During our first full day in Delhi, Kristin and I got to experience a few of the different religions that are widely practiced in India. Our first stop was at a Sikh Temple. Sikhism originated in Punjab, a province that was in British-ruled India until India’s independence in 1947. Now, it is a region in northwest India.
At the Temple, we took off our shoes and put on a head covering. I had never before covered my hair for religious observance before that day. I’ve heard and read countless debates about the practice of women covering their hair, and whether it symbolizes oppression or respect; but doing it there, at the Sikh Temple, for the first time, felt normal and routine. Standing beside all of the other women with their hair covered as well, I felt unified with them, and I felt comfortable while in a place so far and different from home.
Sikhs pray to the Book of 10 Gurus; they treat it with extreme respect and care. During prayer, the book is swaddled in a blanket like a baby. Sikhs typically pray throughout the entire day, everyday; they bathe outside in the Temple’s large bath. Sikh men follow the 5 K’s: bracelet, dagger, shorts, turban, and comb. In Hindi, these items all start with the letter K. Men must carry or wear these items at all times.
Next, we went to a Hindu Temple, which was very beautiful. Not one spot of the Temple lacked color. Unlike Sikhs, who pray to a book, Hindus pray to deities, or multiple gods and goddesses. A few of their idols are Ganesha, the elephant, which represents good luck; Laskshmi, the woman, who represents wealth; Brahma, the man with four hands, who is the creator; Vishnu, the blue-colored man, also with four hands, who is the preserver; and Shiva, a man with a third eye, who is the destroyer. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are part of the Hindu deity triumvirate, the most popular of the Hindu gods. But, those are just to name a few; Hindus believe in 33 million gods and goddesses. Again, the Hindu Temple was beautiful. Each god and goddess was presented in a different room, and elaborately decorated; they were covered in jewels, fabrics and paints. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures in the Hindu Temple.
After the Hindu Temple, we went to Jama Masjid– a Muslim Mosque, the largest one in India. There, we had to purchase robes to completely cover ourselves. The Mosque courtyard was extremely large and open. Unlike the Sikh and Hindu Temples which have many smaller rooms within them, the Mosque was just one large room that extended horizontally the entire length of the courtyard. Its architecture is very similar to the Taj Mahal.
The actual Mosque structure lay off to the right once you entered, and in the center was a bath where little children played. It was twenty minutes until prayer time, and women are not allowed in the prayer room during prayer. But because it wasn’t prayer time just yet, our tour guide brought us in; it was a wide open space with a carpet, a high ceiling, and pillars with words from the Quran written on them. Men started coming in to pray, so we exited respectfully.
Growing up in Westchester County in New York, I knew Christians and Jews. I was familiar with Hinduism and Islam, but I never had the opportunity to actually see a Mosque or a Hindu Temple. And I was very ignorantly unaware of Sikhism and Jainism, another religious branch of Hinduism. I’m grateful that I got to experience these places of worship that I had previously known very little about.
Watching people come together to pray is both moving and awkward; I was unsure what to do with myself. I felt as if I would violate peoples’ privacy by taking pictures of their prayer. As I walked through the mosque and the temples, people stared; but I didn’t know what kind of stare it was: were they mad that I was invading their sacred space and turning it into a tourist site? Were they grateful that foreigners were taking an interest? Or was it just a purely objective stare- their observing my appearance, and my foreign face, as I was theirs? Because of the language barrier, no words were spoken. But I smiled at those I passed by, and they smiled back. When speech isn’t an option, a smile is the most universal language there is.