Temple of the Dancing God

Clinging to the free end of Ma’s sari
I follow the tired shuffle of other pilgrims’ feet
into the cool darkness of the temple
where sweat-smell mingles with the fragrance of camphor and incense.
Pa’s hand rests heavy on my curls.
The priest drops a pinch of sacred ash into Ma’s palm.
She smears it on my forehead
above the red dot she paints between my eyebrows each morning.

I push through the rustling curtain of women’s saris and men’s white veshtis,
tiptoeing to see better.
A bronze statue of Shiva,
four-armed God of dance, glistens. 
He balances on His right leg alone, His left raised parallel to earth,
the crescent moon a jewel caught in His matted hair.
Carved high into the temple’s granite walls,
I spy other celestial dancers.
“Pa?” I tug at my father’s shirt.
He lifts me onto his shoulders
but the sculptures are
too far away to touch.

After the crowd empties out 
into the sunshine of the temple courtyard
I, alone,
into the soft blackness of the empty hall
spot a step-ladder propped against
my dancer-filled wall
and climb. Up, up, up, to the very top.
Leaning forward, I trace
dancing feet
with my fingertips.

“What are you doing, little one?” A priest
steadies my ladder. “You don’t have to climb
ladders to reach God.
He dances within all He creates.
Come down.”
I run my fingers
along the curve
of each stone heel.

The priest’s laugh rumbles up into my ears.  “Place a hand on your chest.
Can you feel Shiva’s feet moving inside you?”
I press on my chest. Feel bony ribs. Under them, thumping,
faint echoes of a dancing rhythm: thom-thom, thom-thom.
Shiva outside me, gleaming in the temple sanctum.
Yet also leaping hidden, inside my body.

“God is born, at different times, in different places, with different names.
He dances in heaven as Shiva, creator of universes;
He lived on earth as Buddha, human incarnation of compassion;
And as you can see, He moves within you.
Now, please, come down, little one.” 

I’m half-way down the ladder when Pa and Ma rush back in.
Pa prostrates, laying his squat body flat on the stone floor, thanking God.
Ma thanks the priest, words of gratitude bursting from her like sobs.
“Searched – the other four temples – couldn’t find her-
– so scared – what if she’d left the temple complex –
– run outside the walls –  into the city –”

As we leave, Ma’s thin fingers pinch my shoulders
tight as tongs roasting rotis over an open flame.
Pa scolds, “You could have burst your head
climbing a ladder like that!”

My head is bursting
with images and sounds
of stone dancers come alive:
tips of bare toes twirling,
tiny bells on anklets
twinkling with music.


Forthcoming from Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin. Projected release date February 2014.