Jackie Perkins, QSA Administrator

Cambodia’s most well known wat – Angkor Wat. Photo QSA

The project partner organisations with whom QSA works and supports are not Quakers, making Quakers unlike our colleagues from the Church Agencies Network who only work with those of their faith-based communities overseas. QSA does not try to convince its partners to become Quakers. Occasionally however, QSA works with a partner organisation which has a Quaker in its midst, such as Joss Brooks at Pitchandikulam Bio Resource Centre in Tamil Nadu in southern India, Stephen Hussey in Dabane Trust Water Workshops in Zimbabwe, and Margaret Bywater who lives in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and provides support to our projects when possible. Visits to these projects means a chance to have a Meeting for Worship in some wonderful and unusual settings, a chance perhaps to appreciate nature from a new perspective.

Visits to other partner organisations also provide opportunities to join in spiritual events with other faiths, gaining a new outlook on part of the lives of others. In Cambodia, it may mean saying a silent, personal prayer in a Buddhist temple or wat, lighting incense sticks, and appreciating the architecture. Wall paintings and statues need something of an explanation to be fully appreciated, and partner staff are always willing to explain. A visit to a monk in the wat may also mean something else – a glimpse into the future. What would be an auspicious day to start a long journey, or start building a house? What does the future hold for me? This is not fortune telling in a commercial or base way, but an extension of their spirituality.

India is an interesting mix of different faiths, beliefs, gods and approaches to spirituality. Travelling around the country, it is possible to see examples of ashrams, Buddhist, Islamic, Sikh, Hindu and Christian sacred architecture – all very different in style, use and noise levels, from a Quaker meeting house. For people going about their daily lives, spiritual expressions of their faith are very usual. This may take the form of wearing a ‘bindi’ or red powder applied to the brow with a finger, a mark to remind people to access their inner wisdom. It was once used to denote a married person, usually a married woman, but now bindis are applied by everyone, using a powder made from red turmeric, sandalwood paste, ash and clay, and perhaps some ground saffron and other flowers.

Floral puja outside the eco-dorm building at Pitchandikulam Bio Resource Centre, in Tamil Nadu. Photo QSA

In many Hindu households, a daily method of worship is called a ‘puja’, and this is also performed at the start of significant events, such as a long journey, starting a new building or job, and on certain religious days during the month or the year.  It may be performed as an offering to the family deities, to seek divine intervention, to overcome a problem, or as a celebration.  It may even take the form of a simple flat bowl containing a little water and an arrangement of flowers, placed near the entrance to a building – a beautiful, welcoming sight.

A more elaborate puja would include offerings of water, food, incense, special prayers and mantras. People are invited to attend and participate, and I have taken part in a number of them for various reasons – to pray for divine assistance during a difficult time, to celebrate a success, laying special bricks in a corner of a new site for a building (in particular, the construction of a toilet block at Nadukuppam School, and a new community centre). These ceremonies are seen as part of everyday life; spiritual consideration is given to everything.

Larger puja display on the land at Nadukuppam, Tamil Nadu. Photo PBRC

One other feature, more commonly but not exclusively seen in Tamil Nadu, are kolams. These are decorations on the pavement and doorways of buildings, and made from rice powder which has been artificially coloured. The design may be a more traditional mandala pattern, may include gods and goddess’ figures, or be more abstract. They begin with a grid of equidistant dots and then the fine power is used to fill in the design or left empty to build up the design. The idea is to welcome guests and to bring prosperity, happiness, and other divine blessings to the building.  The process itself is quite meditative, but more simple than the Tibetan mandalas which are made in a similar way over several painstaking days. These Tamil kolams take a few hours to create, and during the day they are washed away by rain or removed by the wind and foot traffic, only to be repeated the next day. In some areas, the creation of kolams becomes a competition, judged by the community.

As you can see from the photos, flowers play a key role in the ceremonies and displays, with certain ones paired with special deities. Everything is done with great reverence and care, and anyone is able to participate and bring their own spiritual beliefs into the ceremony. Within the Tamil culture there is also a keen interest to know what others believe. Some of the conversations around spirituality I have had with project partners highlight so many similarities in belief. There may be a difference in their expression, but fundamentally we can all agree, which is very encouraging and unifies us despite our physical and cultural boundaries.

QSA is a member of the Australian Council for International Development and is a signatory to the ACFID Code of Conduct. The purpose of QSA is to express in a practical way the concern of Australian Quakers for the building of a more peaceful, equitable, just and compassionate world. To this end QSA works with communities in need to improve their quality of life with projects which are culturally sensitive, as well as being economically and environmentally appropriate and sustainable.

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