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Beryl Lieff Benderly

A Spiritual Break for Techies

January is pilgrimage season in southern India.  Across the region, one sees bands of people dressed in specially colored traditional garments making their way toward holy places on foot or in buses and vans festooned with banners and flower garlands.  The most popular of these sites — in fact, one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the world — is the mountaintop temple at Sabarimala in the state of Kerala, which is devoted to the Hindu god Ayyappa, son of the god Vishnu and an avatar (manifestation) of the god Shiva.  Tens of millions visit each year — more than the state’s population of 30 million — and their number has increased rapidly in recent years because of the deity’s growing popularity with young people. Last Friday, tens of thousands of black-clad devotees were climbing the forested route to the temple when an as yet undetermined traffic incident sparked a stampede that killed 102.

Some of the bands of black-clad pilgrims trekking toward Sabarimala, with religious articles on their heads, are organized groups of technology workers from Bangalore, about 400 miles away. The Sunday Times of India reports that colleagues from IBM, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, and other high-tech firms band together each year band to make the pilgrimage. These international companies recruit technically trained employees regardless
of caste, religion or place of origin. Their offices consist of mixed work
groups who often use English as the common language. Although women of reproductive age are not allowed to participate, the rites at Sabarimala are open to men of all castes and religions, unlike most other places of worship in India, making the Sabarimala trek especially suitable to Bangalore’s high-tech pilgrims.
Embarking on the journey properly requires 41 days of spiritual preparation, including regular worship at temple and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, fish, meat, shaving, haircuts and sexual relations.  Business trips reportedly prevent some prospective pilgrims from adhering to the full regimen, but many undertake the pilgrimage anyway.  That’s because, as one Oracle executive and regular Sabarimala devotee told the Sunday Times of India, it is precisely the stress of high-pressure technical work that makes the spiritual respite of the pilgrimage so valuable and appreciated.