India Insight

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Waiting to die

Varanasi, India
By Danish Siddiqui

The River Ganges is sacred in Hinduism, and the city of Varanasi, which lies on its banks, is one of the oldest and holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims from all over the world.

Devotees believe that you can wash away your sins by taking a dip in the Ganges at Varanasi. What’s more, dying and having your ashes scattered here is a sacred thing for Hindus who believe that it brings “moksha,” or freedom for the soul from the constant cycle of death and rebirth. To attain this salvation, many travel to Varanasi to die.

A woman stands in a street outside the Mukti Bhawan (Salvation Home) at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

“Mukti Bhavan,” or “Salvation House,” is a charity-run hostel for people who wish to pass away in the city. It has 12 rooms, a temple and small quarters for its priests. Lodging there comes with certain conditions: guests have two weeks to die or they are gently asked to move on.

Sometimes, Bhairav Nath Shukla, the hostel manager, extends his guests’ stays by a few days if he thinks the person is about to die. Eerily enough, Shukla can often predict roughly when it will happen.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, manager of Mukti Bhavan (Salvation Home) looks out of a window while praying inside his office at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The 61-year-old has been taking in the dying and performing prayers for their salvation for the last 44 years and when I started covering this story, hostel records showed that 14,577 people had checked in to date. Most of them have attained moksha. Many of those who couldn’t die left disheartened with their relatives.

Anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar shot dead

Narendra Dabholkar, who campaigned against superstition in India for more than two decades, was shot dead in Pune on Tuesday, police said.

Dabholkar, 67, was a physician-turned-activist who openly criticised and questioned supernatural phenomena attributed to practitioners of black magic in India.

He was instrumental in drafting a new law in Maharashtra state that sought to target conmen who exploited superstitious beliefs, especially among the illiterate. The controversial bill is yet to be passed by the state assembly due to opposition from right-wing groups and political parties who fear the new law might curb religious freedom.

Finding harmony in music and Islam

The grand mufti whose words against music ended the short career of an all-girl teenage pop band in Kashmir last month made me wonder: is music really un-Islamic? He said that if women indulge in indecent, immoral acts such as singing, it would be a step toward their destruction. Is it really that simple in Islam? Of course it isn’t.

On one hand, you find words in the Qur’an such as “Zoor” – an Arabic word used for “falsehood” and musical expressions; “Laghv” – vain words and actions, useless entertainment;  ”Ghina” – prolonged sonic vibration, with pitch changes to such an extent that it might as well be “singing”, and of course, it’s sinful. According to another interpretation, singing, reciting poetry and playing instruments is allowed on occasions such as weddings and other festivals. Then there is debate going on all the while.

Music is also said to affect the body in a negative way – increasing blood pressure, impeding digestion, releasing adrenaline. All this could excite men’s lust and desire, and destroy their brotherhood and make them angry. If women do it, they should do it only around other women. And then there are videos like this, which clearly demonstrate another point of view.

‘Nobody can stop you if you engage in art with dignity’: Zila Khan on singing and Islam

The members of Praagaash, an all-girl band in Kashmir, split up this week after an influential cleric deemed their music un-Islamic. Zila Khan, one of India’s most popular sufi singers and daughter of sitar maestro Vilayat Khan, spoke to Reuters about how singing is closest to worship and meditation and how children should be allowed to sing.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Questions about Grand Mufti of Kashmir and Islam are best answered by experts in the field of religion. I am an expert in music, it will be no use pondering on subjects that I am not an authority on. There will be more experts to say better things on this issue. I can, however, talk about music, on my journey as a singer and the issue of women’s rights.

Obviously, I feel children should sing.

I feel the art of music and especially singing is the highest form of art in the world and in the cosmic cycle. To have the ilm (idea) and knowledge of this art is itself a blessing because it is much higher than any other form of art or work as such.

The news this weekend: LPG, Kejriwal, toilets, politicians… and Somali pirates

It’s shaping up as a busy weekend for India’s politicians…

The price of LPG — liquefied petroleum gas cylinders, or cooking gas — has risen 11.42 rupees per cylinder because dealers are getting higher commissions. TV channels attacked the government because this “shocker” comes right after the imposition of a cap on subsidized cylinder sales was imposed.

Bharatiya Janata Party politician Smriti Irani said the party will hold a nation-wide protest on Oct. 12, saying the higher prices are “anti-women”. This is presumably because they do more of the daily cooking than men, whose potential inversely proportional waistline shrinkage could be in their favour.

We all know who the main attraction is on news channels nowadays: social activist-turned-politician Arvind Kejriwal. Here are the pots that he’s stirring:

Is the outraged Indian over-sensitive or culturally prudent?

Protests are as common in India as the ‘Singh’ surname in the national hockey team.

On the face of it, it’s one indicator of a free society where every citizen can get his voice heard. But agitations like the recent one against a film crew for recreating parts of Chandigarh to look like a Pakistani city seem to create an impression of misplaced priorities (and some would say too much free time for the protesters).

Hindu radicals decried the Pakistan link; and not to be left out, a Muslim umbrella body said the movie about the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden showed their religion in a bad light.

Of sex swamis, lies and videotape

The recent scandals over two spiritual gurus have shaken the collective faith of their followers in India.

A sadhu holds a trident in New Delhi August 2, 2006. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/FilesThe sanctity of religions or the people’s faith is not being questioned but these controversies put the spotlight on the uniquely Indian phenomenon of mortals given the status of gods.

Cities across the country teem with astrologers, tarot card readers or some self-proclaimed guru. Saffron silk robes, turban cloth and rosaries are available off the shelves in plenty.

India’s 26/11 – religion no bar

A year ago, after the three-day siege of Mumbai ended and people took to the streets with candles and banners, a group of young Muslim men, carrying a hand-written poster, walked quietly with the surging crowds.

Seeing them, people began to clap spontaneously, applauding their assertion that Islam was a religion of peace, and not terrorism.

Since then, people in Mumbai, which has witnessed some of the worst communal riots in the country in the past, have come together in their grief, crossing barriers erected by politicians in the name of religion.

What makes a religious symbol conspicuous?

Last week, a college in Mangalore in India banned a student wearing a burqa from attending class. The principal told local media the college had a policy of not allowing symbols of religion.

The media did not say if there were students on campus with a ‘bindi’ (dot) on their foreheads or crucifixes around their necks or turbans on their heads, other symbols of religion one commonly sees in India, besides the ubiquitous “Om” scarves and t-shirts.

Mangalore, a cosmopolitan city, is no stranger to controversy; it was recently in the news for attacks on bars and women by a fundamentalist Hindu outfit that declared they were against Indian culture.

Is caste behind the killing in Vienna and riots in Punjab?

Why did the murder of a preacher in a Sikh temple in Vienna spark riots in the faraway Indian state of Punjab, in which thousands took to the streets to torch cars, trains and battle security forces?

The root cause may lie in India’s caste system that Sikhism officially rejects, but that still grips swathes of India’s billion-plus people, including in Sikh-dominated Punjab state in northwestern India.

“Via Vienna, Sikh caste war returns, sets Punjab aflame” ran the headline of the Hindustan Times.

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