The former computer professional - now a very specialised type of artist - locked his gaze on the deity before him.
On a recent afternoon, 33-year-old S. Goutham was perched on a ladder at the altar of the goddess Durga at the Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Chennai, India. Goutham - his hand moving steadily - was pleating a green silk sari to adorn the deity.
"You cannot get tense when you are doing this work,” he says. "You can’t do this if you are not patient. You need to become one with her.”
A computer science graduate, Goutham quit his job nearly a decade ago to pursue his calling. He has since followed in the footsteps of his ancestors as a fifth-generation decorator of temple deities.
In Hindu temples, idols are mostly made of materials such as black granite, white marble or five-metal alloys that have sacred significance. These deities are worshipped as physical, tangible representations of god (Brahman) who is believed to be infinite, omnipresent and beyond comprehension. Worship in a Hindu temple includes bathing these deities in milk, decorating them with colorful clothes, flowers, perfumes such as sandalwood, jewellery, and even weapons such as swords, clubs and tridents. Oil lamps are lit at the altar, and sacred chants and foods are offered to the gods.
Decorating the deities is a millennia-old practice that is described in the Hindu epic Ramayana, and Goutham has been learning the art since he was a toddler. He crafted his first formal decoration when he was 13 - at the very altar where he stood 20 years later on a day in November.
He has done thousands of decorations, ranging from relatively simple ones that take an hour or two to complete, to others that are more complex and take several days.
Goutham said he became interested in decorating deities as a child because of his father.
"When you are little, your father is your hero,” he said. "I wanted to be just like him.”
The first lesson Goutham got from his dad was about the weapons each god would hold. He heard stories about the power of each weapon and how gods would wield them.
"The personality of the deity and the story of the god or goddess could change depending on their weapons, the clothes they wear, the expression on their face or the position in which they are sitting or standing,” he said.
When he sets out to decorate a deity, Goutham says he has a concept of what to do, but doesn’t start out with a sketch. He goes step by step - placing the deity's hands, feet and weapons. Then, he moves on to the clothes and jewellery. Gradually, the god's form manifests.
There are rules about the types of materials that can be used on deities.
"The human body is made up of earth, water, fire, air and space, and everything you see naturally occurring on Earth is made of these elements,” Goutham said. "To show this, we decorate deities using things that occur in nature and are a representation of these elements, like copper, cloth, coconut fibres and so on.”
He says decorating a deity combines elements from art, dance and yoga, in terms of the hand gestures and postures the deities assume. Man-made materials such as plastic are prohibited. Goutham says he uses little pins to hold fabric together, but makes sure the pins don’t directly touch the idol.
He sources the deities’ arms and legs, mostly made from copper or brass, as well as the weapons and jewellery, from artisans.
He has also created an app and website for those who wish to learn more about this art and dreams of establishing an institution to train artists who can maintain the sacred tradition. While most deity decorators are men, he sees no reason why women cannot learn and practice it.
"Everyone is equal under god,” he said.
Storytelling is an important part of what he does. One of his favourite installations depicts the friendship between Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, and Kuchela.
"It shows Krishna washing the feet of Kuchela, a poor man, conveying the message that humility is a virtue - whether you are a human being or god,” Goutham said.
The term "idol worship” may have negative connotations in some faiths. But for Hindus, deities - which are kept in temples, homes, shops and offices - serve as focal points "for to us channel our devotions, our actions and serve as a reminder of all the positive values that are associated with those deities,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation.
Shukla says this form of worship is a way for her to connect with her ancestors.
"As a second-generation Hindu American, I didn’t grow up with all these things around me where I could absorb through osmosis,” she said. "But just knowing that I’m part of a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation is personally powerful for me.”
In US Hindu temples, community members come together to help create the costumes for the deities, and it is an act of devotion, Shukla said.
"No one has to sit there and embroider a skirt or sari for a goddess, but they do it as a display of love,” she said. "It’s humbling and empowering.”
Goutham says he doesn’t view his job as a vocation.
"You can call it service because it brings pure joy to so many and plays a role in our spiritual awakening,” he said. "But in my view, it’s much more than that. It has the power to transform people.”
Goutham has decorated deities in temples abroad as he has in tiny Indian villages and little-known temples. He remembers stopping once at a village tea shop and hearing the locals praise his decoration of their temple deity.
"It really warmed my heart,” he said.
As Goutham placed a crown and garland on the deity at the temple in Chennai, neighbour Sucharithra Surendrababu watched awestruck, snapping images of the decorated goddess on her cell phone.
"I love seeing mother Durga whether or not she is decorated,” she said. "But, when I do see her all decked up and looking gorgeous, it makes me so happy. It’s uplifting and empowering."
There are some decorations which bring tears even to the artist’s eyes.
"It’s not just something that is pretty to look at,” Goutham said. "It’s about love and faith. When you touch the deities, clothe them and decorate them, you think of them as your friends or parents. You need skill and vision to do this. But above all, it takes heart.” - AP