Beauty, solace and prayer among the poor of India
Recently I witnessed a religious procession complete with trumpets, banging drums and men dressed in orange.
It did not take place in Northern Ireland, but near the bank of the River Ganges in India where Hindus were taking part in dawn worship at their sacred river.
As the sun rose like a golden ball over the misty horizon, hundreds of Hindus bathed in the waters as if their very lives depended on completing this daily ritual.
The night before, I watched Hindu cremation pyres burning on the bank of the Ganges, with smoke billowing into the sky, and Hindu priests chanting their liturgy to thousands of people. The local authorities have provided a modern crematorium, but the people prefer their old ways, with public open-air cremations. In India, as in Northern Ireland, tradition lingers on.
This was part of my two-week tour to India and Nepal where I visited some of the great temples and religious monuments.
It is one thing to read about Islam, but it is something else to stand in one of the great mosques of New Delhi and experience the vast worship area which can accommodate some 25,000 people.
Only several hours drive from Delhi, I watched the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, at Agra. As I queued to get in at 6am, amid the street-sleepers and the sacred cows, I wondered if the Taj would live up to expectations. In the early morning light it was a shimmering architectural masterpiece.
Religion in India is a vital part of everyday life, and at New Delhi international airport I watched dozens of white-robed Muslims praying in unison in a departure lounge before leaving for Jeddah.
In the UK such an open display of religious practice in a busy airport would most certainly attract the attention of our modern thought-police, who are so intolerant of Christianity.
However, life in India is so unbearably harsh for millions of people that their religion is a main source of comfort.
In the Ganges area I saw some of the worst suffering I have witnessed in nearly 40 years of reporting from the developing world.
Yet there was also beauty and solace. Not far from the Ganges, I visited a temple on the site where the Buddha preached his first sermon to only five people, and this developed into a world religion. The Buddhist philosophy is gentle and compassionate, and one can understand its attraction for some people in the West.
Some days later I flew along the Himalayas in Nepal and near Everest in a small aircraft, and later I visited the beautiful Buddhist temple at Kathmandu. It also had an air of relative peace, with a steady crowd of worshippers.
However, I noticed a fully-robed Buddhist monk using a mobile phone, and a small boy wearing a Didier Drogba football shirt, and I wondered how long this world of ancient religions can withstand the onslaught of the internet and secular modernity. The next day I went to the Royal Palace and caught a glimpse of a young girl who is literally worshipped by the Nepalese as their “Living Goddess.” All of which is a far cry from Northern Ireland and the different versions God or Mammon that we worship.
However, I came home with a continued respect for other peoples’ cultures, and a greater appreciation of my own. We all need to learn more about tolerating people with different religious beliefs, or none, and also trying to find our common values amid the contrasts. In the end we are all human beings moving steadily along the vast river of life, to our inevitable destination.