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Pooja (Puja) II - Items at an altar
Having acquired some understanding of the altar and having gained some knowledge as to how to set it up, it is now time for us to take a closer look at the other items that are used to make the altar more presentable and more acceptable or suitable for worship.
Let us start with the oil lamp which is crucial to worship. The lamp is fueled either by ghee, gingelly oil or unadulterated coconut oil. Under no circumstances must palm oil or groundnut oil be used to fuel the lamp. Gingelly oil is probably the cheapest, ghee and unadulterated coconut oil are fairly expensive and therefore it is far more economical to use gingelly oil.
The wick is lit prior to the Pooja being started and it is kept alight for the duration of the Pooja. Once the Pooja is over, after a reasonable time (at homes it is usually half an hour to an hour after the Pooja has been concluded) it is put out and the Pooja area cordoned off.
The lamp is put out using either a flower or by drowning the wick in the ghee or the oil that fuels the lamp. The flame cannot be put out by blowing at it or by fanning at it with the hands. It is also inauspicious to allow the lamp to burn out by itself.
According to orthodox Hindu practices the wick must be lit by the lady of the house, failing which someone who has attained the status or is on his or her way to attaining the status of a priest or a religious guru or a teacher may light the wick.
Given the orthodox Hindu requirements it may be easier for a person to just attend Poojas at a temple especially if the person is staying close to a temple.
It is also relevant at this stage to elaborate on some of the flowers and leaves that are used during Pooja. God resides in the lotus of our hearts and therefore God is best worshipped in the presence of flowers and sacred leaves.
It is important to know which flowers and leaves are appropriate for worship and which are not. There is normally a flower, a leaf or a blade of grass (there are various types of grass) that corresponds with the deities at the altar (each deity has a flower, leaf or grass that is associated or specific to him or her) and therefore it is essential to have some knowledge of the flowers, leaves and grass that are used in worship.
For starters flowers that do not fade should not be used for worship, for example plastic flowers. It also includes flowers like bougainvillea and Crossandra infundibuliformis (firecracker flower) or kanagambaram. It is essential that the flowers that are used fade and that they fade within a specified period.
Other items that are found at the altar include a small bell. The bell is rung at the start of the Pooja (in temples there is usually a huge brass bell located in a bell tower and the bell is rung by pulling a long rope) to alert everyone that it is time for worship and that they should make their way to the altar.
In addition to a small bell there is also a camphor holder to light camphor, an incense stick holder for incense sticks and a benzoin resin holder for lighted benzoin resins, all of which are considered essential items for a Pooja.
It is common practice to light incense sticks and benzoin resins just prior to the start or towards the completion of the Pooja and to leave the wick lighted until the incense sticks and the benzoin resins burn out. Camphor is lighted towards the end of the Pooja.
It is also customary to offer the deities at the altar food. God is the provider of all things and therefore it is only fitting and proper that we offer our food to the deities who are in fact representations of the omnipresent supreme-being before consuming the food ourselves to receive God’s blessings.
Food that is presented to all Hindu deities must be strictly vegetarian, unless it is presented to a Kaval Deivam (Guardian Deity) or a bali-deva or a bali-devata.
Even if a photo or a small statute of a bali-deva or a bali-devata is kept in the main altar the offerings must still be strictly vegetarian and there are no exceptions to this rule.
If the photo or a small stature of the bali-deva or bali-devata is kept some distance away from the main altar (usually outside the house) as it is with a Kaval Deivam then non-vegetarian offerings may be presented.
Disposing of Pooja items
Items used for the Pooja especially dried flowers, leaves and dried blades of grass are to be released in running water i.e. rivers. Under no circumstances are any of the items to be throw in drains or disposed of in the conventional manner. All Pooja items are nontoxic and therefore are not in any way harmful to the environment.
© 2016 Kathiresan Ramachanderam and Dyarne Jessica Ward