Sacred India (Lonely Planet Pictorial Series)by Lonely Planet, William Dalrymple (Other), Sarina Singh, Meera Govil, Sue Mitra
From a humble postal worker performing puja for the safe passage of a parcel to people who believe they are gods, religion suffuses every aspect of daily life in India. Sacred India explores the presence of the divine in the mundane, through breathtaking photography and the equally intriguing stories of the people involved. Sacred India is the perfect book for anyone who has ever travelled to India and wondered at the worship of holy cows or the discipline of Ramadan fasters. It is also perfect for those who may have never travelled anywhere, but who like to explore the different paths of the inner world. Above all, it is a book that will delight the eye and enrich the soul.
The birthplace of both Hinduism and Buddhism, India also boasts the world's largest Islamic population and one of the world's oldest Jewish communities. Tribal religions, Jainism and the esoterica of Zoroastrianism add to the seemingly bewildering array of faiths jostling for space. That India has mostly been able to contain the inevitable frictions is a miracle in itself. Seeking out the thoughts of a young bride at a Hindu wedding, a Sikh woman on a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple at Amritsar, or the impressions of Western visitors to the holy site of Pushkar, Sacred India is a lavish affirmation of the strength we derive from our spirituality - whatever its form.
Contents: Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Christianity, Gurus & Ashrams, Jainism, Judaism, Tribal Religions and Zoroastrianism.
'Don't be fooled by the dazzling coffee-table format of this extravaganza or by the fact that it comes from one of the travel industry's major publishing houses. Thephotography is stunning, to be sure, but it is complemented by a perceptive, inclusive text ... The book offers gorgeous photographs of sacred buildings, such as the unforgettable night shot of the Sikh Golden Temple, its image reflected on the Pool of Nectar. Even more impressive are the representations of the "tangibles" of Indian religions: prayer books, shrines (including one of a taxi), figurines, foods, ritual clothing, holy books and body decorations. Sacred India is a feast for the mind as well as the eyes.'
'This masterful evocation of the country's spiritual heritage, combined with the sensuously photographed images, creates a kind of literary nirvana that can be surpassed only by a journey to India itself.'
-Conde Nast Traveler
Read an Excerpt
Hinduism is possibly the only 'religion' named after a place the Indus River. Traces of Hinduism go back three thousand years and it is the largest religion in Asia today. Some 80 per cent of India's population, about 740 million people, are Hindus.
Hinduism defies attempts to define it. Some would argue that it is more an association of religions. It has no founder, central authority or hierarchy. It is not a proselytising religion. You can't be converted; to be a Hindu you must be born one. The very orthodox maintain that only a person born in India of Hindu parents can truly claim to be Hindu.
To outsiders Hinduism often appears a complex mix of contradictory beliefs and multiple gods. Although beliefs and practices vary widely from region to region, there are several unifying factors. These include samsara (common beliefs in reincarnation), karma (conduct or action), dharma (appropriate behaviour for one's station in life) and the caste system.
Caste is the basic social structure of Hindu society. Hindus are born into one of four varnas, or castes: Brahmin (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaisya (merchants) and Sudra (peasants). These are subdivided into myriad hierarchical jati, or groups of 'families'. Beneath the four main castes are the Dalits, formerly known as Untouchables. Caste oversees and polices dharma the doing of one's duty according to one's own caste, and in relation to other castes. Communal welfare, not individual rights, is the goal.
Essentially, Hindus believe in Brahman. Brahman is eternal,uncreated and infinite; everything that exists emanates from Brahman and will ultimately return to it. The multitude of gods and goddesses are merely manifestations knowable aspects of this formless phenomenon. The deity worshipped by any one individual is often a matter of personal choice or of tradition at a local or caste level. The Hindu pantheon is said, according to the scriptures, to comprise 330 million devas, or gods. Theoretically, no beliefs or forms of worship are rejected by Hinduism, as all are aspects of Brahman. Brahman has three main representations or trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Brahma only plays an active role during the creation of the universe. The rest of the time he is in meditation and is therefore regarded as an aloof figure, unlike Shiva and Vishnu. His consort is Saraswati, goddess of learning, and his vehicle is a swan. He is sometimes shown sitting on a lotus that rises from Vishnu's navel, symbolising the interdependence of the gods. He is generally depicted with four (crowned and bearded) heads, each turned towards one of the four points of the compass. One of Brahma's days equates to 8640 million human years. Following one hundred Brahma years, the universe, and Brahma himself, dissolves, only to manifest again.
Shiva, the destroyer, is the agent of death and destruction without which growth and rebirth could not take place. He is represented with either one or five faces, and four arms which may hold fire, a drum, a horn or a trident, or take the positions of protection or action. He is often surrounded by an arch of flame, for example, as Nataraja, Shiva of the Cosmic Dance, and sometimes he has a third eye. His matted hair is said to carry Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges, in it.
Shiva's consort is Parvati, the beautiful. Parvati is the daughter of the Himalaya and is considered the perfect wife. She is also a form of the mother goddess Devi, whose body is India and who also appears as Durga, the terrible, and Kali, the fiercest of the gods.
New deities continue to emerge, for example Santoshi Mata, a figure created in a Bollywood film. Claimed to descend from Shiva and Parvati, she has been absorbed into the pantheon as a bona fide goddess. Women appeal to her for success in the modern urban world: help with improving a husband's flagging career, for example, or the acquisition of a refrigerator or radio.
An elderly Bengali lady, when asked what religion meant to her, said, simply but emphatically: Shiva. 'Other gods and goddesses are important but Shiva is the most important. Shiva is the root of everything: construction, destruction and preservation. Shiva is happy in a second and angry in a second. He is easily pleased. You don't have to spend a lot of money to please Shiva,' she added with a smile.
Arvind Singh Mewar describes himself as a 'trustee of the state of Udaipur on behalf of Eklingji'. Eklingji is a form of Shiva. Every Monday (the auspicious day of Shiva), Arvind Singh Mewar pays homage to his personal family deity. The Maharana is the seventy-sixth custodian of the 1400-year-old House of Udaipur which, according to Hindu mythology, traces its origin to the Sun. 'We have always regarded ourselves as transitory regents, not divine rulers, as representatives of the people in front of God.'
Durga is the goddess even the gods worship. She is Shakti, the power and strength of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The gods, it is said, were impotent to quell a powerful demon in the guise of a black water-buffalo. When their combined wrath condensed, it became female the goddess Durga. To her each of the gods gave his most powerful weapon. She decapitated the buffalo-demon and slew the devil within.
Durga created Kali, the hideous goddess who sprang fully formed from Durga's forehead. Kali has four arms that hold a bloody sword, dangle a head by its scalp, confer blessings and exhort the followers not to be afraid. To incur the wrath of Kali is a fearsome mistake.
Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer, is associated with 'right action'. He behaves as a lawful, devout Hindu, and protects and sustains all that is good in the world. In some ways Vishnu is similar to Christ he is considered the redeemer of humanity. He sits on a couch made from the coils of the serpent-king Ananta and in his hands he holds a conch shell and a discus. Vishnu's vehicle is the half-man, half-eagle Garuda. Vishnu's consort is the beautiful Lakshmi, who came from the sea and is the goddess of wealth, prosperity, honour and love. She is often represented sitting on a lotus flower.
Vishnu has had nine incarnations, including Rama, Krishna and Gat tama Buddha, and it is said that he will come again.
The Ramayana is the story of Rama's battle with the demon-king Ravana. Rama's consort is Sita, and his brother Lakshmana and servant Hanuman, the monkey god, are also widely worshipped:
Krishna's story is told in the Mahabharata, the tale that incorporates the Bhagavad Gita, a guide to caste law in the form of a dialogue. Krishna's mischievous nature, his peasant background and his legendary exploits with the gopis (milkmaids) have made him one of the most popular gods. His consorts are Radha (the head of the gopis), Rukmani and Satyabhama. Krishna is often blue and plays a flute.
Ganesh is the elephant-headed god of prosperity and wisdom, and is probably the most popular of all the gods. He is the son of Shiva and Parvati, and his vehicle is a rat.
According to one legend, Ganesh, the god of good beginnings, had an inauspicious start. Born to Parvati in Shiva's absence, Ganesh grew up without knowing his father. One day as he stood guard while his mother bathed, Shiva returned and asked to be let into Parvati's presence. Ganesh stood his ground and refused to budge. Enraged, Shiva cut off Ganesh's head, only to discover that he had killed his own son. He resolved to replace Ganesh's head with the head of the first live creature that he came across. This happened to be an elephant and Ganesh received the elephant's head. Parvati lamented that no one would worship Ganesh as he had lost all his godlike features. Shiva then decreed that no prayers would begin without first invoking Ganesh and so it has been since.
Kumutali, a district of Calcutta, is devoted to producing clay statues of Hindu gods for families and businesses to celebrate religious festivals and occasions.
These statues are moulded in clay, left to dry for a few hours and then painted and dressed in colourful material; the more expensive ones are clothed in embroidered silk. They take roughly between three and seven days to make, depending on the size and detail. The bigger, more elaborate ones are mainly bought by large organisations such as colleges and entertainment clubs. Most Hindu families together with singers and musicians buy statues of Saraswati for puja (worship) during Basant Panchami Festival (Spring Festival). The statues are taken home for puja, after which they are immersed in the sacred Ganges River together with offerings, where they disintegrate.
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