A traditional ancestor altar is often placed just below or near a deity altar. It can also be placed across from or to the side of a regular altar, so long as when you face it, you are not turning your back directly towards the main altar. Images of ancestors and/or symbolic objects (generally things that represent or belonged to the ancestor) are placed on this altar.
For the ancestor altar cloth, you can use something white – and preferably something natural such as silk or wool – because it is the color of cremation ash, peace, and stillness. The cloth itself offers them a “seat”, and is a way of symbolically welcoming them with respect. In the same way that you wouldn’t want to stand all day or else sit directly on the ground, we also offer our sacred objects a “seat” that is clean, soft, and beautiful.
It is traditional to garland the images of ancestors, either with fresh flowers or beads, usually tulsī or rudrākṣa, as a way of honoring them. You can also hang silk cloth (usually white or light-colored) around the images.
After building the altar, you will want to keep it clean and alive by making regular offerings. Flame and incense are traditional, and as you make your offerings you can visualize the ancestor(s) and send them your love, gratitude, and any requests for guidance or assistance. You can also apply haldi (turmeric) and kumkum powder to your ancestor’s images, the same as you would for a deity icon. This is again a way of welcoming and showing respect.
Note that it is not customary to offer water, food, flowers, or money as offerings on an ancestor altar (as you would on a regular deity altar) because those are associated with the energy of life.
Also, we do not offer hymns or any other forms of worship to our ancestors. We can offer sacred practices to the divine on behalf of our ancestors, but not to the ancestors themselves. The ancestor altar is about respect and remembrance, not worship and devotion the way that we would in our relationship with God/Goddess.
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Teacher: Shivani Hawkins