It first started with the CNI church located on the first floor of a dilapidated building in a regal neighbourhood. I was surprised to find the door locked from inside. I knocked. “How may I help you?” A muffled voice from the other side of the door asked me. I explained my visit’s purpose, even as the sister unlatched the door. I removed my shoes, out of habit, only for her to break into laughter. “You don’t have to,” she said. She led me in and asked me to have a seat.
The next stop was the Gurudwara, which roughly translates as ‘The residence of the Guru’. Aware of the practices and customs, I removed my shoes, washed my feet, dutifully covered my head with an orange scarf, walked down the hall, my hands conjoined, and knelt before the holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib. The holy book was kept on a raised platform. I sat there for a while on the woollen mattress, reciting the Gurumukhi.
Unlike my visit to the church, I received no special attention, and there were no idols or statues inside the prayer hall. I approached the sevaks, who were busy talking in hushed voices. “Well, why don’t you talk to the revered Gyaanji. He is in his room,” one of them said. I had expected the conversation to be cordial. I wanted to ask some very basic questions about the Sikh religion and hoped for some cordial answers to those questions. Instead, I was greeted with, “You have to take an appointment, betaji. Come on Sunday.” I tried telling him how my questions were very generic in nature, and that there were only half-a-dozen of them. But he would have none of it. By that time, I was pretty low, and couldn’t visit the mosque, as was the initial plan.
The next evening, I visited the Sarkhej Roza Mosque, situated on the outskirts of the city. I was asked to remove my shoes at the entrance, which I readily did. I had hassle-free access to the inner sanctum, except for a remark, “Cover your head while you are in the inner sanctum.” I was even allowed to take photographs inside the sanctum, which was pleasantly surprising.
So, there I sat and murmured all the sayings I knew – a short list, to be honest. I then made my way to the prayer hall, exploiting the liberty I was granted by taking pictures of the same, when a watchful person caught my gaze. Abdul Wasim worked at a factory making plastic cups. He asked me my purpose for the visit, which I mentioned enthusiastically. He replied, “The cleric is out for work. He’ll be here at the time of the namaz though.” He then walked me through the prayer hall, which did not have any idols, statues, or book. Merely a wall with intricate carvings, with a very noticeable hint of Indo-Islamic architecture.
There was a digital clock, displaying the time of all the important and major cities of the Middle East, and a board displaying the time of prayers. “The next namaz will be the Maghrib ki Namaz,” Wasim said. I was heading back, the sun dipping low in the horizon, when I heard a blaring voice on the loudspeaker.
The next day, I visited the neighbourhood temple, the Bhagwat Vidyapeeth, which is also a school for aspiring pandits. I removed my shoes, washed my feet, and walked down the prayer hall where students recited shlokas. Their voices strapped in unison, combined with the majestic reverberation that the enormous hall had to offer, felt transcendental.
I inquired for the Panditji, only for his assistant to inform me that he was busy doing the shringar of the Lord, after which he was supposed to do the last aarti of the day, and then edify the students before they were off to their beds. “Some other day, Priyanshu Bhai,” the assistant said. Meanwhile, the students stood up, folded their mattresses, and covered the scriptures with a silk cloth, all with military-like precision.
For very different reasons, I could not have the conversations with the religious leaders the way I had initially hoped, but I never felt out of place or unwelcome at any of the places I visited. As I bowed in front of the idol of Krishna, a thought echoed in my mind, “So many people kneel and pray and bow in reverence before their God every day. Clearly, if discussed in the right attitude, religion—more than dissecting the world and building tight, narrow walls among humans—has the power to unite.”