“I came here in 1943 as part of the navy, and have since stayed here as a dock mechanic,” the caretaker tells us, softening a little. The temple was set up in 1919 by a group of Cantonese Hong Kong sailors who worked for the East India Company. “General Kwan Tai Kon is the god of justice and a great guider. And fair guidance is what the sailors needed the most for their new adventure – India,” enlightens Chen. Within a gold-painted altar, the general stands holding one hand in a mudra symbolising perfection, two fierce lieutenants behind him. He was delicately embroidered on silk (“long time ago,” the caretaker informs) and encased in glass and metal. Long before this “long time ago” even, the general was a great warrior, known for being un-corruptible. Once, while leading his armies against a vicious attack on his town, according to Chen, “a great supernatural power caused the army to be defeated… but the general disappeared.” The town’s people found the general’s statue, however, and the worship began.
So how does the general guide today? “You see these sticks?” the caretaker holds up many chopstick-like bamboo sticks in a cylindrical holder. “You shake them like this…” he shakes the box and throws one stick on to the floor. Then he leads next to the shrine, where five long rows of old Chinese paper slips lie bunched up and pegged. “Each stick has a number with a corresponding ‘fortune card’ among those slips,” Chen elucidates. Those fortune cards hold hints to future decision making.
But there is a quicker way. “Take this Yin and Yan.” The caretaker holds up two wooden pieces carved from the mystical shapes… then throws them onto the floor. A believer is supposed to pose a question to the great general before doing this. “If one falls upwards and the other oppositely… that means ‘great choice! Go ahead’,” he starts. If they fall with the same sides up, then one side indicates a “no”, while another signifies “Okay, but you could do better than that”.
Below the general’s image, is laid out three popular Chinese figurines standing for wisdom, long life and wealth. Also present are more statues of the General done in different designs. “When people leave Mumbai, they don’t want to risk damaging their statues while travelling. And this is according to them ‘the best place’ to leave them,” the caretaker who threatens us with ‘coh’ lets in. Many Chinese have left post the 1962 Indo-China victory – when members of the Chinese community were targetted for questioning and imprisonment, leading to widespread mistrust. Maybe they don’t need the general as much in ‘safer’ lands.
The 2000-odd Chinese population in the city flock to their only pilgrim spot on the Chinese New Year, and the Moon Festival. “During the New Year – which comes in around mid-night – candles and fireworks light up the temple till morning. And during the Moon festival, people light candles and incense all day.” New Year resolutions would be better kept, we suppose, when made via divine guidance.
This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/bj43