A home shrine or altar room or space is the most important part of a household in the Hindu tradition. It is dedicated to house statues and images of the gods and goddesses who are believed to protect the family and engender good fortune. While daily prayer, rituals, ceremonial worship, and devotional homage (puja) are practiced there by family members who pray together, the shrine/altar serves an even greater purpose: it is a sacred space where all family actions and decisions are made.
Puja, (pooja, poojah) a Sanskrit meaning homage, adoration, reverence, honor, and worship, is the Hindu worship of gods, spirits, or other aspects of the divine by showing reverence and devotion through a prayer (bhajan), supplication, songs, and rituals (Lotus Sculpture). These may take place at shrines in temples, homes, or outdoor public spaces where any Hindu deity can be venerated. The devotee in these rituals aspire to make a spiritual connection with the divine, and traditional objects such as a sculpture, a vessel, a painting, a print, or even an object from nature may be used to facilitate interactions and connections. (Lotus Sculpture) Essentially, puja consists of offering light, flowers, water, and food to the divine visible to the believer in an image of the deity made from a variety of possible materials, and the divinity also sees the devotee who has provided the light.
Hindu priests are intermediaries between worshipers and deities in temples, while in the home no intermediaries are necessary as the interface between worshipers and the gods is direct. The connection is achieved simply through the act of daily puja that is led by a family member with the participation of others at their home shrine. (Lotus Sculpture) The size or richness of a shrine is a personal matter and may range from just a row of prints on the wall to a fully decorated room. A shrine might contain as least one statue or image of a deity called a murti, which helps devotees focus on varying aspects of that deity, “By showing love and respect to the murtis, Hindus believe that they are showing devotion and love to God.” (Religious Artefacts) Each image is considered sacred and is believed to be filled with the spirit of the deity it represents. The choice and numbers of divinities placed on the shrine is also personal and reflects the beliefs of individual family members. Families encourage children to select the gods or goddesses they find inspiring and wish to venerate, and there may be many more than one shrine in a home and many deities chosen for veneration.
The most common shrine deities are Ganesh, Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Nandi, which are traditionally made of bronze, brass, terracotta, wood, stone, and marble. Affluent families may have images in copper or gold.
Shrines contain a “puja tray” with seven items to help devotees use all senses in worship, symbolizing that the whole person is involved in devotion. The items are a bell, an oil lamp, an incense holder, incense, a water container, a spoon and a chopra container for kum kum (kumkuma), a red powder used make a mark (tilak) on the forehead of the follower. Hindus believe that images must be properly cared for and assure that they will not abandon the shrine, so, deities are regularly bathed by family members to honor them. (Religious Artefacts).
Hindu society has close ties to the Dhokra community as their religious images are highly sought after for home worship (puja) and for many religious festivals. Dhokra are a nomadic group of tribal metal smiths from Eastern India that over several millennia settled in different sections of Indian provinces and ended in tight-knit communities in Orissa (now called Odisha), West Bengal, and Eastern India. Newly married Hindu couples installed these images to bring prosperity and happiness to their homes. The measuring bowls of different sizes were regarded as symbols of the goddess Lakshmi and were greatly prized fpr puja by local villagers who could afford them. (Smith and Kochhar) In Hinduism rice plants that are about to be harvested represent the Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility
Puja consists of three components designed to offer a multi-sensory experience to the devotees: viewing the deity’s image, worship that includes making offerings, and later consuming them. (Lotus Sculpture) The household leader chants prayers to each deity to whom devotion is directed. They are offered a seat, water, and having their feet washed, and may be provided other forms of veneration: bathing, being clothed in new garments, embellished with ornaments, flowers, or garlands, and having perfumes and ointments applied to them. Incense is burned, a lighted oil lamp or a candle is waved before the deity (beliefnet.com), and bells are sounded. All these are part of ritual worship (aarti), which is itself part of a puja that always includes offering light, usually from a flame, to the deity or deities included in the shrine. The following two prayers are part of the daily puja:
- “O Mother Lakshmi, as we wave this sacred light before you, we humbly request that you bestow your grace upon us. Do protect everyone from the sorrow of this world and bless us.”
- “As we light the lamp of love in our hearts we perform your aarti. O light of the world, remover of all distress, do destroy the darkness from our eyes.”
The family presents food offerings called prashad such as cooked rice, fruit, butter, and sugar; members then bow before the image; sip the water which they gave to the god, and accept and eat their food offering. Performing these actions are blessings for the deities who, in turn, have blessed the food and water consumed by their followers. (Lotus Sculpture) Special prayers may be offered directly to Ganesh, the remover of obstacles when family members embark on a new venture or experience a birth in the family, and others may be consulted or have a special request. Hindus believe worshippers keep the spirit of the deities alive, active, and focused on them because of their prayers and offerings. (beliefnet.com)
In rural areas, outdoor shrines are often seen along roads, sidewalks, crossroads, pathways, and trails through forests. In some instances, these shrines combine local beliefs with Hindu puja. When new shrines are first constructed, worshippers recite special prayers and make offerings to sanctify the site and to bring the power of multiple deities to occupy the site and its images. (ucdavis)
- Beliefnet.com, An Altar of My Own,
- Lotus Sculpture, Puja, An In Depth Look,
- Religious Artefacts, The Hindu Home Shrine,
- David Smith and Rajesh Kochhar, “The Dhokra Artisans of Bankura and Dariapur, West Bengal: A Case Study and Knowledge Archive of Technological Change in Progress,”
- UC Davis, Spirit Houses, Shrines and Altars,