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Religion in India

Sikhism

This religion was founded in the early sixteenth century by Guru Nanak in Punjab. It is greatly influenced by Hinduism and some teachings of Islam as well. The Sikhs are renowned for their dynamism, their tolerance and their entrepreneurial spirit. They represent only 2% of the Indian population and are located mainly in the state of Punjab and in Delhi. The Golden Temple of Amritsar is the biggest Gurudwara (Sikh temple) in the country, with a beautiful and surprisingly serene atmosphere. This welcoming community offers common dining rooms for one and all in each Gurudwara, with the intention of fighting against the caste system. About 4 million Sikhs are also living abroad. There are five signs that distinguish the brotherhood of Sikhs:

  • Kesh: Long hair; they never cut their hair and also keep a beard.
  • Karha: A metal bracelet around their wrists.
  • Kirpan: A small dagger that they always carry along, to defend the poor.
  • Kangha: A comb.
  • Kachha: Underpants.

Sikh women do not wear the traditional sari but the "salwar kameez", or long tunics over pyjama pants. Note that the Sikhs are the few men not subjected to the rule of wearing helmets on two-wheelers.

Islam and the Sufi current

Muslims represent 14% of the Indian population. With 150 million Muslims, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. Predominantly following the Sunni tradition, Muslims inhabit different Indian states but are the majority in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The legacy of the Mughal Empire in North India is spectacular. In the most beautiful monuments of the country, you will admire the fine Mughal art and architecture. During the same period, Sufis also arrived in India. These Muslim mystics spread the spiritual message of Islam. Some of these leaders were buried in India and their sanctuaries are called "dargah". The best known is that of Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi. The rites performed during a pilgrimage are a mix of prayers, offerings and mystical songs that led some to a state of trance. A festival of Sufi music and arts is held annually in Rajasthan.

Introduction to Christianity

Introduced in India by the apostle Saint Thomas in South India, Christianity first developed in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The period of Christian missionaries began with St. Francis Xavier in the sixteenth century during the Portuguese presence. Then other Protestant evangelism missions arrived during the British rule. It was subsequently in the twentieth century that Christian communities appeared in the North East India. Conversion to Christianity was offered as a way to escape the caste system for the most disadvantaged, such as the untouchables and tribal populations. One of the largest charities was founded by the Christians: Mother House by Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Today the Christian community represents 2.3% of the Indian population.

Introduction to Jainism

Amongst all the mosques, churches and monasteries, have you ever noticed anything comparable to the refinement of the Jain temples? This rather discreet community is famous for its splendid temples, all carved out of marble. Their lifestyle comes close to a certain kind of asceticism. This religion, which is as old as Buddhism, has no god. The Jains are content to live trying constantly not to harm any other life form. They pay particular attention to hygiene in life. They are, for example, strictly vegetarian, and they do not drink alcohol. It is forbidden to enter a Jain temple if you have your period or if you’re wearing leather. Jains have tremendous respect for insects, being careful not to crush them by running a brush in front of their steps every time they walk. The Jain population in India is estimated at 0.4% of the total.

Introduction to Buddhism

The amazing history of Buddhism demonstrates how, ironically, it was born in India, before spreading to the rest of Asia, and then disappearing from its very country of origin. Today, only 0.8% of India’s population is of Buddhist faith. Gautama Siddhartha was born in Lumbini, in present day Nepal, in the fifth century BC. He lived a protected life in his palace until the age of 29 years. Then, when he finally went out, he discovered three great scourges of life: disease, old age, and death. Completely overwhelmed by this fact, he decided to end his comfortable lifestyle and seek a solution to this fatality. It was at the age of 35 that he attained enlightenment. He then set out on a mission to transmit these truths to his followers so that his word would be broadcast throughout the country. The cities of Bodhgaya and Sarnath are important Buddhist places of pilgrimage.

A close look at Om

Om, the soothing syllable, is present in several religions. Think of it as a kind of oriental amen. In Hinduism, Om represents the Hindu trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). In yoga and meditation, it is the symbol of the original and absolute sound that holds all the vibrations of the universe. It is also used as a suffix to mantras like "Om Mani Padme Hum" for Buddhists. In Hinduism "Om Namah Shivaya" is one of the most popular mantras.

A close look at Sadhus

The strangest character you will inevitably come across on a trip to India is the "baba". These sadhus can be defined as solitary wandering ascetics who have decided to live in denial and isolation. They usually gather in large holy cities such as Varanasi or in remote corners of the Himalayas. It is difficult to distinguish a true Hindu sadhu from a spiritual beggar. One thing is for certain, though: they wear saffron-colored clothing and their beards and hair can be very long. Several currents are represented by these sadhus. Those who pray to the god Shiva cover their bodies with ash, and wear dreadlocks to look like their favorite god. They may also have three horizontal lines drawn on their foreheads with ash.

A close look at Bindis

You quickly notice the little dot that several Indian women sport between their eyes, precisely at the locations of the 6th chakra. The bindi symbolises the mythical third eye. It exists in a lot of different forms. Traditionally it is made of red velvet, but different patterns exist nowadays, with quite fanciful things that shine to varying degrees. We find a number of other symbols like the bindi, they are called the Tilak. Often sported on the forehead, they are drawn with colored powder at the end of a Hindu prayer. Do not confuse bindis with another mark that is found on married Indian women: the red line drawn through their hair. It is a tradition that has developed over the years as a symbol of marriage. This sign represents a symbolic ritual in a traditional Hindu wedding.

An Overview of Turbans

The smile, mustache and turban are timeless attributes of the Indians! For The Sikhs, the turban is one of the five characteristic features of their religion (kesh). They fight a lot abroad for their right to wear their turbans in all circumstances. In Rajasthan, the turban is still very prevalent. These elegant turbans come in several colors and contrast with the traditional dresses of the men, which are often white. Composed of a long piece of fabric, about 8 meters long, a turban is proudly worn as a royal head dress.
Bright colors indicate different information about each occupation, religion, caste and other aspects of the wearer of the turban. It also holds symbolical importance, for instance the groom’s turban is printed with twigs of the sacred tree symbolizing love. Often during a cremation, mourners wear white turbans (white being the color of mourning). In Rajasthan, the shepherds wear a red turban while people of higher castes wear turbans covered in princely decorations. In all cases, men with turbans are often considered respectable men.

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