Spirituality has replaced religiosity for many people, with people taking charge of their beliefs and relationship to the sacred. In the same way, so has the home altar or sacred space evolved.
For many years, the home altar was an abandoned concept: only orthodox or very devout homes kept the tradition. But now, rather than a proscribed space, the home altar has become a sort of new hearth, a gathering space, a touchpoint – where individuals create connection and make meaning of their own. It’s personal, and varied and rich.
Recently, we asked people to share images of their altar spaces and they are gorgeous and as unique as those who created them. For example, people set up their spaces in all manner of environments: on long console tables, piano benches, a window shelves, a closet with the door removed, an outdoor spot in some temperate garden. One woman commented that she her home has a spot where a window provides natural light that, at the exact time of day she likes to meditate, shines at just the right angle that makes it the perfect spot for reflection.
Common elements include pictures of beloved teachers, artifacts from journeys or teachings, sacred memorabilia (such as objects that have had many prayers or chants said over them). Prayer beads of all types and sizes were included. Many had containers that hold the elements of fire and water, or the offering of flowers and prasad (blessed foods). Oils and incense and candles increase the sensory experience, and bring focus.
The combinations of objects reflected each devotees mixed personal heritage and narrative: for example, an altar combining Navajo artifacts and invocations to Ganesh. Or, a feminine altar that featured Mother Mary, Kwan Yin and Parvati in equal measure. Natural objects such as stones and shells and branches – more Gaia or pagan than any religion.
However, traditionally, in India, if there is a deity figure – a statue or a murti – it is housed and covered, often in an altar cabinet, such as this one. We think these cabinets are beautiful, obviously, or we wouldn’t have brought them home with us. People interact with their altars in many ways.
In our house, in the morning, we light candles and offer fresh flowers or fruit, and say our thank yous and set our intentions for the day, and sing the names as morning prayer. At Tree Toad, Adam faces his personal altar, and starts the day with chant, his deep voice and the harmonium ringing out. Once you begin a morning devotional home practice, it’s hard to not start the day this way. Many people I know even set up a mini travel altar on arriving in a hotel room or at a friends house. But sometimes it’s a nod in passing, or a rub on Ganesh’s elephant trunk, or just a look at the sweet face of one of our teachers in the altar pictures that keeps us aligned to our highest selves. At night, we blow out the candles and say a quick goodnight – calling to mind those that need love and offering it back, and giving more gratitudes for the day.
All in all, home altars are as special and diverse as the people who design them, a unique articulation that anchors a space for ritual and reflection, for appreciation and invocation. Because this is such a vital part of our lives, we bring truly special devotional items home. We would love to see your pictures, and how you live with your home altar or sacred space.
Jai Sri Krishna,
The Dharma Elves