A Sufi Shrine for All Faith: In India, Religious Pilgrims Cross Traditional Borders

NEW DELHI — Deep in a meandering marketplace of India’s capital city, replete with hanging tapestries and hawking merchants, lies a Sufi shrine known as Nizamuddin Dargah. The ground here is littered with flowers flattened by feet as people push past each other to move towards the shrine, where a prominent Muslim saint, Hazrat Khwaja Syed Nizamuddin Aulyia, is buried.

For all the attention it draws, the shrine itself is surprisingly small, an above ground tomb draped in rugs and tapestries and sprinkled with petals – tokens from visitors. Only men are allowed inside. The tomb is surrounded by an intricate stone mesh that partially blocks the view for the women, who circumambulate outside.

And though it is primarily a Muslim holy site (Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam), the shrine is a place that attracts believers across the faith spectrum. A Muslim woman bows her head to the ground outside the shrine next to a Christian woman, praying upright with hands tightly clasped. Mala beads and rosaries hang alongside Sikh kirpan bracelets, tied on with yarn. These believers come not only to see one of the most famous Sufi tombs in the world, but also to pray and worship.

Interfaith tourism and worship characterizes India, a land in which the borders between religions are more flexible than those in the Western world. These sentiments of praying to leaders and saints from across the religious landscape and celebrating the diversity of faith in the subcontinent is seen in both the leaders of religious orders and organizations and in their devotees. Particularly in a time when communal violence and religious and political polarization is sweeping through the subcontinent, this phenomenon remains an important uniting factor in the Indian society.



Syed Bilal Ali Nizami, one central caretaker of the Nizamuddin Dargah and a descendent of the saint himself, spoke of the strong interdenominational nature of the shrine, saying that he frequently receives visitors from across the world and from many faiths.

“The shrine hosts celebrations for many religions,” Nizami said. “We celebrate Diwali, Holi, Eid, Guru Nanak’s birthday, Christmas, and devotees of that religion come to pray.”

He said that many non-Sufis are drawn to the shrine not only for its relevance in pop culture – it has been the set of over six films – but also because they believe they can get good luck by donating to it.

The same interfaith spirit can be seen at Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram in Vrindavan. Goswami spoke of how it aspires to be a home to all people, regardless of caste or creed. Calling it a “non-ashram-ashram,” Goswami sat cross-legged on the carpeted ground in the large central room, wrapped in orange robes. He said that he has maintained the desire of the ashram’s founder and kept it available for any type of worship.

“There are zero rules and regulations,” he said. “It is a completely free space for our own liking.”

Many visiting devotees spoke of the cultural and religious reasons why they are drawn to alternative faith’s houses of worship.

Richa Agarwal, a Hindu visitor to the Nizamuddin shrine, said that she visits many shrines throughout the country to both worship and visit.

“There is no specific reason why I come to this saint,” Agarwal said, gesturing around the shrine, well lit with lamps as classical sitar and tabla music filled the air during a nighttime performance. “When you grow up in India, you know who is the influential saint of any religion, so that is why you come here.”

“I have come to pay my gratitude and have my wishes heard,” she added. “I want mental peace.”

Rupal Shah, a Swaminarayan Hindu from Ahmedabad, sees visiting other houses of worship as not only a religious experience, but also an opportunity to learn and teach. In an early-morning BAPS service to watch the guru of the faith pray before he left for a trip, Shah said that giving darsan, or sharing sight with the divine, at any religious temple can help problems go away.

“Each place has its own values,” she said. “If we are passing by a temple, we stop by and give darsan and explain their religion.”

In a reflection of Agarwal’s explanation of the typical pluralistic Indian childhood, Shah spoke of teaching faiths to her young daughter, who she is raising Swaminarayan. It is clear that, though a personal faith and guru is a key component to life, it is extremely important to expose the next generation to other ways of worshiping.

“It’s good for the children to visit,” she said. “It helps them be more aware of other faiths in India.”

The Dark Colors of Holi: A Reflection

VRINDAVAN -- There’s an almost opiate tinge in the cool air that twists through winding streets of this ancient city. There’s a giddiness, a childish glee that’s rising as the colored dust begins to fly. It’s the eve of Holi, the annual celebration of love and the start of spring. Based on the tale of Krishna and Radha’s love, it’s one of the most recognizable Hindu festivals to a Western audience. Tourists from across the world flood into India’s streets to mix with locals during this festival of color.

We are no different. We join the streets – albeit generally unaware of what was fully going to happen – in order to get to our ashram where we are spending the night. Within minutes we are being swarmed with whooping, grinning figures, walking by and throwing chalky paint at us, asking for selfies, cheering loudly when we shout back the traditional cheers for the day: “Holi Holi!” and “Radhe Radhe!”

The excitement is intoxicating. The festival is the embodiment of sensory overload. There is too much to see and to feel and to smell when every direction is full of senses new and profound.

People start approaching closer, invading our personal space, reaching out to rub our faces with paint, or to place a yellow or red dot on our foreheads. It’s here that our group of 17 begins to become separated. We become splintered. Some start running towards the ashram. I duck into a side alley to wait for those behind me. Two students stand with me. One has her face hidden by the building’s edge; her eyes are streaming, thickly caked with red powder. We are no longer smiling.

We go on, and one class member is approached by men who shove powder in her face. As she reaches up to rub her tightly closed eyes, her body is vulnerable. She is groped.

The experience of harassment is one that many of us encountered in our days celebrating Holi in Vrindavan. Perhaps it was because of our obvious appearance as outsiders. Perhaps it was because we weren’t expecting advances, and our shrieks and surprise attracted more attention to us. Perhaps it was because we didn’t play Holi like the locals. Either way, though Holi was, in many ways, a standout moment – one unlike any other – in our trip, it was also an experience of discomfort for many members of our class.

Class members spoke of varying levels of preparedness for entering the situation. Ana said she wasn’t shocked by anything, but only because she had been told by family members what to expect. She said she was groped on three occasions on various parts of her body. Though unpleasant, she was touched by the aid given by locals.

“The thing is, people would notice when things were getting intense,” Ana said. “We got scared and they out come help.”

Pia was surprised and disappointed by what she saw and was subjected to, but understood that our experience as a class was not necessarily an accurate portrayal of a holiday. Nevertheless, she felt that she came into the situation without a full understanding of what was to be expected.

“I had thought about what it meant to throw color dust around everywhere,” Pia said. “But I hadn’t thought of how it could be an aggressive tool if you wanted it to.”

Though classmates reported both positive and negative reactions to the festival, it seemed nearly a consensus that we had not experienced Holi as it is meant to be celebrated.

“Our experience is not indicative of the Indian experience,” said Ana, explaining that as Westerners, we would always have come from an outside perspective and felt the holiday in an alternate incarnation.

As for myself, I was not groped the first day, but the second, where I experienced what my classmate had: a handful of powder almost gently, but firmly, pushed into my eyes and, as I struggled to see again, I was groped by several hands – who knows how many people.

Later, I joined a small group in a rickety horse cart to explore the depths of Vrindavan. Here, we were bombarded by teenage boys who chased us through the streets, laughing as they threw powder into the cart and occasionally reached in to grab the women’s breasts and buttocks – myself included. I pushed one man away and he grabbed my scarf and tugged it, choking me, trying to pull me off the cart.

Ellen was also on this cart, and she, too, was groped by these men. To her, this experience stood out because of her curious reaction to it.

“If that had happened in the US, those kids would have had very intimate knowledge of my left hook,” Ellen said. “But I truly did not care that these young boys were sexually assaulting me. Maybe it was because I was mobile and there was no chance for it to go further or for confrontation. Maybe I just had an awareness that I was an obvious target; this was essentially a game of pin the tail on the donkey, only gross.”

When we arrived back at the ashram, slightly shaken but still on a weird high from the action and sights, a tiny vehicle slowly drove by, music blaring. Ellen, Andrea and myself, seemingly out of nowhere, started to dance. Some locals joined in with us. More paint was thrown. Selfies and videos were taken. I remember laughing hysterically, all my anger at the boys chasing us in the cart floating away with the colored dust we were kicking up with our feet.

The truth is, for me, Holi was not just being groped. It was also the morning walks along the river to watch special holiday pujas. It was flowers being thrown wildly around the ashram, and the special, delicious-smelling spiced powder that the ashram bought for visitors to throw at each other. It was the tiny bites we grabbed from street-side vendors and gulped down on broken plastic chairs as we talked to other tourists and locals who walked by. It was the ineffable looseness when play is encouraged when you don’t know the other players, or even speak their language.

Ellen’s final words on the day summarize the experience perfectly for me – though perhaps not for everyone.

“Ultimately, my feelings about Holi are so much bigger than this incident, much bigger than feelings of discomfort,” Ellen said. “I remember feelings of love, overwhelmingly.”

Aarti Acceptance: Family Moments in a Hindu Temple

His eyes closed, a Hindu priest sings Sanskrit mantras praising Ganesh, the elephant-headed god that The Hindu Temple Society of North America worships above all others. Through the approximately hour-long service at the Temple, at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York, the chanting never ends and only the occasional verse is repeated.

In the crowd of approximately 50 devotees, several sing along, rhythmically matching the rising and soaring melodies that accompany the hymns. Many, however, simply watch and listen as the priests conduct the rituals.

Two small children run back and forth outside of the tight crowd of worshippers, dashing in front of the many smaller statues lining the temple. These statues represent gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, resplendent in their tiny gowns and garlands. The children stand out in the temple, not only because of their lack of concentration on the service, but also due to their age. Most present for the Ganesh puja are middle aged or elderly. The children laugh and play tag until their father – who has been sitting silently through the puja – rises from the crowd and corrals them back to the group as the service begins to reach a conclusion. The smaller child, a boy, drapes himself limply across his father’s lap, protesting his boredom at the proceedings.

Then, a small silver bell in the hand of the main priest begins to ring. The priest holds aloft a silver lamp, burning with a tiny flame started with sesame oil, and passes it in front of Ganesh three times. The priest then turns and holds up the flame to the congregation. As one, the group holds their open palms to the flame and ceremoniously touches their eyelids, ritually symbolizing receiving a blessing from the god. As one, that is, except the small boy.

As the devotees reached for their blessing, the father held his son’s tiny hands in his own, raising them up for him. “Now touch your eyes,” the man instructed. The boy looked to his sister for guidance. Clearly a practiced worshipper, she demonstrated by rubbing her small fists to her face. The boy carefully copied the gesture. “Is that right?” his high voice asked, rising above the muted intonations of the crowd. His sister and father both nodded.

When the time comes again, the entire family is ready. This time, the receiving of the smoke is preempted by the worshippers tapping their temples or foreheads – an action thought to awaken the mind to the god’s presence. The children are clearly both familiar with this ritual action: both rap on their heads, out of sync with the congregation, and laugh at each other. The lamp is then raised aloft, and as the congregation’s hands rise to the altar, the boy’s hands are among them, unaided by anyone. His eyes, however, are on his sister. As her hands travel back to her eyes, receiving the blessing, so do his.

A triumphant grin covers the boy’s face at the correct, individual completion of this ritual portion. The father, his lap long since vacated, squeezes the boy’s shoulders with both hands, gently shaking the small body. The siblings touch their shoulders together and the girl pets her brother lightly on the head. Though the service only lasts for a few more minutes, the aarti ritual – where the lamp is waved first to the deity then the congregation – is repeated several more times. The boy’s gestures become more confident each time; it isn’t long before he doesn’t look at his sister at all when the bell begins to ring. His eyes are soon firmly fixed on the priest in front of the altar and the statue of Ganesh. His smile, though, continues to grow.



Pleasing the Gods: The Washing of Lord Ganesh

From a back room, a priest emerges. He is wrapped fully in a white robe with red lines around the linen edges. Across his forehead can faintly be seen three white lines; this religious forehead mark delineates his adherence to the Śaiva sect of Hinduism. The priest walks with a bit of a hunch, arms straining at his load. His hands carry a large silver bucket with a long handle; a piece of crinkled aluminum foil loosely covers the top. In the crowd of worshippers sitting in front of the statue, a father prods his inattentive son, gesturing to the bucket excitedly. The boy immediately perks up.

A second priest emerges from the sheltered altar place to receive the bucket, nodding his thanks before pulling off the foil. With the practiced ease of one who has done something thousands of times, he pours the liquid into the smaller, slightly dented vessel. The substance is thick and white and pours out unevenly – some large chunks are mixed inside of the liquid. It is thinned yogurt – a particularly auspicious gift to the gods.

The priest lifts the vessel, and its contents begin to dribble over the elephant head of Lord Ganesha. The process is repeated on the left side, where the deity’s hand clutches a large conch shell, and then on the right, where a stylized axe rests partially across Ganesh’s massive knee. Slowly, the large black granite statue becomes entirely covered, turning Ganesh pure white as the yogurt oozes down him. At this, the devotees gasp and press their palms together. In this moment, Hindus believe the deity is transformed. Suddenly, Ganesh’s features seem more expressive, the objects in his hands pop, and the whole of his being stands out against the matte gray backdrop of the altar.

This ritual is part of The Hindu Temple Society of North America’s weekly service at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York. This service is in honor of Lord Ganesha, who Hindus believe is the son of two other gods, Shiva and Parvati. At 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, devotees, some wearing traditional saris and dhotis, others wearing Western fashion – though all with bare feet – stream into the temple’s large center room and prostrate themselves in front of the center altar. The puja is about to begin, in which Ganesh, the temple’s patron deity, will be worshipped for nearly an hour in a number of rituals, including the washing of the deity with a series of liquids.

  1. Padmanabhan, the temple’s public relations officer, says the purpose of the washing is not only to clean the deity, but also to present it with substances that are particularly sacred in order that the devotees present will receive the pleased god’s blessing.

“Milk, yogurt, honey, fruit juice, coconut water…” Padmanabhan recites reverentially, ticking them off on his fingers, “these are holy things. We give them to the gods because they like it.” He goes on to describe the blessings that each of the gods and goddesses would bestow upon the devotee once they are presented with these gifts. When Ganesh is worshipped, for instance, Hindus believe that he removes the obstacles standing in the devotee’s way – whatever they may be.

Following the washing of the deity with yogurt, the priest leading the service begins running his palm over the deity, rubbing away the whiteness from Ganesha’s trunk, from the crevices of his knees and arms, from his objects and toes, from the scrolled levels of statuary that he sits upon. With quick flicks of the priest’s wrist, the yogurt falls away to the floor. This step has not been undertaken with the other sacred liquids used, and is perhaps done because this will be the thickest substance used to wash Ganesh during the service.

Once a satisfactory amount of the yogurt has been whisked away, the priest once again grasps the smaller silver vessel. This time, it will be used for water instead of yogurt. Quick, expert scooping motions rinse the vessel of the remaining liquid, and then quickly fill it with clean water from a huge tub near the altar. As with the yogurt, the water is poured first over the deity’s head, then his sides. The yogurt hides in some places, but soon Ganesh sits clean and listening and, in the eyes of the devotees, newly consecrated.