The word altar is derived from the Latin altus meaning ‘high’ and refers to a elevated platform upon which offerings are made to deities. In India altar worship appeared in the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation around five thousand years ago in the form of fire altars, of various shapes – squares, triangular, circular, falcon, heron-shaped. Interestingly, the science of geometry arose out of the construction of these altars. Shulba Sutras, a collection of Hindu religious documents contain instructions for making special altars to God. As per origins of geometry, the need to manipulate the particular shape of
|An elaborate home altar, occupying a prime spot in the kitchen of this householder|
specially constructed altars gave rise to the essential field of mathematics. In Buddhism while maintaining an altar one attempts to cultivate the qualities of the Buddha – his enlightened body, speech and mind.
In Eastern countries most women acquire the tradition from their religions but in the West most religions including Christianity were patriarchal. This prompted women to create domestic shrines that helped develop their religious beliefs in a manner that augmented their daily struggles. Yet history is riddled with opposition to domestic icon worship. In the eighth century the iconoclast clergy in an attempt to consolidate their authority, declared that only objects that had been properly blessed by the appropriate authority could be treated as holy. The decree failed to deter women from practising domestic icon worship as it upheld feminine power, privacy and family connections.
The first Western domestic altars in the Neolithic era were made around 5000-6000 BCE to honour a matrifocal religion, venerating goddesses bestowing fertility and fulfillment on their domestic hearth. The tradition of home shrines in Central America evolved during the colonial period when priests visited homes to perform ceremonies like baptism, weddings, and funerals that pre-empted the need for temporary altars. Mexican-American women rarely went to church as they felt they were priests within their homes. Their dedicated spaces are ‘nichos';
From where grace cascades
decorative boxes in striking colours with a statue of Virgin Mary or Virgin of Guadalupe. The matrilineal heritage of altar tradition is further embodied in Greek households through eikonostasio, referring to icon stand.
Altars help heal in our world of hurried pace, material excess and vacillating relations. As an African female shaman accedes, “A home is not a home unless you have a sacred site, a place where I can go to touch inside of me and connect to the womb of the universe.” Under the awning of a wide sky are remote towns and tribal villages where poverty and remote medical help have led to the propagation of female healing traditions centred on home altars promoting an independent, self-sufficient lifestyle for women in a patriarchal society.
Altar worship is experiential and intimate allowing us to cry out the woes that gnaw at our heart. It’s a place where miracles are sought even when dreams wilt in the physical world. Kay Turner explains that the powerful act of creating altars serves as a catalyst to pose questions to the Divine and grace received is the healing that betters circumstances for us. Our prayers give way to forthright conversations ranging from mundane details to vital concerns – a much required job change, the health of a child, a bothersome relationship, letting go of an errant habit, nothing the gods won’t listen to and importantly, do something about. In my home I work around my mindfully created altar; glimpse it during activities spanning the day, reassured by its anchoring presence in my home and life. Celebrating our belief and life through the tradition of home altar worship is another way of keeping it and us vitally alive.
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