13 Jun 2019
Corrymeela Member Mary Magennis reflects on her visit to India. This is an article expanding on a short feature in our bi–annual magazine ‘Corrymeela’ published in June 2019.
Along with twelve others from Britain and Ireland, including fellow community member Eleanor Duff, I travelled on pilgrimage to India. After four thousand two hundred miles we arrived in the middle of a heatwave in New Delhi. Our guide, the Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal, former Leader of Corrymeela, accompanied us. We were given the space and freedom to ourselves, embrace the life and culture of India in a very spiritual way, and to connect with our surroundings.
India is the fourth richest economy in the world full of progressive business, development, advanced railway systems, medical, scientific and technological innovations are evident everywhere. I instantly began to make comparisons with Ireland: the colours of our flags, the same approach to timekeeping, good sense of humour, love of poetry and historical similarities.
This is a country of extreme contrasts with rich and poor, beauty and rubbish, clean and dirty air, and people of different faiths and languages living side by side. Delhi is a vibrant, progressive city with road signs displayed in the four languages: Hindi, Urdu, Panjabi and English. Everywhere we looked we could see the vibrant orange colour so significant in India: in the flowers, birds, food, clothes, places of worship, prayer poles, in politics, and the earth. In India, orange is a colour of joy rooted in the flower of India, the marigold.
The hospitality and welcome we received were brilliant. We were crowned with garlands everywhere and the food was incredible. We enjoyed okra, aubergine, lentils, the chapattis, naans, puris and paratha, fruits, and yoghurts. It was hard to know where to start at meal times!
We journeyed on roads less travelled. We visited the Gandhi Memorial where Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948 and walked in the garden where he loved to pray. His words etched into a plaque read, “My life is my message”. We attended Mass in the Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral; it was fascinating to see many Sikhs attending Mass for prayer. In Delhi, we visited the Sikh Gurdwara Temple, Bangla Sahib and were humbled and inspired by the prayers of those from other faiths.
We travelled deep into Panjab close to the border with Pakistan to visit Tarn Taran and the St Thomas School where we presented teachers and children with small gifts; we were given a warm welcome by all. Then onwards to Amritsar, home to Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple where we took part in the opening prayers ceremony at 4 am. We were present to witness the carrying of the Holy Book (Guru Granth Sahib) from its bed to its “bir” (shrine). Inderjit explained that 4 am is the sacred “ambrosial” hour, when food is shared and prayer is offered, and even John Wesley said his prayers at this same hour! It is a sacred moment observed daily with a procession led by the blowing of a conch, showering of rose petals, chanting of prayers, and the distribution of the prashad (sugar cubes). I shared my prashad with a woman who received none and she just smiled. We didn’t speak the same language, but the gift of generosity connected us and we were one. It was a profoundly moving, emotional experience of the presence of God.
Some memorable experiences included a visit to an open kitchen where 100,000 receive a free meal every day of the year and we were reminded the shared understanding – in Sikhism and Christianity – of eating together and hospitality. A timely reminder that in this contemporary world of walls and borders, the faith communities hold up a vision of spreading hospitality; that we must feed both mind, body and soul together.
At Wagah Border Indian and Pakistani soldiers carried out a ritual border ceremony in sheer Bollywood fun and energy, with much singing, dancing and flag waving. It was overwhelming. At the end, the soldiers lower opposing flags to the point where they meet, and shake hands. And, on the banks of the idyllic Yamuna River we visited the Taj Mahal. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal it was completed 1653 and was a highlight of the trip.
Close to the 100th Anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre, we visited the Golden Temple is the Jallianwala Bagh. The Memorial Garden there is a place of reconciliation where children, young people and their families gather to remember those loved ones who had died. In this place I was reminded of massacres back home, and how my heart was full of joy when Queen Elizabeth laid a wreath in the Memorial Garden in Dublin, demonstrating to all of us the reconciliation between Britain and Ireland enabled through the Good Friday Agreement/Belfast Agreement. A poignant reminder that there is no excuse for us not to cooperate between these islands and this small global village to work for the betterment of all.
Our pilgrimage concluded in Dalhousie, in the foothills of the mighty snow–covered Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh. Out of the city, away from the noise and the horns and the crowded atmosphere we were greeted with nature, mountains and birds and it was a breath of fresh air.
In the stillness of the hills we reflect that reconciliation is an acceptance of the other: to know deeply that we can be with each other for the betterment of all. The greatest gift of India to the world, with all the hustle and bustle and noise of the streets, is silence: finding stillness in the core of your being in a world of movement and noise. Amid everything, always God is with us and “restores” your soul (Psalm 23:2).
It was a healing place and experience for those who were there and I returned with healing in my soul.