It was the night before Christmas and believe in or not, our spiritual journey through India started with carol singing. We were in Vagamon, a pretty hill station in Kerala, and our lively young guesthouse owner has invited us along for carol singing with his football team. It's a tradition for the young team of boys who are a mix of Christian and Hindu. Kerala, nicknamed 'Gods own Country' is 20% Christian although you'd have guessed more from the number of churches dotted around the state.
We meet the carol group at around 9pm and literally sing and dance for three hours straight, knocking on homes and asking for donations. It's brilliant fun and a great chance to meet families and chat to lots of locals. At midnight, we get peckish as we're eating, we're told about a Hindu all-night festival that's taking place down the road. We cannot resist and I'm especially thrilled because my sister is visiting and our days are usually not this exciting. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Indian madness with this mix of religious traditions.
Our introduction to Hinduism
The drumming and trumpets can be heard from miles away and the flashing LED lights all over the temple feel more like a wedding than a serious Hindu festival. Five men stand in the middle of the temple playing instruments and women dressed in yellow and orange dance in a trance like state at the front of the temple. The women's eyes are shut tight, they have paint all over their faces and they are shaking bay leaves towards the statue of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, in the centre.
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all trace their roots back to India. Hinduism is a fascinating religion. I love many things about it including the colours and the all the crazy stories. Monkey Gods beheading demons with multiple snake heads, bright blue Gods riding in on crocodiles and beloved Ganesh, the elephant God. Abraham and Moses, eat your hearts out.
I especially love the sheer amount of Gods. The are no less than 330 million deities (not joking!), which basically means everyday somewhere in India, one of them is being celebrated. This makes for excellent cultural and photographic opportunities for us. Each God or deity is a representation of Brahman who is the ultimate, infinite power. I won't list them all here but the top three Gods are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma has four crowned and bearded heads, Vishnu has four arms and holds a lotus and trumpet and Shiva rides on a bull and has snakes around his neck. Seriously, what's not to love?!? In Hinduism, life is a cycle of death and rebirths. If you have led a devout and good life, you are more likely to be reborn into a higher caste and better life.
So, is it really possible to believe in so many Gods, most of whom seem so far fetched that only someone high on acid could make them up? (this is probably exactly what happened). A friend told me of an interview he watched between Ricky Gervais and a devout Christian who was questioning Gervais's atheism, and asked him why he didn't believe in God. Gervais responded by asking the Christian man why he didn't believe in the thousands of Hindu and Buddhist Gods, so what's so hard to understand about believing in just one less? I liked that a lot.
Anyway, back to our Lakshmi festival... Lakshmi is the consort (wifey) to Vishnu by the way. Here we are watching the women dance and the men play their instruments, everyone is excited to see us there so, amongst all the song and dance, we are also taking multiple selfies. We are in travel pants and flip flops and the women are all dressed in their best saris and fully made-up. About an hour and a half in, there is excitement as a man, also laced in scary paint, his eye balls bright red returns with bones which are then thrown into a fire. Everyone then lines up to be blessed and the ash from the bones wiped across their foreheads. After a few hours, the excitement has worn us down. It's two in the morning, we're exhausted from our Indian carol singing and all the blessings we've been getting from the goddess of wealth.
We've also experienced the hug of Saintly Amma, which you can read about here and the incredible rituals of death that take place at the Ganges in Varanasi. Read more here.
Our introduction to Buddhism
Bodhgaya is a strange little place, in India's Bihar state, North India. It is a grubby little town with goats, cows, dogs, chickens, pigs and naked babies running around on dusty paths with smelly sewers running either side. A sorry excuse of a water and drainage system. It is also the place where we ate the best chicken of the trip. Afghani chicken, you should all try it! Oh, also Buddha was enlightened here under a Bodhi tree.
Thousands of Buddhists from Thailand, Bhutan, Tibet, China and elsewhere worldwide make the trip here to pay there respects and pray at one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world. It is a mesh of peaceful Buddhist temples with lovely meditation areas, loud hawkers selling all sorts, narrow village alleyways, Indian rickshaws and crowdedness and restaurants selling Nutella pancakes to tourists like me. I also get to practice my Chinese with an Indian man. A surreal conversation to say the least, I did buy some scarves off him though.
We spend four days here, two for work with a local charity and two with our spiritual Buddha hats on. We do more wandering and watching than meditating and bowing. Actually, bowing is a massive understatement. People are literally flinging themselves, full plank onto the floor and dragging themselves up again. Mike spent three days doing squats (prostrations) in a Korean monastery once and swears it's the most painful experience of his life. I guess people in the zone are so focused they don't feel the pain.
It's all very interesting and the orange, maroon and yellow robes all bowing against the backdrop of white from the temples is a great sight.
Our introduction to Jainism
This is one I know very little about but we'd read about the 'off the beaten track' Jain pilgrimage nearby and I was eager to go. It involved a 2am start, 9km hike up the side of a mountain, 9km around the top visiting the temples and 9km hike down again.
It was pretty steep going up but there were 70 year old Grandmas doing it so we tried to put on a brave face and not complain too much. Jain devotees climb Parasnath Hill because this is the place where the tombs of 20 of their 24 Gods are. Devotees all walk barefooted with thick socks so that they don't have to keep taking their shoes off to visit the temples. The idea is to visit all 20, walk around each, say a prayer and onto the next. It's quite a process and Mike and I are happy we don't actually have the obligation to visit each tomb.
We reach the top in darkness at around 5.30am. Mikey is busy taking some poncey photos of stars and temples whilst I'm freezing. I'm still swearing at Michael under my breath as the sun begins its ascent and we experience one of the most magical sunrises. We've seen some great sunrises this trip, over Myanmar's ancient temples in Bagan, on train journeys across Siberia and across China's Yuanyang rice terraces. This one was particularly special though. It was just us and some locals making chai, such a treat after the cold winds of the night. The light was a brilliant orange and the sun looked painted as it rose up from the thick layer of cloud beneath us, slowly illuminating the temples a top the mountain.
Our spiritual selves
We've had some amazing, unforgettable exposure to spirituality in India through the activities we've done and the weddings and funerals we've seen. All are unique, interesting, thought provoking and diverse and have absolutely enriched our experiences here.
I wouldn't consider myself a spiritual person and Mike is not either. However, we both love the culture, heritage and traditions that we've been brought up with and understand the importance of them in our lives. And yet, despite our positive interaction with our own faiths, we can't help but question religion and what it brings to people. At points, when I see thousands of people bowing thousands of times, I feel like we are the mad ones... Perhaps we are missing something obvious here. I almost envy people that have absolute and unconditional belief and faith. It brings a sense of security and meaning to a crazy, chaotic and sometimes cruel world.
One family we met with a local charity had four children, all were severely disabled. They used their disability pension from the government to build a prayer room and in it pictures of Jesus and a small pile of prayer books. When I asked about how they were coping, the mother responded by saying that, "what could she do? This is the will of God, then this is what was meant for us, this is our fate." There is reason why faith remains so central to the lives of people in poorer countries, especially those living with adversity such as this family.
Still, when I watch terribly poor families donating the very little money they have to temples and people spending hours and hours of their precious lives praying and bowing to the feet of a God, it does make me wonder. Isn't this money better spent on food and medicine? Isn't this time praying better spent going out into the world and doing good? What about a religion where the only law was to help others and be active citizens of the world. This is what humanism is trying to achieve but it's a shame that even that needs a label, an organisation, and a set of rules to work.