Sufi Shrine Diversity

With so much of the world's conflict stemming from religion, this Sufi shrine has created a space where all faiths meet and worship side by side. The following piece is an audio story about how Nizamuddin shrine in New Delhi creates a welcoming space for believers of all faiths and tourist to enjoy Qwalli music and build a spiritual connection to their higher power.


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


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.”


Houses of Worship: The Unintended Victims of Demonetization

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

New Delhi -- Late on a cool spring night in Delhi, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world make their way to the Nizamuddin Dargah, a shrine which houses the body of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, one the most famous Sufi saints. The visitors sit on the floor in the large open area outside the mausoleum itself to hear the qawwalis, or Sufi devotional music.

First starts the tabla, a small drum, then other musicians join in with the harmonium and with their voices. Soon, the crowd is swaying to the music, captivated. To show their appreciation for the music and commitment to the saint some devotees walk up to the musicians and begin dropping rupees in front of them. Some are timid, with only a couple of bills to spare; others have a stack of bills and make an elaborate show of bestowing them onto the musicians.

In the two or so hours they spend playing these devotional songs, the qawwali musicians will bring in piles and piles of bills -- sometimes as much as 20,000 rupees.

In addition to listening to devotional music, worshipers lay garlands of roses and sweet candies around the tombs of the saints. Some purchase shawls to lay on the tombs in a thick tapestry of multi-colored cloth.

To support the shrine’s upkeep and charitable activities, visitors also leave cash on the tombs or in locked wooden boxes marked “Donations” in Hindi and Urdu.

 

70 Percent Drop

But donations -- to the singers or the shrine -- aren’t what they used to be. Religious organizations across India have seen significant decreases in contributions since the government’s sudden announcement last November that the two largest rupee bills, the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, were no longer valid. (In dollar terms, these bills are worth just under $8 and just under $16, respectively.)

Syed Hammad Nizami, a descendant of the saint and one of the shrine’s caretakers, estimates that donations to the shrine have fallen by 70 percent since November. His family has run the shrine for hundreds of years and relies entirely on cash offerings for its maintenance and operations, including charitable programs and workers’ salaries. The shrine distributes free food twice a day and runs a madrasa that serves 150 students.

When donations plummeted, the Nizami family had to find funds elsewhere to avoid scaling back these programs.

“At that time it was very hard for two, three months, so we organized wealth from our savings,” Syed says. They have seen a moderate recovery since, but cash flows are still far below their usual levels.

“Worship is not changed,” he says. “People are coming continuously. But people [don’t] have the money to contribute.”

 

Fighting Corruption and Crime

In November of 2016, the Modi government rolled out its plan for demonetization and remonetization. Overnight, the government took all 500 and 1000 rupee notes out of circulation and introduced new 500 and 2000 bills. Limits on exchange and withdrawal resulted in a severe cash crunch nationwide.

The government announced the move to attack and weaken a growing counterfeit market linked to terrorism and corruption, as well as a largely untaxed economy conducted in cash. “Demonetization is truly the first major frontal assault on black money,” said Arvind Panagariya, the Vice-Chairman of the government’s policy think-tank, the Niti Aayog, in an interview with India’s Economic Times. “It sends a loud and clear signal that the prime minister is serious about combating corruption, and there is not going to be any compromise on this front.”

Some also speculate that the announcement aimed to sway public opinion ahead of upcoming elections. But its surprise implementation -- with less than four hours notice -- upended the economy.

People scrambled to get their hands on usable bills, and businesses across all industries were hit as spending fell.

 

Effects Felt Across Religions

The Nizamuddin shrine isn’t the only religious institution feeling the crunch.

Five miles away at the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques, donation boxes are prominently displayed. But, these have yielded disappointing returns for several months. Tariq Syed Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi and brother of the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, says the mosque has cut operating expenses in response to the drop in contribution levels. “I would say, as of now, the position is a little bit improving,” says Bukhari. “But from November until January, [the drop] was more than 50 percent.”

But it hasn’t cut down on its charitable activities, Bukhari said. The mosque has continued feeding families in need, but to do so it had to negotiate to receive food on credit. The mosque feeds a couple dozen families every month and expects that soon donations will improve enough that it can repay the loans. Its most important charitable activity, however, is providing iftar, the fast-breaking meal, to over 100 people daily during the holy month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan begins in the last week of May. “We still have time,” says Bukhari. “Things will ease out by that time.”

 

Some Spared

Other groups have been luckier. Rushi Rathashriji, a Jain nun in Ahmedabad, says that demonetization didn’t impact her even though Jain nuns rely entirely on donations for their livelihood. “Everybody was giving just the usual. Nothing changed,” she says.

Jains are required to give one fourth of their income to charity as part of their religious practice -- and wealthier Jains give more. There are many causes for them to choose from, including cleaning the Ganges, supporting impoverished citizens, and paying for the care of animals. Rathashriji guesses that this predetermination is responsible for her stable income level. “Since people have already decided what percentage to give, they made up for it two or three or four weeks later when they had the cash.”

Many of the larger transactions, usually given to Jain nuns after weekly public sermons, are done by wire and are thus less likely to be affected by the cash crunch. As Jains are typically wealthier members of Indian society, this may also protect them somewhat from economic hardships of demonetization.

 

A Gift for Some

Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram, views demonetization as a gift. “It was not at all a point of any suffering or any pain,” he says.

His ashram is located in Vrindavan, a town in the northern region of Uttar Pradesh. The town is over a hundred miles from Delhi and has a much smaller economy than the financial hub, India’s second richest city. He points out that this may be part of the reason that his town is less opposed to demonetization. Since the restrictions limit withdrawals to 4000 rupees a week, a sum that he says many poor Indians “will never see” in that period, he argues those below the poverty line are unaffected.

Instead, he believes that the backlash was created by corrupt officials and media hype. Ordinary people, he says, took demonetization as “a good intent for first step towards cleaning the system. It's not going to clean in one day, you know.”

As evidence, he points to the recent election results in Uttar Pradesh, which overwhelmingly elected the BJP ruling party responsible for demonetization’s implementation. If the policy had harmed most citizens, he says, the results would have been the opposite.

Goswami supports the government’s current reforms. One of his major gripes is the lack of taxpaying citizens: just over 2 percent of India’s population pays income taxes, according to the Indian government’s own figures. The burden disproportionately falls on working class Indians whose salaries are directly taxed.

“That wrong has to be corrected,” Goswami says. “And some harsh measures have to be taken care of. And now, because of this political stability, maybe more harsh economic reforms will come.“

 

An Uncertain Future

While this may seem like a needed reform for some leaders, others continue to feel the burden of demonetization. At the Jama Masjid, Bukhari says employee salaries have been cut, and he doesn’t know when they will recover. Approximately 25 people are employed at Jama Masjid, including the imams, ticket sellers and cleaning staff.

While the mosque does charge small sums for permission to take photos or tickets to enter the tower overlooking the grounds, it does not come close to meeting the mosque’s operating expenses.
Like many houses of worship nationwide, the mosque is looking for ways to cope with the unexpected financial hardship. But according to Bukhari, religious organizations face limited options because of their public and religious nature: “You can’t put an entrance ticket on the mosque.”


The Multi-Colors of Love: Holi is not just for Hindus

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

VRINDAVAN -- On most days, the narrow streets of this sacred Indian city are teeming with all kinds of human, animal and mechanical traffic: ambling cows, barefoot pilgrims, darting motorcycles and noisy auto-rickshaws. But during the Hindu festival of Holi, all of that changes. Residents and visitors clog the thoroughfares and toss brilliant colored powders in red, pink, blue, purple, green, orange and yellow, painting everyone -- and everything in sight -- with rainbow colors.

Vrindavan is an important site for Hindus; it’s where Lord Krishna is said to have spent his childhood and the town is located on the banks of the Yamuna River, the second most sacred river in India.

Holi’s origin stories have become tied to Hinduism over time. The first day of the festival commemorates stories of familial betrayal and intrigue: the story of a boy whose father attempts to kill him for worshiping Vishnu instead of himself. The father enlists his sister to burn the boy in a bonfire, but the plan backfires, killing the sister instead of the boy. On Holi, many communities burn a bonfire at dusk to commemorate the triumph of good over evil.

Throughout the festival, people toss colors at one another and spray colored dyes, representing the union between the god Krishna and his consort Radha. Krishna, self-conscious of his dark blue skin, painted Radha’s fair skin to make himself feel less embarrassed. Says Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram in Vrindavan, “In the colors of Holi, you know, you have fair skin, I have dark skin, [...] this skin or that skin." On Holi, he adds, “the color is one.”

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Holi in Vrindavan

Festivities at the ashram are unique; here, a troupe of young men performs the story of Radha and Krishna in the Phoolonwali Holi, or flower Holi. In elaborate costumes and face paint, the young men reenact the story of Radha and Krishna’s love, including their wedding, after which they are covered in a mountain of marigold, jasmine and rose petals. After the couple emerges, the audience is encouraged to toss handfuls of the petals themselves, culminating in a colorful, fragrant and unifying celebration.

John Cort, a religion scholar from Denison University, says that Holi is essentially “a neighborhood event in which everyone in a community is expected to participate.” Despite the strong presence of Hindu mythology in the festival’s origins, he says, “it is a joyous springtime festival, the celebration of which traditionally has not been tied to any one religious community.”

It is not at all unusual for people of other faiths to participate in Holi celebrations. “It is a part and parcel of our memories,” said Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi. There is even ample evidence that Mughal rulers like Akhbar and Jahangir celebrated Holi in their royal courts.

While India’s Muslim population is the third largest in the world, Muslims are still a minority in the country. However, says Bukhari, they don’t feel singled out: “We are proud of the multicultural society of India, we are very proud to be Indians, and as far as Partition is concerned, we are Indians by choice, not by chance.”He continues, “You can see that the majority of the Indians whether they are Hindu or Muslims or Sikhs or Christians, they want to live together in peace. And that will -- that will win.”

That sentiment is echoed by J.P. Anklesaria, a retired Army Brigadier and a member of Ahmedabad’s Parsi community. He belongs to the largest community of Parsis, ethnic Iranians who have lived in India for centuries and practice Zoroastrianism. The once-strong group has seen its numbers dwindle; Indian Parsis number only about 60,000 today, according the BBC.

Despite their challenges, they’ve become one of the most powerful and influential minority groups in the country. Its members include figures such as Ratan Tata, the head of Tata Industries, and Cyrus Poonawalla, who started the world’s largest vaccine producer, Serum Industries of India.

When asked whether his community faces persecution, he said: ”Never. Never. For the simple reason that we respect those other religions, whatever it is, Islam, Christianity, Jews, or Jains, or whatever. [...] It's simple. Why should you disrespect it? Why should you say that my religion is the greatest or your religion is this or that?”

When asked specifically about whether Zoroastrians play Holi, Anklesaria replied, “Of course we do. By all means. There is no restriction on that!”

Even small, distinct communities like the Jews of Ahmedabad, who number only 140, embrace Holi as part their culture. Benson Enoch Argwarker, a member of the Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad, says he participates by putting colors on others’ faces. This extends to other holidays, too. He continues, “If it is Christmas, I’ll bring cake, and enjoy. If it is Divali, our house will be full of sweet meats.” He stresses, though, that it’s not a religious participation: “That’s part of the enjoyment – culturally.”

Some religious traditions find it more challenging to integrate Holi with their beliefs. For example, many Holi practices, like the burning of bonfires, drinking intoxicating substances like marijuana-laced bhang, and singing obscene songs, directly contradict Jain principles and philosophy. The driving principle of Jainism is ahimsa, or nonviolence; burning a bonfire at dusk could harm insects, and saying scandalous words could offend someone.

However, as the scholar John Cort describes in his essay “‘Today I Play Holi in My City’: Jain Holi Songs from Jaipur,” some adherents have found ways to practice Holi while still maintaining their ethics. For example, the 17th-century Digambar Jain poet Chitar Tholiya wrote his Holi ki Katha as a way to explain how Jains should and should not celebrate Holi, even told a Holi origin story that aligns with and incorporates Jain philosophy and principles.

Of course India has experienced more than its share of sectarian tension throughout its history, particularly since Partition in 1947. Riots and revenge killings have taken the lives of thousands.

But despite historical tensions, which have only been exacerbated by the rise of Hindu nationalism, Indians of all faiths celebrate Holi. From Vrindavan, the birthplace of Krishna, the Goswami reminds his followers that, “What Holi does, it makes you into one color. In those multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone.”