Daily Dispatch 9: Ahmedabad, City of Diversity

AHMEDABAD - There was evening and there was morning, the ninth day.

For some of us it began very early. The Guru of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism was set to leave for Africa on Friday and thousands of his followers were there to see him off after his daily Puuja. A few of us left the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to witness the spectacle.

Professor Trivedi, a Swaminarayan Hindu himself, presented the Guru with a necklace of red flowers and was invited by the Guru to display his prowess as a musician, leading a song and playing the harmonium before the crowd.

“The incredible part of it is that this happens every day the guru is in town,” said Cole who accompanied Professor Trivedi. Cole was fascinated by the sheer logistics of getting so many thousands in one place.

For the rest of us our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry.

Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms.

“I just love the imagery of it, these women walking around in all white in this white marble space,” said Thea. “It such a good place for contemplation and really understanding how ahimsa works in practice.”

After the nuns, we stopped by the state of Gujarat’s only synagogue, the art deco Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad’s old city. We were greeted there by an elder of the synagogue who told that he was one of the only 140 Jews in Gujarat. The man, whose first name was Benson, told us about the community, how it first came to Gujarat and how it has dwindled in size in recent years.

“We are not sure what the future has in store for us, but we are hoping and trying to keep the torch of Judaism burning in this part of the world.” Benson said.

Our final stop in the old city was the Parsi Agiari, or Zoroastrian fire temple. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and was the state religion of ancient Persia. The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Being associated with Persia they were called Parsis by the local Gujaratis after Iran’s Fars Province.

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Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria, a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis. Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad.

“I particularly enjoyed seeing the sharp contrast between how the Jewish leader and the Parsi leader spoke about the size of their communities,” Andrea observed. “Though both are small, at the synagogue Benson spoke about how grounded his community is in this location and their attempts to grow and preserve it, while the Parsi leader spoke frankly about the possibility of his community disappearing in the next 25 years.”

After we left our meeting at the Agiari, we had off until the evening to report, shop or relax by the hotel pool. A few of us joined Professors Trivedi and Goldman for a lunch at place called Swati’s Snacks which is known for its modern take on traditional Gujarati cuisine. Speaking at least for myself, I can say that the Gujarati food, pure vegetarian cuisine known for its sweetness, was a welcome change that the spicy cuisine we had had in Delhi, Vrindavan and Rishikesh.

Intrigued by what we learned in the Agiari, Natasha and I were interested in doing a story on the Parsis and inquired about the “Towers of Silence” where Parsi practice the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial. In a sky burial, corpses are left out on the top of towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey so that nothing is left behind. Anklesaria offered to take us to the towers on Ahmedabad’s outskirts and told us all about the tradition and how the community is working to maintain it in modern India.

In the Evening the group was split up, and given the opportunity to have dinner with families from the different faiths we have been covering here.

Sylvia, Ellen and Andrea ate by a Jain family which was celebrating the breaking of a yearlong fast by one of its members. “We learned a ton about what is required in the Jain diet and why they have to eat before sundown and not until an hour after the sun rises,” Sylvia explained. “It's because there are organisms you cannot see in darkness that could be in your food, which Jains neither want to hurt nor eat.”

Emily, Thea and Gudrun ate by a Swaminarayan Hindu family. There, 10 members from four generations of the family all lived together. Over local Gujarati dishes, the group had the chance to ask them about the intersection of politics, religion and development.

“We all felt, because all three of us had been at the BAPS temple that morning that it was pretty fabulous opportunity to see religiosity in the home and the differences between the religion as explained by our textbooks, what we heard and the temple and what we experienced in the home,” said Thea.

Cole, Ana and Elizabeth had opportunity to join the Parsis in a community dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the construction of their Temple. “There were 500 people there sitting facing each other like a beer Hall,” said Cole. “It really struck me how open they were about their dwindling numbers. They said they’ve been [around] for 3,000 [years] and this isn’t going to be the end of them.”

Since it was Friday Night, Natasha, Pia and I went to Shabbat Services at the Synagogue. We didn’t end up having dinner with a Jewish family but instead made our own Shabbos dinner back at the Hotel with professor Goldman. Since alcohol is banned in Gujarat, we had to make Kiddush, the ceremonial blessing of the wine, in Goldman’s room. Though it seemed that the kosher wine Professor Goldman had brought with him from New York had soured, the experience was sweet nonetheless.


Photo by Ana Singh