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Anmol Bam Bol!

india Updated: Aug 02, 2008 14:11 IST
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To many in Delhi, kawarias cause annoying traffic delays. But the power of their devotion as they walked long distances inspired us to leave our airconditioned world to find the beating heart of the Hindu faith.

In one night on National Highway 8 from Delhi through Gurgaon into Haryana, we hopped kawaria trucks, talked to pilgrims, drank tea with gurus, observed rituals and were in turn, observed. Even through the lens of our Christian faith it was familiarly human.

As the pilgrims ran across Gurgaon in relays behind their particular trucks, our truck slowed but did not stop, as each runner finished his turn. His fellow pilgrims pulled him aboard and splashed him with water. They had already covered 333 km and had to relay the Ganga water all the way back to their village in Bhodalkalan. The boys on board offered us handshakes and candied fruit, but the driver suddenly threw us out at a large kawaria camp.

At 8 pm the camp was largely empty, so we asked what our next stop should be. In Inchapuri at midnight, they said, we would find answers. After a two-hour car trip we did, along with 5,000 people, a Ferris wheel and one of the largest bread-making operations since Jesus turned five loaves into enough to feed thousands. It was an experience eerily familiar to Michelle who grew up in the Mormon Church, a historically unpopular Christian denomination for whom exodus was a full-time occupation.

Every summer Mormon faithful gather to commemorate the journey of Lehi, a prophet they believe sailed from Arabia to the Americas in 600 B.C. In rural New York State, Lehi's path is reenacted in the style of a Las Vegas show complete with a 600-member cast, a spewing volcano and an actor portraying Christ lowered from the sky. Michelle played various roles over the years, including a dancer and a concubine to an evil king. Theatrics aside, it was a time for the Mormon diaspora to reunite, celebrate the heroes and stories of their faith and renew ties of community with the living church, the people they call 'brother' and 'sister.' Michelle, though less strict about practice, finds resonance in the beauty of fellowship rekindled each year through ritual.

We made it, though bruised, past the food stands, trinket vendors and packs of roving adolescents, into a Hanuman temple, to the feet of a bespectacled guru who gave us apples, taffy, tea and tilak. From the very top of the temple, we saw thousands of pilgrims and their families reuniting.

Finally it was midnight, time for the kawaria ritual to climax. Amidst chanting and bell ringing, pilgrims swarmed the shivling to deliver their clay pots of water. Kawaria is worship of Lord Shiva, pilgrims told us, but is also to seek individual blessings. A farmer wanted a son, a student wanted to give thanks for his computer and one kawaria refused to reveal his wish, lest it not come true.

Olga was caught off-guard by the crush and the emotional intensity. She was raised in the Congregationalist Church, the modern incarnation of Puritanism, notable mainly for its strictness: church attendance mandatory, hard work venerated, stoicism the main form of emotional display. Today the church is one of the most liberal in the US, but remains undemonstrative in its customs. Yet, the idea of finding spiritual reward in a difficult task reminded Olga of her own faith, where God is found in toil. After thanking our hosts we headed back to Delhi in silence, gazing up at the heavens filled with unfamiliar constellations, but part of the same sky.

The writers are from the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, now on internship with HT.