‘Safe journey, may your God be with you’ were the parting words of one Indian gentleman we have spoken to.
We got used to the high profile of religion in Turkey. Our first experience was in Kirklareli, where an Imam very kindly welcomed us into the mosque, explaining the symbolism on the walls and the practise of Muslims. The frequent calls to prayer and tidal rush of men accompanied us across the country.
In Indian, the birth place of four now global religions (Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) where, by law, Indians have a freedom of choice, religious practice is all around us. Red ribbons mark a sacred tree and shrines, erected in the smallest of stone hearths, are placed at seemingly random places along the road, desert and countryside. On a bigger scale there are frequently larger shrines and full sized temples in and around villages and towns. These are usually brightly decorated with incense and flowers around the deity being worshipped with plenty of places to buy these things nearby.
On the way to Ranakpur, to see the famous Jain temple, a man passing us on his motorbike guessed where we were heading but was very insistent that we should see his village’s temple. 5 km down the road he was waiting for us to arrive, eager to point out ‘his’ temple which turned out to be a couple of flags placed on a hill sized rock.
Later, another proud villager sped after us on a motorbike imploring us to rethink our hasty transit as ‘his’ temple was not to be missed. It had been quite impressive to have such a grand building in such a small village but it appeared to be of a similar structure to many we have already seen on our route across India and time was running short. We very guiltily continued on our way.
It’s not uncommon to start the waking process at 6 am with an hour of chanting which can give way to a lengthy session of ‘random’ bell ringing or drum thumping which can be followed by the call to prayer enabling many Indians to start their day with worship.
At numerous other times along our way we have been accompanied by banging and crashing as a religious service takes place. Occasionally a procession escorts a highly decorated truck that emits, from its loud speakers, volumes of thumping music. It all seems to add to the general melee of high noise level the Indians don’t appear to notice.
At the other end of the scale there are many silent almost fleeting gestures. Another moment to be noted was when our bus, on the way to Bimbetka, stopped for the conductor to leap out and purchase a garland of flowers. On passing the sacred river Narmada the bus stopped while the man placed the garland on a roadside shrine. On our return trip the bus slowed while a coconut and garland of flowers were thrown into the river demonstrating a religious side to the maniac bus drivers who invariably scream along the roads with horns blaring.
At Maheshwar, on the sacred river, we stayed for a couple of days to again visit temples. Late one afternoon we took a boat trip out towards Baneshwar temple. The oarsman wasn’t fussed about us actually landing on the tiny island but set off up river to a religious ceremony taking place at the water’s edge. Singing and playing, accompanied by setting afloat candles in tiny dishes to create a light trail as they drifted off down river, made a magical moment in the fading light.
Washing in sacred water, to cleanse both body and soul, are very much are part of the Hindu tradition. Many Hindus make at least one pilgrimage to a sacred water site in their life time. On foot, with a knap sack, often wearing something orange and sometimes with no shoes, they are a frequent and unmistakable sight, especially as we approached the sacred places. One, we came across in the middle of nowhere, having just explained that he was on foot, to our amusement, jumped on the back of a passing motorbike and sped off ahead of us.
We’ve followed the course of the Narmada crossing it several times observing shrines, religious practice and places of pilgrimage. The marble rocks on the Narmada at Bheraghat, and Pushkar’s sacred lake, that originated from a lotus petal, are two such places but none are more important than Varanasi. Situated on the Ganges Varanasi is one of India’s seven sacred cities and of major importance in the passage of life and death in Hinduism. It is here, in a ceremony on the river bank, that the cycle of rebirth can be broken releasing the person from the caste system and setting their soul free. The ‘burning ghat’, as it is known, is ablaze 24 hrs. as the public cremations take place.
Varanasi is one of three sacred cities in India where aarti takes place. Aarti is a ceremony performed by priests, where fire is sacrificed to the Goddess Ganga, and a number of other deities.