India is a very spiritual land, you can clearly feel that when you’re there. Indeed, four of the world’s major religious traditions trace their roots to India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.
The religion we often identify with India is Hinduism, followed by 80% of the population. This is very evident when you enter the Mc’Donalds and you notice they don’t serve their flagship beef burghers :). But it is also very obvious whenever you happen to come across a Hindu celebration or festival. This happened to me several times, but the biggest was one in Udaipur. There were processions everywhere in the city centre, with religious images, incense and scores of people.
In cities like Varanasi, Udaipur or Pushkar, there are impressive ghats (steps leading to a river), where Hindus descend to perform ritual bathing in the Ganges or other sacred river. There are also specific ‘burning ghats’, used for cremation, and then the ashes are washed away by the river. Seeing some of this ghats is for many a highlight of their visit to India.
But India is not all about Hinduism. One of the other legendary Indian religions is Sikhism, practiced by almost 30 million people mainly in the state of Punjab. I visited the ‘Mecca’ of this religion, which is called Harmandir Sahib, but better known in English as the Golden Temple. This glimmering temple is located in Amritsar, near the frontier with Pakistan. I was really impressed by this visit and spent almost all day inside the temple. Everybody is invited inside, as Sikhism is inclusive and welcomes people from all creeds and castes. No entry fee, you just have to leave your shoes to the attendants and cover your head. The complex is huge and receives thousands of pilgrims and visitors of the most diverse kinds. There are people doing whatever, from taking a nap on some rugs in the floor (which I joined, going with the flow :)) to people bathing, preparing offerings or just chatting, and of course praying. It’s like a second home for Sikhs and others.
For lunch, you need not go any farther. Sikh temples or gurdwaras have a langar (canteen), where everybody is invited to eat for free regardless of wealth, religion, race or caste. And the one at the Golden Temple has been referred to as “the world’s largest free eatery”, as it serves 80,000 people on weekdays and double on weekends (not to mention festivals). I lined up in the queue, got directed to the appropriate row, sat in the floor and the volunteers started serving vegetarian food for all. Eating here is an amazing experience. The place embodies inclusiveness and universal kindness towards all humans. Just to give you an idea of the scale, see the number of volunteers (Sikhs or not) who are washing the dishes at any random moment:
I also visited some sites of India’s second religion: Islam.
The most memorable was the Dargah Sharif of sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, in Ajmer (Rajasthan). Not a mosque, but a shrine where the grave of this revered man lies. Although Ajmer is predominantly Hindu, within perhaps 500 metres of the dargah all you see are muslims.
I couldn’t explain the energy of this place. Full of pilgrims from all over the region, the dargah is packed all day long. You really need to elbow your way in among the crowd. Just getting close to Muinuddin Chishti is a deep experience for these pilgrims. Their deep spirituality and excitement is highly contagious. They can’t wait to get into the dargah, and they sit on the floor praying. You need to go there to experience the atmosphere.