Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
The home is the most frequent place of worship for Hindus. The presence of sacred altars in the home makes it possible for Hindus to worship on a daily basis. As I child I learned about Hindu ritual by observing and participating in daily rituals and special occasions that took place in my home. Family videos show my brother and me at a young age learning basic prayers in front of the altar in our first home. While the temple is a place of gathering for many Hindus, the home can serve as either a space for family worship or the location of a community gathering during special holidays or ceremonies.
Home altars can be constructed out of a small space such as a cabinet, a shelf or a closet. Sometimes an entire room can be dedicated to the altar. In some households, a special wooden box carved into the shape of a miniature temple holds the images of the deities and other ritualistic objects. Many rules exist in various Hindu religious traditions concerning the proper positioning of the altar. Therefore, a family or individual will often consult a ritual expert before constructing the home altar.
Rituals and other acts of care are performed on a daily basis at home altars. Despite the busy schedules of my family members when growing up, someone would always make sure that a light offering (the burning of a small lamp) was made in front of the altar in the morning and at night. Before leaving the house for the day, we would bow in front of the altar or at night before going to bed. Light offerings are the most common and frequent ritual act for the altar.
More elaborate ritual acts are performed during special religious occasions. At these times, more is added to the altar and worshippers offer flowers and fruits and other special foods depending on which deity is being worshipped. Some special religious occasions call for neighbors and other members of the community to join in worship in front of the home altar. For example, my family would often perform a ritual (puja) for the Goddess Lakshmi each fall. My mother, who was in charge of this puja meant only for women, would call other women and their daughters to our house to perform the puja and then share the blessed offering (prasad) afterwards. Navratri is another holiday during which home altars become a point of community gathering. During the Nine Days of the Goddess festival (Navratri), families will construct new altars adorned with dolls. Families will go from house to house to admire the altars of other families.
When thinking about the home altar, is important to know that women are normally in charge of most ritual activity. This differs greatly from certain public temples that are strictly run by male priests. In both cases, the deities have been properly housed and are taken care of as if they are members of the household. This is one of the many ways that Hinduism is part of everyday life.