Garbha Sanskara: Parenting Begins Before Birth

By Gudrun Willcocks

When Manali Patel became pregnant, she knew she would have to give up watching Blacklist and Quantico. They were her favorite programs but the racy and occasionally, violent storylines were inappropriate for a baby she thought; particularly, one growing inside her. What if her child grew up to become a violent adult? She would never forgive herself. Patel decided to give up watching television altogether. Better safe than sorry.

Patel was not suffering from a hormone imbalance. She was practicing garbha sanskara, a sacred Hindu custom that rests on the belief that karma may be nurtured in an unborn child through divinely led actions practiced by the mother during pregnancy. Through etiquette, diet, daily activity and spiritual practice such as prayer, chanting and listening to or reading scriptures, it is believed that positive moral conduct known as “sanskar,” can be developed in a baby from the moment the child is planned.

“If the mother is happy and delightful, the baby is happy and delightful,” Patel explained on a balmy evening in March from the home she shares with her husband, husband’s parents and grandparents in the Navrangpura area of Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. “If the mother cries, the baby cries too.”

Patel has cupid’s lips, long dark hair and almond eyes. She has a “lucky gap,” between her front teeth that according to Hindu astrology denotes a creative, intelligent person with enthusiasm for life and their endeavors. As an engineer, Patel was indeed a hard-worker and often clocked 45 hours in the office and 30 hours of household chores plus work at the mandir, but as a mother she is devoted.

On the day Patel found out she was pregnant, responsibility swelled in her like a flower about to bloom and after a modest prayer “God be with me,” she devised a garbha sanskara plan that she felt was sustainable and nourishing: no television, no food to be eaten outside the home, only “cheerful thoughts,” and four hours of listening to Swaminarayan scriptures a day. She also decided that it was ok to listen to old Bollywood music but not new Bollywood music.

“Before I became pregnant, I was religious. But after I became pregnant, I was really religious,” Patel said over skype recently. Patel is a Hindu but more specifically, a member of the BAPS group within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, a popular, bhakti sect that is characterized by adherence to strict vegetarianism (no onions and garlic), no alcohol, seva or service at their communities, and a belief that through the guru followers can access God.


Lord Swaminarayan is the central figure in the Swaminarayan movement and born in 1781, he is believed by followers to be a manifestation of God; the later gurus within the movement are considered his successors. At a gold shrine the size of a large doll’s house in Patels’ home, Patel prays twice a day for 15 minutes to Lord Swaminarayan. In the morning, she repeats his name 108 times and in the evening, she practices arti, a fire ritual with a candle that is circled around images of Lord Swaminarayan and Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth successor to Swaminarayan.

When she was with child, she would cover her hands over the flame in the customary fashion and after tapping her head, would touch her tummy. The fire is an offering to deities, but the significance of the fire is to remove darkness.

"Everything is crying right now,” Patel told me on one particular sitting. “Why not teach the baby good values when it is in the womb?” she asked. “Bad things will be learnt easily when it is in this world.”

From Sanskrit, garbha sanskar means “education of the womb,” and historically, the custom can be traced back to the Vedic scriptures, the Rig Veda, which proposed a child’s mental development begins from the moment of planning for a child and that spiritual acts performed during this period until birth lead to positive “sanskar.”

Often in Hindu philosophy and mythology anecdote is used to illustrate moral ideas much like a fairytale and in one particular tale, Lord Hanuman’s mother Anjana is described as a committed devotee of Lord Shiva. During pregnancy, she eats a sanctified dessert (rice pudding) or prasad, believed to produce divine children and Lord Hanuman is born with celestial powers as an incarnation of Lord Shiva.

In India today however, the term garbha sanskara become an over-arching phrase used to denote pregnancy health and there are books, websites, blogs and YouTube channels dedicated to the how and why of the process. Mother’s may choose from mantras specifically geared towards improving sanskar, there are songs to download believed to psychologically connect with the child and some doctor’s post advice on how best to observe the ritual.

“Read and see things that make you happy,” advises the website “Communicate with your baby and perform puja and eat healthily.”

“You can shape your babies first impressions by listening to good music, visualizing, massaging gently, meditating and of course, with the help of positive thinking,” counsels

“A pregnant mother must never watch horror movies,” wrote the blogger Ajit Vadakayil.

As a Hindu, Manali believes in karma. She believes that as humans, we are open to positive and negative influence and that these polarities pollute and purify the soul and mind accordingly. If one behaves in a manner that is right or righteous, good or virtuous then, it follows that one’s state of mind or karma improves and vice versa. The same goes for an embryo, except that its karma, at least in part, is beholden to the mother.

Patel focused on the oratory aspects of garbha sanskar. “I just switched on my I-pad and started listening to Swaminaryan discourses,” she said with the ease of a Millennial. She also practiced parayan, delivering a sermon to a group.

At 7am on a Wednesday morning in March, the BAPS mandir in Shahibaug quietly shoehorned over 6000 people into the dome like space for darshan. Males and females sat facing forward, ardently waiting to watch the Mahant Swami Maharaj, the current successor to Lord Swaminaryan according to BAPS philosophy, perform morning pujas. It was a peaceful moment and the increasingly popular mandir.

At seven months pregnant, Patel delivered parayan on the scripture, bhaktchintamani to a group of eighty-something women at the Navrangpura mandir. Friends told her she wouldn’t be able to sit on the podium for that length of time comfortably, but Patel was characteristically resolute. “I said for sure I’m going to do it,” she said, and before crossing her legs, Patel patted her stomach and said to her baby “please don’t kick me and give me strength.” They were doing it together.

On October 16th, 2016, Akshar Patel was born after two days of Labor. Although, it was a difficult time, Patel saw the birthday as “a beautiful coincidence,” because it was Sharad Purnima, an auspicious day in the Hindu Calendar, and coincidentally the same day as Gunatitanand Swami, Swaminaryan’s second successor was born.According to Patel, if you want to attain enlightenment, you need to follow Gunatitanand Swami’s actions. And its the same day Patel and her husband Anand met for the first time. Though she wouldn’t say it, one can’t help but think perhaps, it is an auspicious start.

“He is very very special to me,” she said, before reminding me that garbha sanskar is not just a ritual, but a responsible manner of parenting and that science has caught up to the Vedic idea that parenting starts in the womb.

Waiting for the Messiah

Waiting for the Messiah

As India prepares for Holi, a small community of Jewish tourists and travellers celebrate Purim at the Delhi Chabad House, hosted by Rabbi Akiva and Mushka Soudry

NEW DELHI – The Hindu festival of Holi and the Jewish holiday of Purim have a few common features: a sense of play, merriment and celebration -- and, every few years, coinciding dates. Both religions’ holidays are governed by complicated lunar calendars. In 2016, the two holidays fell on the same day. And this year, they were a day apart, with Purim on March 12 and Holi on March 13.

Holi celebrates the deity Krishna’s love for the divine Radha. Purim, the deliverance of the Jews from the evil decree of an ancient Persian minister. Both are days of excess and, generally, a really good time. While India’s billion Hindus were on the brink of celebrating Holi, a tiny congregation of expat Jews observed Purim at the Chabad House in Delhi’s main bazaar.

In a hectic bazaar filled with signs in Hindi, Urdu and other Indic languages, a large Hebrew sign stands out overhead. It points down a dusty alleyway, where a bored-looking security guard sits outside a door, playing on his smartphone. Up the stairs, Rabbi Akiva Soudry, 30, careens around the room, arm in arm with a younger man, to the thumping beats of neo-Hasidic dance music.

Earlier, Soudry called the room to order for the reading of the Megillah, written, like many sacred Jewish writings, on an animal hide scroll. He rattled through the text at breakneck speed, pausing only occasionally for the beating of drums and noisemakers, blotting out the name of Haman, the villain of the story. To add to the din, a younger man regularly fired a confetti cannon that belched scraps of colored paper around the room.

As the rest of the country stocked up on colored dyes for Holi, the Soudrys - Akiva, his wife Mushka, 27, and their three small children - were hosting a free kosher meal for about 30 people. Chicken wings; chopped Israeli salad; viscous tahina; and a warm eggplant dish drenched in olive oil, stained ruby-red. As Akiva addressed the congregation, swaying backwards and forth, smoke swirled into the room from barbecues at the back, manned by local helpers. Despite the New Delhi heat, Akiva wears the traditional Hasidic male outfit: black trousers, a white shirt and a long black kaftan. His beard hangs down almost to his chest.

Purim is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. Trying to explain it, Mushka exclaims, “Purim is happiness!” She and Akiva both grew up in Israel. Their English is accented, sounding almost French at times, and as they talk, they make little asides to one another in Hebrew.

“So many times, different nations and different people tried to kill us, and to destroy the Jewish. Us,” says Akiva. “Purim is a great example of how a plan to destroy us and to kill us totally changed. Instead of killing [the Jews], they became respected. And everybody understands that the Jewish are special. This is Purim, from the bottom to very high, because of God’s miracles.” Today, more than ever before, he says, this is a time to celebrate. “Now, we are strong, we are comfortable with our Judaism everywhere in the world. Really, we are now in the Purim situation.”

IMG_8531Akiva and Mushka are members of Chabad, a Hasidic sect sometimes called Lubavitch. “Chabad” is an acronym, standing for the three Kabbalistic principles that Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of the sect, felt were key to understanding to God: Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (understanding), and Da’at (knowledge). Chabad emissaries go to every corner of the globe to set up Chabad houses -- open homes, where affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike can expect a warm reception and weekly Shabbat services. Chabad estimates that there are now over 3,500 institutions across more than 85 countries. Each is a little pocket of Judaism in some of the world’s most unexpected places.

New Delhi might be a good candidate for one of the more unlikely. Over the last few decades, most of India’s local Jews left the country for Israel, leaving just 5,000 still in the country. Akiva and Mushka minister to a carousel of Israeli backpackers and travelling Western tourists. At their Purim dinner, most people are chattering excitedly in Hebrew, between swigs of whiskey or beer. An English couple are in India to visit the “golden triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, while a set of identical twins from Canada on separate routes around the country have reconvened here in the Chabad house.

Mushka and Akiva met through a Shidduch, a matchmaking system where prospective spouses are introduced by an intermediary -- in this case, Mushka’s brother. The brother and his wife keep a Chabad house in South India -- but, before they got married, he visited the Delhi Chabad house for Shabbat, where Akiva was. Akiva brought water and pre-cut pieces of toilet paper to his room (tearing sheets from the roll is not permitted on Shabbos in some sects of Orthodox Judaism). “He liked that,” Akiva says, laughing. “So… this is the payment.” Mushka and Akiva were married soon after -- now, they have three children under the age of five.

But being in Delhi has its challenges. Moksha initially says she doesn’t like it -- later, Akiva describes her as hating it. She doesn’t correct him. They have very few local friends, maintaining only a loose connection to the very small Bene Israel community, and the difficulties of living an Orthodox life in such a foreign context are considerable. It’s costly, Akiva says. “She is paying every day. Not in money, but in hardness. She don’t have a school to send the children, she don’t have a kindergarten.” Mushka must homeschool their children, and there’s no sandbox, no slides -- not even a doctor they can trust. “We don’t have it here. Everything is on our shoulders.” Yesterday, Mushka says, her little boy cut his forehead open. “And… you pray. You don’t know what else to do.”

But Akiva says the challenges and cultural clashes make him a better person. “Before, I was very… let’s say, very easily angered … The Indians, they make me crazy in everything I have to do with them, it’s very hard. But now, I’m much more calm. I take it easy, everything. I think it changed me a lot.”

Chabad has had seven Grand Rabbis, known in Yiddish as rebbes, starting with Shneur Zalman in 1698. Its most recent, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, died in 1994. He wrote extensively - some 300 volumes of published work - and helped push Chabad to the status it has today, reviving the movement in America after the Holocaust. After his death, adherents chose not to find a new leader, instead hoping to continue the work he had begun. Mushka’s full name is Chaya Mushka, named in memory of his wife.

Akiva and Mushka believe that being in Delhi is their destiny -- ordained both by God and by the Rebbe. “This is our target and our mission in this world,” says Akiva. “We came here just for three months. And God made all the things for us to stay [for good]. So, we’re here. We can change it very easily, but it is not the right thing to do.” The role is made especially for them, he adds. Anywhere would have its challenges, Mushka offers. “But each place, you have to fight for something. And this is where God sent us.”

They still reminisce about Israel, where much of their family is -- sometimes, Akiva admits, he thinks he might be happier if he lived there all the time. “But I know that it’s not true. This is the place where I should be. And this is the only place where I will be glad and I will be happy.”

Chabad seeks to bring Judaism to Jews wherever they are in the world or in their religious practice -- those who believe, and those for whom it is first and foremost a cultural identity. Chabadniks hope that, through interaction with Shabbat services, social occasions and other Chabad activities, Jews will find solace in their religion. Chabad Houses might provide everything from classes and religious services to counselling.

Akiva and Mushka Soudry feel a great sense of responsibility to Jewish tourists who may be passing through. “The travellers are our community,” Mushka says. “We look after them.” This encompasses helping them if they get into trouble with the law or simply sharing with them in their experiences. “Everything they need, they come to us,” Akiva says. “Even if it’s a bad thing, or it’s a good thing.” His face lights up as he describes hearing those travellers’ good news - an engaged sister, for instance. “It’s very nice. People are coming to us just to share a good thing.” They use WhatsApp to keep in touch with people around the country, some of whom remain in contact long after they’ve returned home.

But there’s another reason for them to be in India. “The rebbe is saying that part of the redemption is that Jews will go all over the world, and they will be mixed up with the local people,” Akiva says. The very fact of being in India and living a Hasidic lifestyle there takes the whole country to a higher level, he adds. “It makes India a part of the Jewish mission,” Mushka says. They will sometimes go with Israeli guests and dance in public with the Torah. “It makes us feel stronger to be different,” she says. “And being in India, we all feel the specialness of being Jewish. It’s very exciting.”

That excitement may need to sustain them for some time. For, Akiva explains, “we are staying here until moshiach is coming.” Mushka nods. “Until the redemption. We’ve been waiting a long time. More than 2,000 years.” But, she says, the wait for a messiah may soon come to an end. “We are praying every day, three times a day, and we know, every Jew believes, that moshiach is going to come very, very soon. Sooner than soon.” And when that happens, she says, they won’t need to be in India any longer. “So we will be leaving very soon.”

The Rebbe’s teachings place some emphasis on the coming of moshiach -- so much so that some of his followers began to wonder if he might be that messiah himself. “In the last few years before 1994, the Rebbe said a few times, in different ways, that we are the last generation of exile, and the first generation of redemption,” Akiva explains. This has led them, among some other Chabad devotees, to believe that Rebbe is the messiah -- still alive, and coming back to save them.

Akiva and Mushka say that they remain in regular communication with him, writing letters whenever they have a question or a problem. Regular letters obviously don’t work, he says, so instead they write questions on paper and slip it inside a book of his collected letters. “We believe that the Rebbe is sending us the exact answer, for us. And according to that answer, we are acting.” The Rebbe has been able to tell them what to do in every situation, Akiva says. “He is giving us the power to do things.” Mushka falls silent, then chimes in. “Without this… I am not sure that we would be here.”

They stand together in a pool of yellow light from the Delhi streetlamps. It’s getting late -- approaching midnight. Rickshaws hurtle past the turning to the alley, while the security guard continues to text. Upstairs, the party is beginning to tip into a Hasidic version of raucousness. Women and men are separated by a wooden screen -- the men, sweating in their black and white clothes in the evening heat, hurtle round in circles, their arms on one another’s shoulders. The women have tied polyester scarves edged with metal coins around their waists. Wiggling their hips, they lipsync into a plastic tulip pulled from a stray vase, laughing until tears pool in the corners of their eyes. Non-dancers lean against the window-frame, drinking cheap whiskey from plastic shot glasses and smoking cigarette after cigarette.

Tonight belongs to Purim, and this tiny expat community. The isolation does nothing to detract from their joy, Akiva says. “It makes us feel Jewish. Lonely between so many Indians, but still happy, still family, still loving one another, and still wanting to be in peace with all the world. This makes us feel Jewish.”

Sikh Fashion Designer Committed to Reviving Punjabi Culture

Video by Ana Singh

NEW DELHI — Sikh Fashion designer Harinder Singh recounts a trip to  Italy in 2002 with his wife where he experienced the hateful jeers of school children who spotted him in a white turban. Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what would become the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept — a clothing brand called 1469, named in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev, has expanded into a major company with international reach and five stores in New Delhi, the Indian capital, and Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.


Article by Nicole Einbinder

NEW DELHI — Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

This article was published on Narratively here:

Ahmedabad’s Parsis Fight to Bring Back the Vultures

Ahmedabad’s tiny Zoroastrian community has a plan to restore vultures to the area, to help with their traditional funerary practices

AHMEDABAD –  With its nine species of vultures all under threat of extinction, India is the middle of something of a “vulture crisis.” By the end of 2016, there were only an estimated 999 of the birds left in the western state of Gujarat, according to the Gujarat Ecological Educational Research Foundation.

With vultures down to a countable number, even a few accidental deaths are worrying. One small contributor to vulture mortality is the annual festival of  Uttarayan, a time when tens of thousands of kites are set aloft in a day of fun, devotion and sport. The festival, held in January, is symbolic – the kites represent the gods awakening from their winter slumber – but is also deadly for many birds.  Kite enthusiasts cover their strings in powdered glass, so they’ll be sharp enough to slash through others’ during mid-air “kite fights.”

Like so many of the the kites, many of the vultures that get in the way will never fly again.

India’s vulture population has been decimated by decades of being poisoned by the drug diclofenac, often given to cows as an anti-inflammatory. As beef is banned for human consumption in much of India, the cows’ carcasses are usually left to the vultures. In these high concentrations, the drug is lethal to the birds. Despite a 2006 diclofenac ban, three vulture species are on the brink of extinction.


Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria

The vulture crisis has had particularly challenging consequences for the country’s tiny Zoroastrian community, also known as Parsis. While Hindus burn their dead and Muslims bury them, Zoroastrians maintain a unique practice, known as Dokhmenashini or “sky burial.”  The dead are placed on so-called Towers of Silence, squat cylindrical buildings that look like grain silos, where their corpses are picked dry by vultures and other birds of prey, until nothing but the bones remain. These are dissolved in quicklime and leech into the soil.

“The basic philosophy is charity,” said Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria. “Once the soul has departed, the mortal remains are of no use to anybody – so let it be of use to another living being.” Now retired, he is a leader in Ahmedabad’s Parsi community.

Just 30 years ago, there were over 80 million vultures in India – more than enough to take care of the funerary needs of the country’s 60,000 Parsis. Today, though, the number of vultures nationwide has fallen into the thousands. Other birds, like ibises, will do the job, Anklesaria says, but they are no match for vultures, who can strip a body down in a matter of hours.

“If a vulture weighs 30 kilos or 20 kilos, at any given time it can eat up to 40 kilos,” Anklesaria said, as he sat with the local priest Vistasp Dastur in the mortuary room next to the Towers. “It can eat so much it can hardly walk. So, if you have five or seven of such birds… one body will be finished in a few hours.”

Without vultures, bodies take far longer to be disposed of, which creates both a religious and public health issue. To try to solve this, many Zoroastrian communities, including Ahmedabad’s, have installed solar collectors, which help the sun dry out the body faster. These will only work, however, in warm, clear weather.

Anklesaria, sporting a large white moustache, describes himself as a hardcore carnivore, starting each day with four or five eggs. He drives a square white car with the word ‘ARMY’ emblazoned on its windshield.

He has a plan, and, when he describes it, speaks and moves with military efficiency. Rather than letting Uttarayan contribute in its own small way to vulture decline, he hopes to take in half a dozen of the inevitably injured birds after next year’s festival and keep them in semi-captivity near the Towers of Silence. There’s fundraising still to do, but he’s optimistic.

As Ahmedabad’s Zoroastrian community barely numbers 1,500, the dead won’t be enough to feed the birds. Usually, he says, only about two Parsis die each month – the rest of the time, the birds will have to be fed with meat, funded by the local community.

He isn’t the first to come up with such an idea. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Parsi leaders in Mumbai, home to India’s largest Parsi community, were planning on building two large aviaries around their Towers of Silence that would house 76 vultures each.

Sheltering the birds is only one part of that plan. Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence sit atop a sandy hill in a neighborhood called Jashoda Nagar on the outskirts of town. The most commonly used tower was built in 1929; the second, now defunct tower, dates from 1843. At the edge of the area is a third, reserved for children who die before their Navjote, an induction ceremony into the Parsi community, or for adults who die “unnaturally” – through suicide, in childbirth or while menstruating. On a tour around the towers, Anklesaria strides through the area confidently, but steers clear of that third structure.

One of Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence

Anklesaria hopes to turn the scrubby lot into a public park. Already, trees are being planted and man-made lakes dug into the sand. Peacocks flap about the Towers and the purple bougainvillea flowers are in full bloom. Wealthier Parsis subsidize low-cost housing in the area for poorer Zoroastrians. Anklesaria hopes they will come to see the area not as a barren wasteland, but a tranquil recreation spot.

More importantly, though, he wants it to be fit for avian habitation. “The purpose of having such a big area,” Ankelasaria says, gesturing proudly at the property, “is so that the birds will come back.”

The vultures’ demise has also seen a decline in sky burials. Many more secular Parsis are instead choosing to be cremated, like the majority of Indians. For more traditional Parsis, this is a horrifying development. Fire is a sacred element to Zoroastrians, and the vessel through which worshippers experience the divine presence of Ahura Mazda, the Uncreated Spirit, the god of good and truth in Zoroastrianism. To place a corpse, seen as the height of ritual impurity, onto a pyre would be the ultimate sacrilege.

While Ankelasaria, who is married to a Christian woman, is non-judgmental about those who favor cremation, he expresses a clear preference for sky burial when his time comes. “Of course I will,” he says, squinting at the Tower in the late afternoon sun.

Now in his sixties, that day is hopefully a long way off. Far more worrying is the likelihood Ahmedabad’s Parsis might soon die out altogether. Ankelasaria estimates that they may have less than 50 years left. Birth rates are low, and dropping, and many young Zoroastrians are put off by the religion’s esoteric rules and regulations, which prohibit women from marrying outside of the faith.As the number of vultures dips lower and lower, so too does the number of Zoroastrians – and it’s hard to know which flame will be extinguished first.

Featured Image Photo Credit:© Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons



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.”