India’s Jewish mother

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By Michelle Goldberg:

APRIL 11 2010

Outside the Manakula Vinayagar temple in Pondicherry, a former French colony in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a temple elephant named Lakshmi collects offerings of rupees with her trunk, blessing devotees and tourists alike with a pat on the head. White curlicues are painted on her face, bells hang around her neck, and silver jewelry adorns her ankles. Behind her, little stalls sell religious knickknacks—faux-sandalwood figurines of Hindu gods and a great profusion of framed pictures. It looks, in other words, like thousands of other temples throughout India, until you examine the pictures more closely. They’re of an old woman with hooded eyes and a cryptic closed-mouth smile who looks a bit like Hannah Arendt. Everyone refers to her as “The Mother,” but she was born Mirra Alfassa. The de facto goddess of this town is a Sephardic Jew from France.
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