Religion in India

14:44 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

One thing is unavoidable when you travel through India. Religion. Religion is everywhere. It affects where people live, what they do throughout the day, what they eat and so on. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism all began in India and Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism and widely practiced throughout the country. I don’t pretend to understand all the religions but it was good to visit many of the different temples and compare them.
Hinduism in Shimla:
The most widespread religion in India is Hinduism. It is an extremely diverse, polytheistic religion and is engrained in Indian culture. Hinduism is built upon a belief of ethics, a cycle of rebirth, karma and paths to liberation.
We visit the Jakhoo temple in Shimla which is dedicated to Hanuman. Hanuman is a simian deity and one of the main protagonists in the story of Ramayana. We found the temple shrouded in mist on the top of a hill, hidden amongst a forest. Aside from a few worshipers who had also made the ascent, we were alone with the temple’s monkey population. There are cute, ginger monkeys everywhere. Unfortunately the monkeys are notorious for being vicious. So vicious, that at the entrance to the temple, worshippers are given a big stick to fight them off.

looks can be deceiving...

...but we have sticks.
At the summit of the hill there is a giant red statue of Hanuman that looks out over the town. It’s an impressive monument and can be seen from everywhere. To enter the actual temple, I had to remove my shoes, wash my hands and hand over my monkey-beating stick. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, so this nice young couple guided me round and showed me what to do. I was blessed and given the Bindi. I gave a donation and spent a bit of time thinking (I didn’t pray) and then had a walk around the courtyard. Stupidly, I made eye contact with a monkey and it came running towards me. It was still pretty cute apart from the shrieking and all those sharp teeth. I froze and without my big stick I was left to contemplate the embarrassment of getting savaged by a one foot high monkey. Fortunately, there was another worshipper to help me out. He bent down and pretend to pick up a stone and the monkey immediately stopped its death charge toward me. Bashfully I thanked the man and he smiled back, no doubt thinking “bloody tourists”.
Islam in Delhi:
Back in Delhi we visited the Nizamuddin Dargah to watch some Sufi singers. A rickshaw dropped us off at a street full of beggars, street food and acrid smoke. I wanted to turn around but it was my idea to come here in the first place. We walked along the street until we found someone trustworthy and asked for directions. The guy told us what to do, gave me some type of hat I needed to wear and looked after our shoes. He also asked his younger son, Rajan, to guide the way for us. We had to cross a filthy street barefoot to get to the entrance of the Dargah. I tiptoed the first few steps but it was inevitable that I was going to get covered in dirt.
The Dargah was not a single building, but a complex of covered alleyways, buildings, stalls and religious buildings. It was like a maze and I was quickly disorientated. All around us were sleeping beggars, children, lepers and worshippers. It was just as filthy in the alleyways too. It was night time but you could feel heat from all the people packed into such small spaces. All I could her was coughing, hocking and spitting. I could feel my skin crawl.
As we moved deeper into the complex I found it more and more intimidating. Women weren’t allowed past a certain point so Arif stayed with Kate. Graham and I carried on. We were both pretty nervous. We eventually arrived at the mausoleum, which was a little tiny room filled with tonnes of Indian guys weeping, scattering petals, slapping bits of wall and all behaving slightly odd. Mercifully, I wasn’t allowed into the main room because I had shorts on – it looked pretty intense in there.
I tried to speak to Rajan in Hindi. I tried asking his name but he couldn’t understand me. Fortunately this other Indian guy did and he translated. Rajan looked so happy that I was interested in talking to him. He was a cool little kid and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going inside the Dargah. The guy who translated was also very keen to talk to me, once he found out I was from Manchester. He told me a story - “43 years ago I took a train from Liverpool to Manchester. Very good!”
An ‘official’ tried to ask me for money, but I apologised in Hindi and said I had no money. He was surprised to hear me speak Hindi. His eyes pleaded for more, so I gave him the only other phrase I could remember. I told him the food was lovely.
Rajan then took us to see the Sufi Singers. We sat down and listened to the music. Despite the sweat streaming down my back and my brain working overtime about how many germs I was exposing myself to, I finally began to relax. A bit of singing is always good in a temple.

Sikhism in Delhi:
In contrast to my own private hell of the Dargah (I’m far too clean and tidy), visiting the Gurdwara was great. There are people constantly cleaning, you have to wash before you enter and the air is cool.
As with most temples, I had to remove my shoes and wear some sort of hat. I looked the part in my red head scarf. Sikhs are very accommodating and we were all allowed to enter, pray (or in my case have a think) and each receive a meal of incredibility sweet and fatty porridge.
The atmosphere in the Gurdwara was one of community. People were busy praying and also greeting each other and having a natter. As we moved round the temple there was music and contemplation. The temple centres on a golden artefact and people express their devotion by praying and cleaning everything within striking distance of the artefact. Whatever you think about Sikhs, they are definitely a tidy bunch.
Buddhism in Leh:
Leh, deep in the Himalayan Mountains, is a home to many exiled Tibetans and the region is full of Buddhist temples. We visited several, but my favourite was the Hemis Monastery. A monk originally came into the mountains the contemplate here and over time more monks came and a monastery was eventually established.
The monasteries seem to all follow a similar pattern. They each have several different rooms for prayer. One room includes the obligatory two storey high Buddha statue. There is usually a courtyard and a wall of prayer wheels.
(this picture is from a different monastery, once you've got a few pictures of a big Buddha you've got them all)

We were in the mountains so there were few tourists. Buddhist monks busied themselves by carrying pots and pans, sweeping floors and practising a dance routine (or was it kung fu?). It was probably the fact that I was exhausted from the altitude, but I found the silent, darkened prayer rooms appealing. I kneeled down and spent some time thinking to myself. Actually, I did something unusual. I prayed for something. I don’t know why I chose this moment but there was something very peaceful about the Buddhist monastery which had an effect upon me.
Afterward, I went outside and sat on the stairs to the monastery. A young monk walked toward me and I smiled at him. He didn’t return the smile, he just held my arm and pulled himself up the stairs. At first, I thought nothing of it, but soon I remembered he was younger than me and perfectly able to climb a few stairs. He didn’t grab onto my arm tight to hold on either, his touch was gentle and reassuring. I’m sounding like a right hippie-traveller now, but I’m sure there was something more in that moment. There was something missing in my smile that compelled the monk to reassure me. There is something special about Buddhists and their feelings towards others.
So what did I learn? The atmosphere each temple creates is very different. Hinduism felt like an amalgamation of a million different stories. It also felt personal. I think Islam is fascinating but I do find most Islamic monuments a bit intimidating. Sikhism seems to me to be a totally modern religion which is able to adapt to the times. And they are very tidy. There is something introverted about Buddhism which appeals to me. It’s not about your devotion and belief in a deity, but about finding your own path.
The effect of religion is profound and it has created so much variety in India. I really believe that as an Agnostic, I’m missing out on something. However the problem is that there is no one religion I totally agree with. I’ve studied a bit of history and unfortunately, religion has always been used by those in power to manipulate the population. The true meaning of what religion stands for is lost amongst wars, politics, mad prophecies and Easter eggs.

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