Religion – Pilgrimage sites and Temples

Religion: Pilgrimage Sites and Temples:

If there is one thing that you learn very quickly in India, you learn that religion is alive and well in this country of 1.1 billion. It plays an important role in the daily lives of most of its inhabitants, and Indians as a whole are known to be a superstitious bunch. There is more religious history in India than in any other country in the world. Three of the world’s major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) were born in India, and faith is certainly not waning. We saw evidence of religious beliefs and customs from the day we arrived in India, such as the sacred Mother Cow walking the street side-by-side with Sadhu (Hindu holy men), the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, the piles of flowers that were bought as offerings for the gods, the pictures of Hindu gods in most shops that were draped with garlands of flowers. Religious festivals and celebrations surprised us from our first moments in India, and we’ve seen many since. As one man said to us, “Every day is a festival in India!” And it’s not far from the truth. With all of India’s religions, every season, every month, every week has something to celebrate.

It is in the cities that you notice the never-ending festivals and religious celebrations, the rituals, the devotions, the innumerable temples. It is while biking, however, that you notice that there is a temple in every single village, no matter how small, and indeed, a temple inside of every single Hindu house! When a mountain rises up, so does a temple. The Indians obviously have a love for building temples at the top of mountains. Many of these temples have become pilgrimage sites.

Sometimes, it is easy to distinguish people of different religious faiths by their dress. Many (though certainly not all) Muslim women wear the black burka, the robe that covers everything except for the eyes. Muslim men usually wear long white robes over top of white pants, with a white cap on top. They often have long beards – even the young men. The traditional Hindu dress for women is the sari, which is a single, long length of material that is draped around the body, tucked in at the waist, and left to drape over the shoulder or the head. A short top is worn underneath it. The women sometimes cover their mouths in public (depending on the local traditions and on the woman’s marital status). Hindu men typically dress in pants and a top. The Hindus are often distinguished by the spot of paint in the middle of their forehead, which is usually not permanent, and which is usually put on during a visit to a temple. Sometimes, the women buy little stickers or fake jewels that they stick onto their forehead for special occasions. Men often dye the ends of their hair an orangish-reddish color. Christians are hardly distinguishable from the Hindus in terms of dress.

The Jain religion is an off-shoot of Hinduism, a branch that was formed in the 6th century B.C. (around the same time as Buddhism), and has several branches. One of the least strict is a branch called Sthavirakalpin. The followers of this vein believe strongly in the sanctity of life. They are strict vegetarians, of course, but they go even farther than most – they cover their mouths with a mask and walk around with brooms to sweep the ground in front of them in order to avoid accidentally killing an insect by inhaling it or walking on it. We would pass them on the road, walking in groups, and wearing all-white – long white robes, white masks, white caps to cover their hair.

Some traditions overlap, however. Muslim women, for example, wear bangles around their ankles, just as Hindu women do. Men, women, and children of both faiths wear black eye make-up, which is supposed to ward off evil spirits.

India was formerly known as Hindustan, and you can still hear some people referring to it that way today. Around 80% of India’s population is Hindu (the large Muslim regions broke away after Independence from the British in 1947, and became two separate countries, namely Pakistan and Bangladesh.). The majority of religious sites that we saw in India were Hindu, but we also visited Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian places of worship. As the religious rites, customs, beliefs, and places of worship were so very different from anything else we had before seen, we were intrigued, and thus I will try to describe some of the temples and pilgrimage sites that we visited in the lines below.

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Mathura, Hindu Pilgrimage City:

The first pilgrimage center that we visited was the town of Mathura, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It is renowned for being the place where the Hindu god Krishna, the reincarnation of Vishnu, was born and where he spent his early years. It has been a cultural and religious center for thousands of years.

The town was a colorful place, full of wildlife. Buffalo walked the streets, as did camels, monkeys, wild pigs, and men with charmed cobras. In the evening, a gathering of men sold fried food from big pots of oil on the street, while others slept on the seats of their rickshaws or on the street itself. A group of soldiers who were guarding the gate of the Hindu temple and the gods across the street from our hotel laughed at the shenanigans of the playful monkeys, who jumped from tree branch to tree branch, from rooftop to rooftop, making noises in the night and walking right up to us on the balcony. All of a sudden, a shrill, terribly cry startled everyone and sent the monkeys running. A wild pig had tried to squeeze its fat body through a skinny railing and had gotten stuck. Its urgent cries demanded attention, and five long minutes later, a heavy boot of one of the soldiers kicked it free, sending it limping away, still shrieking.

The colorful Hindu temple in the middle of the town was very large. Hindu gods and metal detectors flanked the imposing gateway. After leaving our shoes at the bottom of the staircase, we entered the temple to the sound of ringing bells, as the faithful alerted their gods that they were coming to pray. Representations of the gods lined the walls and the people prayed in front of each one or in front of their favorite ones. Some offered fuchsia or orange flower petals. It was strange for us to see gods with several arms or with monkey or elephant heads.

Because the town was a pilgrimage center, there were many Sadhu walking the streets. They intrigued me. They went barefoot and usually wore only a thin slip of material around their waists. Their signature style is their long beards and hair (often in dreadlocks), the ashes and paint on their foreheads, and their water receptacle and a bowl with which to beg. Sadhu are only men, as the spiritual quest is forbidden for women. They have given up all worldly possessions in order to pursue spiritual enlightenment. Celebrated for different physical and spiritual feats, the Sadhu can stay standing on one leg for years, or with one arm in the air. Practices such as these are considered essential to attain Enlightenment and are sometimes associated with other powers, like levitation or the ability to disappear and reappear at will.

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Galta – Hindu Temple Complex:

Visiting Galta, Temple of the Sun God, about 10 km. from Jaipur in Rajasthan, was a definite highlight of our stay in India. Before reaching the complex, we biked through a path in the woods, passing a couple of large and impressive Hindu temples, then came upon a jeep of Indians that were feeding bananas to the monkeys – hundreds of them! We watched for a while, as the black-faced ones chased the red-butt ones away, and as the cows joined in. We saw hundreds of monkeys in the temples, as well – they come where the food is, eating both food that people offer them and stealing food that is left for the gods.

We visited the temple complex during the last day of a month-long Hindu festival, and there were thousands upon thousands of people, mostly women. All along the road up to the temple complex, and along the road to the top of the mountain towards the Sun Temple, people spread out cloths on the grounds and laid out a mixture of seeds and nuts, to sell as offerings for the gods. Some had cobras or pythons, some had 5-legged cows, some yelled for money as we walked by. Many Sadhu, meditating or begging, had come to the site.

There were four main temples within the complex, and several lesser ones. We entered barefoot, up a long staircase and through a large gate into a courtyard. People left bags of food for the gods, mostly rice, bananas, lentils, seeds, and nuts. They offered flower petals, lit candles and incense sticks inside of bananas, and tied colored ribbons for prayer.

Many people come to the basins for a ritual cleansing. There was a men’s basin and a women’s basin, although the women’s basin was a least five times larger and the segregation was not strict. Men and army soldiers looked on from the steps.

We came on just the right day. Apparently, if we had come the following day, it would have been very silent.

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Hindu Pilgrimage Center of Champaner (Pavagadh) in Gujarat:

We visited another Hindu pilgrimage center on the day that the tsunami struck Southeast Asia and India – a Full Moon Day. Though the tidal waves hit the opposite coast of India, we felt as though we were being struck by a tidal wave of people at the pilgrimage site. Approximately 200,000 people visited the site at the top of the mountain that day.

We made the pilgrimage with Soni and Sunil, the sister and brother of our Gujarati family in Godhra. We took a jeep partway up the highest mountain in Gujarat, where we were deposited behind a long line of jeeps and thousand of pilgrims making their way upward. The jeep ride bears some explanation. Up to 40 people can crowd into one jeep that would normally hold nine. Everyone squishes together, men hang out the sides, standing on a railing, and the driver is left with a miniscule section of windshield through which to see. Another man walks around the sides of the moving vehicle, collecting money as the jeep all the while.

We climbed about 1500 stairs, several hours up and about 1 ½ hrs. down. All along the paved path were shops and wooden stalls that sold offerings for the gods: coconuts, flowers, sweets, sugar. You could also find lemon juice, wine (though illegal in Gujarat!), toys, music cassettes, posters and images of the gods. It was like a huge commercial center snaking its way up the mountain.
Because we went on a Full Moon Day, there was an especially large crowd (Full Moon Days are especially important). At certain points, guards controlled the pedestrian traffic, which can only be described as “bumper-to-bumper traffic.” They blew their whistles and moved the crowds along. The crowds were suffocating – you couldn’t move a single step one way or another or escape, even if you wanted to.

Small temples lined the route upwards, including Buddhist temples, where Hindus also made offerings. People broke open coconuts by dashing them against the stone of the temple. The juice was intended for the gods; the whole pieces were eaten. The statues of the gods were covered with flowers, coconut juice, and paint, which ran in streams down the statues. As we neared the top, we saw that there were tens upon tens of thousands of people waiting on stairs for the final ascent. It was a 4 or 5 hour wait at this point just the reach the temple, only a couple of hundred stairs up. No one was moving; we had come to a stand-still. It was crowded as it can only be at an Indian pilgrimage site! We finally reached the top, and the Temple wasn’t very large, in fact. Offerings were plentiful, though. A pile of coconuts behind the temple reached 15 ft. high. A dot of paint on the forehead signified that you had completed the pilgrimage.

When someone prays ardently for something and wants to have more chance of they prayer being listened to, they do a special “puja.” We saw one such man, who made his way up the mountain in the following fashion: he prostrated himself on a cloth laid out on the ground, while family members spread orange paint on him and collected donations. He then got up, moved two paces forwards to a second cloth, and started the process again. He never touched the ground (off the cloth); it was a continuous progression upwards. It took us 2 ½ hours, walking at a brisk pace, to reach the bottom of the 4-hour line at the top. I don’t know how long it took him, but by the time we saw him on our way down the mountain hours later, he needed the support of two strong men to pick him up and place him in his next position. I imagine he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day, and the process didn’t allow one moment of rest under the hot sun.

Perhaps the most impressive thing was the sheer number of people…religion is alive and well in India!

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Pushkar, “The Holy Town”:

Known as “the Holy Town,” the small town of Pushkar has several hundred temples, both large and small (the smaller ones might be only a tiny “room” big enough for a small statue). It is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, and many Sadhus frequent the town. It is on the edge of the Rajasthani desert, and is a charming town – one of my favorites. It is strictly vegetarian for religious reasons, but they make an incredible variety of vegetarian dishes, even proposing omelettes without eggs!

According to legend, Pushkar’s holy lake was created when Brahma, the creator of the Universe, dropped a lotus on the spot while searching for an appropriate location to perform “yagua,” a holy ritual. The town now has about 500 temples dedicated to various Hindu deities. Ancient temples are rare, however, as the Muslim Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed many, and they had to be rebuilt. The most famous temple is the Temple of Brahma, which is one of the only temples in the world dedicated to Brahma. Though it is not very big, hundreds of worshippers came while we were there, all bringing food and flowers, and ringing the bell to wake up their god. The Temple was not an enclosed building, just a courtyard with a gate, an open platform, and a statue of Brahma. Two white marble elephants stood in cages: Lord K- and Lord Indra. One large 3-story temple, at the entrance to the city, was decorated with colorful monkey gods. Another one had hundreds of statues on its cone-like roof. It looked like white frosting on a cake. But most of the temples were quite small.

There are also many bathing ghats by the lake, where pilgrims bathe in the sacred water, which is said to bestow salvation. Whole families bathe at a time, from baby up to grandma and grandpa. 600,000 bathed in the small lake on the last sacred day of the Full Moon Festival! A Temple of the Cow was built near one of the ghats. Birds flock around the lake, attracted by the offerings of seeds and nuts.

One interesting thing that I learned about the Hindu religion: the Hindu gods also reincarnate into other beings. There are 330 million Hindu gods!!!!!

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Dargah Khwaja Sahib – Muslim pilgrimage center in Ajmer, Rajasthan:

Claiming over 11% of the population, Muslims form the largest religious minority in the country. With 138 million followers, India has the third largest Islamic population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan.
We saw several mosques and tombs in India, but the most impressive was the Dargah Khwaja Sahib, which is the landmark of the city of Ajmer and is the holiest Muslim shrine in India. Millions of pilgrims from India and abroad come to pay homage at the shrine, which is the resting place of the great Sufi saint, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. It seemed as if millions were there on the day that we visited. Thousands upon thousands, anyway. They come by the millions during the six-day celebration of the death anniversary of Khwaja.

Inside the courtyard are two mosques, both constructed by Mogul Emperors. The one built of white marble was constructed by Shah Jahan, the Emperor who built the Taj Mahal. Then there’s the tomb of the saint itself, built in the early 13th-century and standing in the center of the second courtyard. It is approached through a large gate with silver doors and is surrounded by a silver railing and marble screen. The grave lies in a marble-domed chamber. The courtyard, as well as the Dargah Bazaar is full of people selling ritual offerings, such as rose petals, perfume, incense, and coverlets for the grave. The Indian Muslims had adopted many of the Hindu practices, noticeably of buying religious offerings. We didn’t see any sign of this in the Middle East, but it was prevalent in India. I imagine that the flowers, perfume, and incense, which are normally offered up to the gods in the Hindu temples, were offered to Allah in the mosques. Though the saint’s tomb is made partially of marble, it has a distinctive Indian style with its neon signs and lights.

For the Muslims of South Asia, the shrine is considered next to Mecca and Medina in importance. There were so many people there that we could hardly walk. When the gong sounded, everyone turned to pray, facing the shrine. For a long while, people remained like this, then everyone sat down simultaneously, while a group approached the shrine and another carried a sacred rug around it. A group of people followed the procession of the rug, touching it, then kissing their fingers and touching them to their lips and forehead. When this was over, it was time for the Muslim prayer, and people turned from the shrine to face Mecca. It looked as if scores of people were camping out in the courtyard – as if they had settled in for a long stay.

The atmosphere was mystical and the scene was from a different world, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Even the shrines that seemed so typical of Southeast Asia seemed so un-Muslim-like, with their bright colors and lights and offerings. The whole atmosphere was unforgettable, highly charged with mysticism and strong religious beliefs.

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The Jain Temple (“Red Temple”) in Ajmer, Rajasthan:

Jainism is an off-shoot of Hinduism, but the number of its followers is relatively small (only 3 million compared to 800 million Hindus). Its temples are indistinguishable from Hindu temples on the exterior, but its extravagant interior decoration provides a remarkable contrast with the austere principals of Jainism. This comes from the Jain conception of beauty.

The Red Temple in Ajmer was really cool. Built in 1865 of red sandstone, the two-story hall next to it houses a representation of the Golden City, a fascinating series of gold-plated wooden figures from Jain mythology. The figures illustrate the great life events: Conception, Birth, Enlightenment, and Salvation. The entire hall is richly adorned with gold, silver, glass mosaic, and precious stones. So richly adorned, in fact, that the first effect it produces is one of great shock and surprise at all the sparkle and glitter. The mirrors all around intensify the glittery effect. The Golden City has golden temples, tropical trees, roadways covered by a succession of chariots pulled by elephants, tigers, and horses. Sadhu holy men sit meditating in temples. From the ceiling hang ancient boats (like Nordic ships) with elephant or bird mascots, golden balls suspended from the bottom. The whole thing looks so Disney-like, that if Disney hasn’t actually been inspired by the Golden City, they should definitely come to pay a visit!

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Hindu gods and beliefs:

The Hindus believe in three main gods – the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer. But because each of these gods has reincarnated into other gods and because each of these other gods have reincarnated into still other gods, it means that in reality, there are countless Hindu gods! The images of many have several arms or legs, each holding different objects, and they often sit atop different animals. Two of the most popular gods, Humayun and Ganesh, are the “monkey god” and the “elephant god,” with bodies of these respective animals. Another popular god is Shiva, the Sadhu with a blue body who comes from the Himalayas and has a sacred cobra and a river coming out of his dreadlocks, among other things.

We saw a dancer tell the story of Hindu gods and their loves and jealousies through English narrative and Sanskrit chants. She focused on the stories of Parvati and Shiva and Krishna.

The story of Parvati, an Indian princess, says that she goes against her father’s wishes by marrying a poor Sadhu holy man (Shiva)instead of a rich nobleman. When she hears years later of a big party at the palace, to which they were not invited, she transforms into a goddess of war in a blind rage. Her several arms hold fierce weapons, she sits upon a tiger, and she spits blood, her long tongue red with bloodlust. “Turned on, as only Shiva could be,” he acquiesces in her desire to see her father. She returns in her normal form to the palace, where her father insults her husband: “He has only a loincloth to cover his body, is covered in ash, carries around a bowl to beg, and is thin as a corpse.” (description of a holy man). Fire flashes from her eyes, and she retorts, “Well, if he is only a corpse, than I am a corpse, too, and I am proud to defend his honor.” She throws herself upon the fire and bursts into flames.

Holding her charred body on his shoulders and overcome by rage and loss, Shiva turns into the god of destruction (“The Destroyer”). He is only calmed down in his torrent of destruction by being promised that he would one day meet up again with his wife. He must wait another 1000 years, before he finally meets her and recognizes her in a reincarnated state.

The last dance was to the story of Krishna, the god who is known to have had over 1000 wives and many lovers. His greatest love was with Radha, wife of another, who despairs because of his many affairs. She describes her passion as he lays his head on her breast and caresses her. “Come, take this jeweled girdle from my flowing hips which protects the cave of my pleasure.” She begs him to dress her so that he can undress her once again.

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The temples, tombs, and pilgrimage sites described above represent just a sampling of the religious sites that we saw in India. India is a fascinating country, and its religious observances just as fascinating. The religious fervor is evident. If one thing can be said about India, it can be said that it is a highly religious land highly charged with mysticism, strong beliefs, and superstition. With 330 million Hindu gods, Allah, the Christian God, and others, many gods watch over this land!