I woke up this morning around 6 AM. I couldn't fall back to sleep, so I decided to practice yoga and read while waiting for everyone to rise. By 8 AM most of the family was up, so I joined them in the living room. Maser was planning a big day of adventure for Jessy and I. We ate parothi (basically potato pancakes with onion) for breakfast and then prepared everything we needed for the day. Around 10 AM Maser called up his cab-driving friend, who was going to drive us to our destinations all day. Once his friend arrived, Maser, Girpri, Jessy and I made our way out the door — ready for our first adventure.
After about an hour-long drive we arrived at our first destination, the UNESCO World Heritage Site Qutb Minar. One of Delhi's most spectacular sights, the ruins of Qutb Minar date from the onset of Islamic rule in India. In 1192 AD, Muhammad Ghori from Afghanistan defeated Prithviraj Chauhan, a Hindu and Rajput ruler, and left his slave Qutbuddin Aibak, to establish the Qutb Minar, which was completed by his successor Iltumish. The Qutb Minar, constructed with red sandstone, marble, lime mortar and rubble masonry, is the tallest brick minaret in the world, with a height of 72.5 metres (237.8 ft). It contains 379 stairs to reach the top, and the diameter of the base is 14.32 m while it is about 2.75 m on the top.
Before 1981, the general public could climb to the top of Qutub Minar by climbing up the seven-storey, narrow staircase. However, on 4 December 1981 an accident occurred when an electricity cut plunged the tower's staircase into darkness. Around 45 people were killed in the stampede that followed the electricity failure. Most of the victims were children because, before 1981, school children were allowed free access to historical monuments on Fridays, and many school groups were taking advantage of this. Subsequently, public access has been forbidden. Forbidding the public from climbing the minar can be further justified when you look at it from a distance. The tall structure has developed a serious tilt since its construction and now looks like the leaning tower of Delhi. Forty years ago Maser had climbed up the 379 stairs to the top. He was telling us that from there one could see for miles in every direction.
The minar is surrounded by several other ancient and medieval structures and ruins, collectively known as the Qutb complex. Aibak demolished around 27 Hindu and Jain temples and built a mosque (known as Quwwat-Ul-Islam or Might of Islam) using the remains. The result is an intriguing blend of Hindu and Islamic elements. Not only is the Qutb complex a beautiful place to wander, but it is fascinating to see the political and religious historical developments of the time through the adaptations of its architecture.
Once we were finished seeing the sights at the Qubt complex, we located our cab driver and were off to our next destination. The taxis here are great, they're mostly old classic Ambassadors covered in cloth on the inside and dented as hell on the outside, none of the dials work and their drivers make it their personal mission to sneak through the smallest of gaps. Our taxi was in better physical condition than most, yet our drivers style of driving was no different. I know there must be some kind of system from this crazy traffic but I'm lost as to what it is. It seems the larger you are the more might you have on the road, meaning buses can do what ever they want and cyclists must all have a death wish!
After weaving in and out of traffic for half an hour, we arrived at our next destination. ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) is a religious movement that also identifies itself as The Hare Krishna Movement. ISKCON belongs to the Gaudiya-Vaishnava sampradaya, a monotheistic tradition within the Vedic and Hindu cultural traditions.
It is based on the Bhagavad-gita, the spiritual teachings spoken by Lord Krishna. According to many writings, this sacred text is over 5,000 years old, and it documents the conversation between Lord Krishna and his close friend and disciple, Arjuna. (Hare Krishna monks can also be seen roaming the streets in Canada wearing orange coloured cloth, open to talk with anyone interested. Many of us pass judgement before ever even trying to understand their way of life. Their lifestyle may seem strange to us, but they too are just finding their own path.)
The Temple structure was grand and we needed to walk up the stairs to reach the main temple (the height is because the temple is situated on a hill called Hare Krishna Hill). The prime deities Radha and Krishna are so wonderful to visit. The Krishna’s idol here is made of black colored stone. On one side of the main deity are the idols of Sri Sri Gaura Nitai along with Srila Prabhupada and his spiritual master Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati. And on the other side very beautiful deities in the form of Ram Parivaar are installed. The main prayer hall in front of the deities has a very peaceful energy and environment and the devotees sit for some time and soak themselves into the positive energy of the temple.
One door from the main prayer hall took us towards a gallery which has beautiful and large portraits showing different leelas and life events of Lord Krishna. It also has a series of portraits of Radha and Krishna from many ISKCON Temples from all across the world. When we came out of the main temple, we found some restaurants and also a shop selling religious literature and music CDs. The temple was very interesting, but not my favourite sight of the day.
Our next stop was the Baha'i House of Worship. We were close to the Temple already so we decided to walk there. The streets of Delhi are so crowded and I must admit I did feel a bit on edge at first, but after a while they felt more welcoming and hassle free than I had originally anticipated. I have never seen so many people doing so many different things all at the same time. Its beautifully organized chaos like I have never seen. Just walking down the street requires all your concentration until you get used to stepping over dogs, people, half eaten samosas and the litter that is everywhere. There are crowded tall buildings either side which look like they are held together with the residents sheer will power and cables stretch overhead in every direction, rickshaw's carrying 10-12 children on their way to and from school go past while men sit on their haunches in the street chewing pan and spitting into the gutters.
Just before entering the site, Maser bought us some fried hari merch (green chili peppers). I didn't realize what I was eating at first, but after one bite I quickly found out. The snack was extremely hot. My eyes began to water and I started sweating perfusively. I certainly won't eat the entire fried hari merch in one bite next time!
Upon entering the grounds of the temple, I felt a soothing feeling of calmness melt over me. The actual name of Lotus temple is Baha’i House of Worship and it is popularly known as Lotus temple owing to its design like a big white lotus whose petals are made up of white concrete and clad in white Greek marble panels. I would like to share little more info about this exquisite elegant structure Lotus temple which I got to know from the free booklet distributed by volunteers to the tourists:
The Baha'i House of Worship of the Indian sub-continent is the latest of seven edifices raised in different parts of the world, each with its distinctive design, each inviting peoples of all religions and races to worship the Creator of the Universe and to express the love between God and man.
The common characteristics of Baha'i Houses of Worship is that they are all nine-sided. Nine is the highest digit and symbolizes comprehensive oneness and unity. The design of the building in New Delhi is inspired by the lotus, the exquisitely beautiful flower and symbol of purity that is inseparably associated with religion in India. The House of Worship is surrounded by nine large pools of water that not only enhance the beauty of the building but also play a significant role in the natural cooling system of the prayer hall. Surrounding the edifice in the future, there will be institutions for humanitarian and social services such as schools and libraries for spreading education, hospitals to serve the ailing, orphanages for neglected children, homes for the destitute and aged.
The Baha'i Faith is an independent world religion, divine in origin, all-embracing in scope, broad in its outlook, scientific in method, humanitarian in its principles and dynamic in the influence it exerts on the hearts and minds of people, it upholds the unity of God, recognizes the unity of His Prophets and inculcates the principles of oneness and the wholeness of the entire human race.
The main Baha'i Principles are:
- The oneness of Mankind
- Independent investigation of Truth
- The common foundation of all religions
- The essential harmony of Science and Religion
- The equality of Men and Women
- Elimination of Prejudice of all kinds
- Universal Compulsory Education
- Universal Peace
“It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” -Baha'u'llah
The Baha'i religion continues to actively promote their righteous values and vision of oneness globally. The history of the Baha'i faith is also quite inspiring. Many tried to violently suppress the Truths the founders were spreading. Yet the teachings are still available because of non-violent persistence from faithful disciples. If you are keen on learning more, I recommend doing an interweb search for the history of the Baha'i Faith.
I personally believe that all religions are connected to the same Ultimate Reality and lead people toward a common goal. This is true even though the various religions make exclusive claims about themselves, sometimes asserting the uniqueness and incomparability of their God or ultimate principle. Nevertheless, in affirming the existence of Ultimate Reality or an ultimate principle, I assume that it can be only one, regardless of the various beliefs which people hold about it — be it described as one or many, impersonal or personal, absolute emptiness or absolute Being, and regardless of the name by which it is called.
Similarly, the goals of spiritual practice for each religion, while not identical, have much in common. Since the ideals imbued in human nature are universal, we may expect to find that people who have reached the goal, be it enlightenment, salvation, sanctification, self-realization, or liberation, indeed manifest the highest human qualities: love, compassion, wisdom, purity, courage, patience, righteousness, strength of character, calmness of mind, and inner joy. Regardless of religious belief, people who have realized such a goal inevitably impress others by their personal virtue. Ultimately, these goals converge and become one, inasmuch as they express the best of our common humanity. As the great philosopher Rumi says ” Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are 1000 ways to kneel and kiss the Earth”
After soaking in every second at the Baha'i House of Worship, we made our way to the India Gate. Originally, a statue of George V, Emperor of India stood under the now vacant canopy in front of the India Gate, but it was moved to Coronation Park together with a number of other British Raj-era statues. Following India's independence, the India Gate became the site of the Indian Army's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, known as Amar Jawan Jyoti (“the flame of the immortal soldier”). Under the gate there is a flame which constantly remains lit. The sight was beautiful. Unfortunately, we were not able to make our way too close to the monument because it was blocked off for a special event.
Our time at the India Gate seemed to spur my celebrity status in India. During our visit there I was approached by multiple groups of people for pictures. Ever since, I have been continuously asked if I can be in a “photo snap” with locals. Typically I am totally fine with being photographed, but sometimes there becomes an abundance of people circling you asking for a snap and it can be a little overwhelming. I guess these moments are here to help teach me patience.
Following the India Gate, we voyaged to our final destination of the day. This place is much closer to Jessy's roots.
“You will like the Sikh temple we’re about to visit,” Maser, Jessy's uncle, explained after our intense first hours in New Delhi, India. “Gurudwara Bangla Sahib has a great vibe to it.”
We perked up. We needed more good vibes after the hectic sights of India we’d gulped in the past few days. “Just one thing,” Maser cautioned. “You must remove your shoes and cover your head for the remainder of the visit.”
We yanked off our shoes and splooshed through the purifying pool at the temple’s entrance. Chilly!
“Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. The Sikh religion began in the 15th century– over 500 years ago – in Nankana Sahib, which is now in Punjab state of Pakistan, where Guru Nanak Dev were born. Amazingly, he travelled throughout the Asian continent during his lifetime, from Russia to Mecca and Tibet to Sri Lanka preaching his message of equality. Most of the Sikh historical places span between both the Punjabs though (which was divided in half during partition of India)” explained Maser as we placed our shoes into indoor, guarded cubbies. “It was founded by Guru Nanak Dev, and Sikhs rejected the caste system of Hindus. They believe that there is one God, and that all people are equal: men… women… different races and religions… everyone.”
“Sikh temples are called Gurdwaras,” Maser explained, “meaning, “Doorway to God.” See that book at the centre of this room? That is a copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, which is the holy text of Sikhs, containing the teachings of their ten Gurus. Although it appears as if Sikhs worship a book, the objective is to realize God/Guru from the lessons in it while practicing meditation (simran/remembrance) and service (seva – to humanity/needy).”
Entering the main prayer hall, I found an immediately uplifting and soothing feeling. Musicians playing traditional Sikh devotional music filled the room with a beautiful sublime song. Many sat and prayed on rugs on the floor, while others bowed and placed offerings before a raised platform containing the Guru Granth Sahib. I sat cross-legged and felt the positivity of the atmosphere, being careful not to point my feet towards nor turn my back on the Guru Granth. During a worship service, women and men each sit on a different side of the room.
We emerged from the inner temple (in which no photos were allowed, but I managed to sneak one in as we were leaving) to the beautiful outer pool and arch-filled walkway. “At a Sikh temple,” Maser instructed, “you must always walk in a clockwise fashion, not anti-clockwise.” We obliged, and peeked sternly into the green waters to check if the fat orange carp were swimming the correct way. Most were.
“See that tall orange flagpole next to the main temple?” Maser asked. “That is the Nishan Sahib, which is present in nearly every Sikh Gurdwara. This symbol helps people locate the temple. Just as this pole helps identify a Sikh place of worship, there are “The 5 Ks” or five signs that identify a Sikh person. These are: Long, uncut hair (wrapped by men in a turban), a wooden comb, an iron bracelet, specific undergarments, and a small dagger. You may also know a Sikh because the men have the last name Singh.”
“As you exit the temple,” Maser explained, a man will scoop a sweet porridge with butter into your hand. You don’t have to take it, but if you do, please eat it or give it to me instead of throwing it out. Be polite.” Prashad is a small sweet which is a sanctified offering served to every person who enters the Gurdwara. The prashad was actually quite tasty, I could have had seconds!
I stepped out of the Sikh temple and back onto the dirty, noisy streets of New Delhi with a feeling of lightness and joy. As I traveled on in India, I encountered many Sikhs, all of whom were very approachable and kind to a stranger like me. I related how much I had enjoyed learning a bit about their traditions in visiting a Gurdwara, and without exception, they were happy to further the connection. If you have the opportunity, a visit to a Sikh temple is a rich travel experience.
We finally decided made our way back to our humble abode.To end a long day, Jessy and I walked to the bazaar to pick up some food. While there, a family of five insisted we come in to learn more punjabi language and have conversations over some chai. We were grateful for the offer, but far too exhausted after a long day of sight seeing to stay up much later.
It is this kind of hospitality that India really has going for it, and it’s people’s keen attitude to learning and sharing cultures with others. Most of them love to talk to someone new to find out about our world and what kinds of jobs we do back home. I don’t think you’d find many people in Toronto who would invite two unknown Indian travellers into their home and offer them refreshments, and an opportunity to share stories.
Delhi is mostly complete madness, especially if you’ve never been to anything quite like it. So many people are wary and uneasy about the kinds of locals they will meet, and I have to admit I was too before I went. Once you realize that almost all of them are honest people trying to make an honest living, with a humble interest in swapping cultural experiences, you will adore their ways as much as I do.