Religion. This morning I woke up around 6am with call to prayer. This has become somewhat of a Hyderabadi ritual for me since I’m a light sleeper, it’s Ramadan, and there’s a speaker almost directly across from my window broadcasting the salah, or worship from a nearby Mosque. My first night in India this scared the bejeezus out of me, I thought a siren was going off. Since then, the 5 times a day call to prayer has become a comforting sound, the way the chiming of the grandfather clock in my parents’ house is always there in the background, predictable and familiar. I have no idea what is being said, but I like the idea of this sound carrying across the city to waiting ears, uniting a community in sacrifice and celebration. And I also like that somehow I get to be part of this, or at least it is now part of me. But today was a unique day for me. I awoke as usual with call to prayer, then a few hours later was again awoken, this time by a car driving around with a mobile temple to Mahakali, as today is the second Sunday of Bonalu (see below) and the celebrants are “taking the show on the road” as Dr. Yadavalli would say. And finally, while enjoying my morning cup of chai on the deck, the Baptist Church next door started THEIR celebrations, and have basically been singing all day. Islam, Hinduism, Christianity. I never thought I could cram all 3 in before noon.
(Pictured above, the Mosque on our street)
Since those very first few hours in India, every day has been an education in the importance of religion in Indian culture and daily life. The influence of Hinduism is obvious and everywhere. There are innumerable temples to innumerable deities scattered throughout the state, tucked back into some greenery, jutting out at the intersection of busy roads. They come in all shapes and sizes, but all are colorful, ornate, well maintained and well frequented. The dashboards of most motorbikes and cars house tiny reproductions of Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, take your pick. Even billboard advertisements will throw in their deity of choice (Our carpets are 100% wool and half price from now until September! Also, Vishnu is watching you).
The bindi, traditionally the red dot that is placed over the area of the sixth chakra, the seat of concealed wisdom, is a commonplace sight on woman and a surprising number of men as well (surprising to me because I knew next to nothing about Hinduism before this trip). We were also fortunate enough to be at Golconda fortress for the start of Bonalu, a festival to the Goddess of power, Mahakali. Of course we knew nothing about what was going on at the time, only that the place was a zoo, people went paparazzi on us aggressively and there were a lot of chicken feathers and food. Now, having read about the festival after the fact, I know that women offer a meal to the Goddess, usually rice with milk and sugar in an earthen pot covered in branches and turmeric and topped off with a lamp. They carry this whole ordeal on their heads up a ton of stairs to the Goddess temple as an offering to keep her from getting angry and smiting them; the women who perform this ritual are thought to be possessed by the Goddess, and so people pour water on their feet to pacify the spirit, whom Wikipedia describes as “aggressive”. They also sacrifice chickens or roosters, which explains that pile of feathers we saw along the way, as well as the terror in the chickens’ eyes.
(A line of people celebrating Bolalu, extending from the entrance up to the Temple at Golcanda fort)
While I was not mistaken about Hinduism being the primary religion practiced in India, as it turns out the prominence of other religious groups varies by state. In Hyderabad, 55% of the people are Hindus, with Muslims (27%) and Christians (2%) comprising the next largest groups, a definite surprise to me. The Muslim population is particularly prominent around the Old City, and Urdu is one of the two official languages of Hyderabad (with Telugu as the first). Being In Hyderabad during Ramadan means seeing Haleem stands almost as frequently as Pan Palaces (haleem is a stew that generally combines wheat, barley, lentils and a meat- lamb, chicken or less commonly here, beef- which cooks for hours and is often used to break fast given its high caloric content). And of course, even the billboards get in on the action.
The Christian presence is a little more subtle, but I have certainly seen a fair share of crosses in the distance, sharing the sky with Mosque spires. We’ve also seen plenty of private Christian schools during our hours in the car, and who can forget the Baptist Church next door to our apartment (I certainly can’t since the Sunday school has been singing for the past 3 hours, currently Happy Birthday?). The mix of religions in India has definitely been surprising to me, but most of all witnessing the symbiotic relationship between these different religious groups as they so closely coexist has been heartening and a valuable lesson in tolerance.