India is a pilgrim's paradise; a melting pot of religions and colourful festivals.

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A Melting Pot of Religions

India is a pilgrim's paradise; a melting pot of religions.

At a moment's notice however, troops may be called onto the streets to diffuse tensions, after another attempt by extremists to terrorise and intimidate the citizens living in already crowded conditions.

Even the whitewash over England's cricketers can be quickly forgotten when bombs explode in the fiscal hub of the sub-continent's celebrated, picture-making capital, Bombay. (No pun intended).

For a country of 800 million, it is understandable that there should be a diversity of religion and tolerance of others needs to continue.

There has been enough bloodshed in the name of religion, especially in the northern state of Punjab during the partition of 1947, and although little eruptions continue to occur, most Indians are keen enough to love their neighbours and see stability in a secular state prevail.

Two of the world's greatest religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, were born in India. Hinduism is India's major religion, practiced by 80% of the population, yet Islam still has nearly 80 million followers; making India one of the largest Islamic nations in the world.

The Sikh religion, founded by Guru Nanak, was meant to bring together the best of Hindu and Islamic religions.

The Sikh man is easily recognizable by his turban, and although they can be found all over India, they are concentrated in the Punjab.

The Sikhs are opposed to pilgrimages to rivers, although not to holy sites.

The holiest shrine of the Sikh religion is the Golden Temple, in Amritsar (the pool of nectar). On entering the compound, pilgrims to the Golden Temple hear a continuous reading of the Granth Sahib in Punjabi, through a loudspeaker. The Sikhs keep their heads covered, but many do take a dip in the pool that surrounds the Golden Temple.

The Hindus make their pilgrimage to the River Ganges. Varanasi is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Although most Hindus would like to bathe in the Ganges during their lifetime, to be cremated here is considered to be an instant route to heaven.

Alongside the Sadhu (long-haired, almost-naked, holy-man) come the shaven-haired pilgrims from Nepal.

The steps, or ghats, that lead down to the river are used for washing clothes as well as bathing. The sacred cow also seems to use them as a toilet.

The Sangam is where the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meets the invisible Saraswati river, near Allahabad. This meeting point is believed to be holy and have special soul cleansing powers.

It is an important pilgrimage site, and is the scene of the annual Magh-Mela (Mid. January/Mid. February). Every twelfth year the Magh-Mela becomes the Kumbh Mela, when the annual thousands of pilgrims in the temporary, tented township, swell to over a million.

Although it is possible to walk to the sangam, many pilgrims prefer to charter a boat.

The Nepalese pilgrims who make it to Varanasi, tend to follow on to Gaya. To offer funeral cakes, or pindas, here is believed to free their ancestors from bondage to the earth.

The river does carry water during the monsoon, although during the winter the bed is dry and holes have to be dug to extract a little water for the rituals.

Bodh Gaya:
Lord Buddha was claimed to have attained enlightenment, at nearby Bodh Gaya. The sacred Bo tree here is said to be a direct descendant of the original tree under which the Buddha meditated. This attracts the curious Westerner to try it for themselves.

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple, below a 50 metre-high pyramidal spire, is a large gilded image of the Buddha.

There are curious parallels between the controversy over the Babri Masjid, in Ayodhya, and the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya.

This time it was militant Buddhists, from Maharashtra, who arrived to liberate the temple from forced occupation, after some pitchers and statuettes were discovered inside the Vihara; following a symbolic worship of Lord Ram's wooden sandals. Confrontation, however, violates the basic teachings of Buddhism.

The Europeans make their treks too, all with their own goals and results. In such a large land, where romanticism is shattered by reality, one envies the doey-eyed girl from Dallas, at Calcutta airport, vowing to return; the French girl with the pierced nose and decorative tikka, heading for the hill stations; and the beach bums at Anjuna.

They all continue to live out a fantasy of India, rather than search for full stops.

The German with his foot behind his head in Kovalam and the chubby Canadian prostrating while young monks, shaven for vocation, pass her at Bodgaya, might seem a touch absurd, but no doubt they are inwardly happy; or at least searching for it.

The English girls, hair dry and skin darkened deep from prolonged exposure to salt and sun, are still on the mind-altering drugs sold to them at English prices. They tell others that it takes a while to relax in India, but choose to escape from it chemically.

Vibes might not be a word so commonly used, but banana pancakes and yoghurt drinks are still very much in vogue with the relaxing type. They half-wear Indian cloth, but the mystical magic is not attained by all modern-day pilgrims.

While most pilgrims progress with their lives harmoniously, the threat of communal violence boiling over again, keeps religion a delicate issue in the calculating, congressional corridors of Delhi.

Michel Guntern,

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