Reflections at the Erawan Shrine, Bangkok
“The next station is Chit Lom.”I was alerted when I heard the announcement and held my tote bag tightly. I made my way towards the door while softly murmuring “excuse me”. I exited the cramped Skytrain and stepped on the busy and somewhat-overcrowded platform. It was my last day in Bangkok. I opened Google Maps on my mobile phone, typed Erawan Shrine on the small rectangular bar and started following the directions to the T.
From the pedestrian overpass, I cast a glance at the shrine, which appeared to be a lot quieter, in the absence of shiny, bright lights, than what I saw the night before – when I silently stared at the shrine for a couple of minutes on my way back from the Central World.
As soon as I stepped on the stairs, I realised how hot the day was. I gave myself a pat on the back for wearing the sundress that I had hastily bought from one of the little shops lined near the Tanjung Rhu Beach, Langkawi. “This looks nice on you,” the lady, probably in her 50s, had said. For her, it could be a sales line, but it made me happy and for that particular reason, the dress became the ‘happy dress’ - the soft, breathable fabric allowed me to breathe in peace. I had to walk another two minutes to reach the shrine. While waiting for two cars to pass, I saw a yellow traffic sign on the wall across the road that said “Beware of bag snatchers”. I rolled my eyes – Karachiites are always in a survival mode – but instinctively I brought the bag a little closer.
I walked past the gigantic outlets of Starbucks and Hard Rock Café. In that indescribable moment, I was focused on following the directions and reaching the shrine. Not once did I think of walking past the glass doors and having a quick meal. I call it indescribable for several reasons and I can only hope to do justice to the complexity of that strange feeling. I am not a typical religious person but I love to see religion and religious places from the lens of believers. It’s fascinating to see the faith that many people have; when they bravely smile in the face of a tragedy and courageously submit themselves to the will of their Lord. It’s also amazing to see how people claim that they find peace at such holy places.
So, I wanted to visit the most-revered and most-blessed shrine of Bangkok, Erawan Shrine. I can’t really tell why I was going there. Was it because I had a list of wishes in my mind and wanted to try my luck? Or was it due to the fact that visiting a shrine or a temple or a mosque on my international trip was a must-do item on my things-to-do-in-*insert the country’s name*-list? Or perhaps the freedom to move around the city encouraged me to visit the place. The truth is: I can’t tell.
I cast a glance at the shrine, which appeared to be a lot quieter, in the absence of shiny, bright lights, than what I saw the night before – when I silently stared at the shrine for a couple of minutes on my way back from the Central World.
The first thing that I noticed about the shrine was the garlands of marigold. I paid around 50 baht for some incense sticks and flowers. I slipped off my shoes and took out the stole from my bag. I offered my respect and looked around to see the devoted people, silently praying for their wishes to come true. I exited the place and walked toward the station. Luckily, the train was empty and I got a seat.
As soon as I sat down, I felt my phone vibrating. I took it out to see a notification from Facebook. It was a friend’s comment. She had said that now that I had completed one goal, it was time to start a new phase of my life. I instantly remembered the time the two of us had met at Gloria Jean’s. Taking a sip from her hot coffee, my friend had asked me when I was going to get married.
“After I have travelled to at least four countries,” I had said. Sitting on the now-empty Skytrain, I remembered that it was my fourth trip abroad. Was I missing out on anything? I thought to myself. My heart sank. Far away from Pakistan – in an attempt to take a break from the Pakistani mindset – I still found myself confronting the questions I was running away from. I missed my station and remained lost in my thoughts – trying to figure out why the words had had such a painful effect and whether, by thinking about it, I should be putting myself in the same misery.
Why does a woman’s accomplishment come down to her marital status? My mind kept repeating the question. I got off the train and walked aimlessly. The sun had set and the city was twinkling with Christmas lights and cars’ headlights. But the darkness that I felt deep down in my heart didn’t go away. In those few hours, it seemed that my life had come to a sudden halt.
The calmness that I had enjoyed at the shrine was way too short-lived. I wiped the stray tear from my eye and headed back to the station. A woman can get out of Pakistan, but she cannot get Pakistan out of her life.
I can’t recall what I said to the woman sitting behind the ticket counter. The only thing I remembered is that I left the train when it reached the Chit Lom station and walked towards the shrine – without using the map. Out of breath, I reached the shrine and looked at my surroundings: a middle-aged woman with sprinkles of silver in her hair praying diligently, a young girl in her 20s with her partner making a wish, and a group of people enjoying traditional dancing.
It was then that I repeated the ritual I had performed a while back. And it was there that I wished for some peace. When I stepped outside the place, I felt oddly at peace.
Is this what calmness feels like? I can’t tell, for I have never had a similar experience in my city with which to compare the unique moment that has now become a distant memory.
The writer is a staffer at The News International. She can be reached at email@example.com and tweets @manie_sid