Covering Religion: Still Moments and Moving Memories

The following presentation is a combination of photographs taken by Sylvia Kang and Ana Singh. The descriptions are taken from the daily dispatches compiled by the students during the eleven-day trip. 

Many scholars and believers argue that religion as a term and concept in India is a British construct. In some sense that disconnect persists today. Of the thousands of Indian universities, only a handful have religion departments.

This information would seem to suggest that religion is somehow absent from India or perhaps all-pervasive. We found that our western conception of religion could be found everywhere – from the Sikh symbols woven into the fabrics of cloths at the 1469 shop at Connaught Place to the remains of murti idols submerged in the waters of the Ganges. In India, religion could be felt in all domains of life.

Not only was religion embedded in all aspects of public life, but many religious sites had multiple layers of religious identity. While we read about unfolding religious conflict at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, we witnessed signs of peaceful syncretism at the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists tied threads of wishes on the outer walls of the Sufi tombs.

As photographers, we attempted to capture how religion often served as silent yet visible guide in the daily lives of the people we were fortunate to meet with on this once in a life time trip.

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On route to Nizamuddin Auliya

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 1: NEW DELHI After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick dinner, we started our religious exploration with a visit to one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines, Nizamuddin Auliya for an evening of sacred song, known as the qawwali. If we expected a narrow look at Islamic practice, we were surprised by how diverse the crowd and the ritual turned out to be. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17

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We were joined by 29-year old Syed Bilal Nizami (center), a caretaker of the Sufi shrine. When we asked him how the qawwali has changed over the years, he said it has become more and more popular with people of all faiths. “When people pray here, their prayers are answered,” he said with confidence. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17. PHOTO CAPTION Syed Bilal Nizami (center) at Nizamuddin Auliya.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 2: Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We met Imams at the Jama Masjid, washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

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Jama Masjid.

Photo by Ana Singh

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LEADERSHIP OVER THE GENERATIONS: The leadership of the Jama Masjid has been in this family for over 300 years. According to Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, it’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18. Photo Caption -
Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, photographed with his nephew, the next Grand Iman.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Young boys wait on a elevated platform at Jama Masjid for a midday prayer to begin.

Photo by Ana Singh

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SIS GANGJ GURUDWARA: The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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CAREER ADVICE: Geshe Dorji Damdul (photographed above), the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,”

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 3: After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. -Elizabeth VanMetre, MS'17

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PERFORMANCE: The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile-Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 4: VRINDAVAN- Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. -Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

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A young child plays in the leftover flower petals of the play

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 5: In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.-Gudrun Wilcocks, MS'17

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UNDERSTANDING HOLI: In the multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone,” said Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj in his explanation of Holi. Maharaj is the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan and photographed with Professor Yogi Trivedi (Left) and Ari Goldman (right).

Photo by Ana Singh

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In the aftermath of Holi

Photo by Ana Singh

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Holi celebrated in the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Playing Holi outside the ashram

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 6: RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.-Natasha Frost, MS'17

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Two women participate in an intimate aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

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ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: Haridwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. -Natasha Frost, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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A Believer at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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An aarti ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 7: Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.-Nicole Einbender, MS'17

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Shiva representation in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 8: Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the Sun Temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan. - Andrea Januta, MS'17

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Group Photo at the Sun Temple

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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PRACTICING COMPASSION: “Any being can reach enlightenment. An insect can reach enlightenment, ” said Maiti Jratha Suriji, a Jain nun (photographed with her sister). The two sisters 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.-David Klein, MS '17

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 9: AHMEDABAD- 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. -David Klein, MS '17

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Jama Masjid Mosque in Ahmedabad

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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AN UNCERTAIN FATE: The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. 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 (Photographed above). 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 -David Klein, MS '17.

Photo by Ana Singh

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A man practices puja in Ahmedabad

Photo by Ana Singh

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An Intimate Dinner with a Jain Family

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 10: Saturday was our last full day in India. After a morning panel with Indian journalists, newspaper editors and media entrepreneurs at our hotel in Ahmedabad, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.- Cole Pennington, MS'18

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Indian Journalists discuss how they cover religion in their reporting

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 11: We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.- Pia Peterson, M'S 17

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Believers raise their bible at the high Anglican Dalit Church

Photo by Ana Singh


Dancing With the Gods: A Conversation with Two Masters of Kathak Dance

Dancing with the Gods from Elizabeth VanMetre on Vimeo.

Dancing With the Gods: A conversation with Kathak dancers Maulik Shah and Ishira Parikh. Video by ELizabeth VanMetre and Thea Piltzecker

 

Kathak is an ancient form of classical dance born in the temple and palace courtyards of Northern India.

 

It might be the beat that seems to stay with you long after the drums stop playing or the twirling movements that continue to trace patterns in the air long after the dancers pause, but there is something spiritual about Kathak dance even today.

 

We had a chance to interview two prominent kathak dancers from Ahmadabad, India in their studio. They reflect on the connection between dance and religion in India, while sharing their personal journey as partners in dance and life. Ishira Parikh and Maulik Shah have been teaching dance for over 20 years.

 

“Indian classical dance is supposed to connect you, to make a direct connection with God,” Parikh explains.

While the dance is supposed to bring you closer to the divine, Shah says that it doesn’t happen every time. When it does though, he takes a pause and remembers to pray.

“If I’m doing this,” Shah says reaching his hand out diagonal from his nose, “[God is] there.”

Both dancers say they have had experienced the presence of God while performing. But it only happens sometime Parikh says. “And you cherish those moments,” she adds.


Stairway to Nowhere: Urban Development and Vrindravan’s Sacred Ghats

By Thea Piltzecker

VRINDRAVAN—Mornings at the Yamuna riverbank are crowded affairs; people come to the water to wash, pray, or travel on one of the brightly colored rowboats punting along the shore. But coming to the water means something different than it used to: people walk down a set of stone steps, then across a stretch of mud and sand to meet the river where it flows. The Yamuna has receded severely in recent years, creating a narrow land mass that some see as a real estate opportunity.

Ghats are staircases leading to the water’s edge; in India and elsewhere in South Asia, pilgrims use these steps to pray and bathe. Vrindravan’s ghats are pilgrimage sites, and are important for both religious and secular life. The government has proposed an “expansion, renovation and beautification” project of the riverbank, starting with Kesi Ghat. (Kesi Ghat is revered as the place where the god Krishna bathed after killing the demon Kesi.)

Concrete ghats will replace the old stone stairs and will run along the newly narrowed path of the river. Other proposals include skyscrapers and what the developer is calling the world’s tallest Hindu temple—in fact, this “temple-skyscraper” is currently under construction. The new temple, Vrindravan Chandrodaya Mandir, is part of complex of ISKCON buildings. At 70 stories, it is said to be the tallest and one of the most expensive temples in the world, at a cost of roughly $3 billion US dollars, according to the Indian Economic Times.

The construction plans have been met with opposition from historic conservationists, ecologists, and the Ministry of Environment, which says that no new structures can be built within 200 meters of the riverbank. New structures on the riverbed itself would be both unstable—built on silt—and illegal. That legal protection, however, “has been violated time and time again,” said Jack Hawley, professor of religion at Barnard College. Illegal construction “is now just a part of life in Vrindravan,” he concluded.

Environmental groups like Friends of Vrindravan are concerned that more construction will compound the Yamuna’s high pollution levels. Rather than encouraging riverbank commerce, they contend, the government should focus on purifying the water itself. The city is already straining to provide clean water for its 63,000 inhabitants.

From a political perspective, ecological cleanup plans are a quagmire: expensive, time-consuming, and never quite finished. In the late 1990s, the national government began—but never completed—the Yamuna Action Plan. The project tapered off and the river languished while Uttar Pradesh became one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

In his first term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his Ganga cleanup program a priority, with mixed results. Much attention was paid to his appointment of Sushri Uma Bharti, as the cabinet minister for water resources. Bharti was seen by her opposition to be acting as a political partisan first, and a water conservator second. But incremental improvements in the water quality has emboldened Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who used the Ganga project as a talking point in their recent sweep of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Given the logistical challenges of ecological improvements, economic revitalization plans may seem more politically appealing. Modi touted his riverbank cleanup in his hometown of Ahmedabad as “one of the most innovative projects in the world,” but critics say that the process effectively broke the city off from the Sabarmati river, for better or worse. Now a concrete barrier stands high above the river, turning the area into something closer to an industrial canal. A carefully manicured park perches atop the concrete, and real estate prices are climbing. There are no rowboats in the water, and, at least downtown, it is impossible to get to the river’s edge to walk, sunbathe or pray.

Waterfront development is nothing new in urban planning circles; perceived economic progress often hinges on a “development hub” close to a body of water. But the context of the sacred Yamuna—in particular, the ghats—complicates developers’ plans.

Hawley said that, on the surface, the new ghat plan “has all the sanction of history” because of the stairs’ long association with the sacred Yamuna. But he said that the call to come to the new and improved ghats is less appealing, even to religious Hindus. “No one will go in, because of the pollution,” he said. Hawley worries that that combination of commerce and pollution will fundamentally alter the sacred nature of the river.

Looking out at the river from his ashram, Srivatsa Gowswami agreed. The guru is a longtime environmental activist and founder of Friends of Vrindravan, and he sees the construction as a tear in the fabric of Indian society.

“The economic community has lost their focus,” he said. Unfortunately, he continued, this shift in priorities means “the disaster is Vrindravan.”


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.

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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 babycenter.in. “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 speakingtree.in.

“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.


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.

 

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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.”