Wednesday, October 10, 2012

An Altar By Design

By Supriya Savkoor

It’s been a sort of dilemma for us for years now: whether to keep an altar in the home and, if so, where to place it.

Credit: Jorge Royan
Hindus call this space a mantap, or more commonly, a mandir, which also happens to be the word for a temple. Basically, it’s not just the altar itself but the entire area in a Hindu home, sometimes a whole room, dedicated to prayer and meditation. This area usually contains a collection of sculptures and photos of religious significance, along with various accoutrements to carry out ritual traditions (such as incense burners, oil lamps, and an array of colorful powders). I’ve always thought of it as a more crowded version of the altars in a Catholic church. Even communion reminds me of the Hindu rite of taking prasad. (Though communion is only given to those who have been baptized in that faith, whereas a Hindu religious ceremony offers prasad to anyone, even those who come after the ceremony in which it was first offered and regardless of religious affiliation or the lack thereof.)

Credit: Mike Lynch
But I digress.

My husband and I are both big believers of Hindu spiritualism, and he, more than I, grew up practicing it. Because my exposure to it was more incidental than purposeful, I’m less comfortable with and less knowledgeable of the rituals and traditions than he is, but I’ve always sort of viewed it as an exclusive club I’ve been slyly trying to get into. (Not sure if that explanation even fits, since no one’s preventing me from entering this “club.” It’s just my own secular upbringing that holds me back.)

I have at times suggested to hubby that we not keep a mantap at home, but I’m always secretly relieved when he vehemently disagrees. I’m not crazy about the traditional “look” of most mantaps, either. They’re occasionally cluttered dust traps, populated with a mish mash of plastic figurines or frayed photos of dubious swamis or cartoonish deities. Other times they are just too traditional for me. Ours now is like that, encased in a genuine silver mini-altar, with scalloped edges on the mini-roof and a temple-like spindle. Very boxy and very old school.

One of my own personal bugaboos is that for an altar to evoke any kind of spiritual stirring within me, I can’t really appreciate the photos of living swamis, who are after all, just people. Hinduism in fact makes us aware of how complex the concept of God is—so complex that we have a crowded pantheon of deities who embrace all forms, genders, and approaches. (Seriously the only philosophy, not so much religion, I think I could really espouse.)

The purpose of the mantap, though, is to serve all the members of a household, including its visitors, yet to me it mostly tends to reflect the personality or ideals of the person who sets it up and arranges it. It tends to feel more like a personal space, a highly personal one at that, something even my husband and I can’t quite agree on. And yet … it would feel like a sacrilege not to have one at all, even if we don’t much use it as much as other families might.

Credit: Yann Forget
And as embarrassing as this is to admit, for more than a decade now, we’ve housed our mantap in a walk-in closet, tucked away in an upstairs corner of our house, one only the immediate family knows about. Don’t get me wrong. We use the closet a lot, so it’s not like we don’t get a daily exposure to, ahem…I know, lame.

But now, here we are, doing a top-to-bottom spruce-up of the house, renovating our kitchen, painting everything from the trim to the ceilings, replacing old décor with fresh new colors, furniture, and designs. Our goal is to be done with it by Thanksgiving, when we will have a house full of Savkoors. So here’s that question again—where to put the mantap? We can’t keep it the closet anymore, can we? Not when we’re giving so much thought to every other nook and cranny of the house. Maybe, as I’ve suggested several times over the past decade, we can gut out this lovely wooden armoire I purchased years ago for just this purpose. Miniature armoire, really, as it was originally made for showcasing jewelry, but how lovely it would look hanging on a prominent wall. I don’t know, he still says, I’ll have to think about it. (That’s actually his stock answer to most of my most brilliant ideas.)

Then a few weeks ago, the perfect idea materialized at just the perfect time.

I was at a friend’s house, on a rare occasion of preparing food for a religious event. (Seriously, I attend one, maybe two, such events a year, and I rarely cook for them, so this was serious kismet.) While at her house, I found myself admiring a wall of lovely abstract art she had displayed in her kitchen. I reveled in it actually, thought it hadn’t occurred to me that it was anything more than “just art.” When I looked below the display, there was a small table of silver and bronze containers, the traditional type with the tight lids I grew up seeing around a mantap. That was my first realization: a mantap can be anything you want it to be.

And so, Thanksgiving guests, prepare to be dazzled!


  1. Thanks for sharing Supriya! I'd be interested to see a picture of your mantap when you've finished the new version!

  2. Thanks, Beth! I'll definitely share that with you. The challenge is getting it done in the next month.