A journey to India, land of religions

Delhi - Hindu pilgrims bring a newborn into a temple for the first time. Sikh priests sing all night at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A Tibetan nun spins a prayer wheel next to the Dalai Lama's house in Dharamsala.

India is a land of great religions, and tourists who want to experience them up close can include a little "pilgrimage" in their intinerary without much trouble.

A three-day journey from Delhi to Dharamsala, in the foothills of the Himalayas, by way of Amritsar, near the border with Pakistan, offers an abundance of insights. The journey can be expanded at will, to Varanasi and Kochi, to Islam and Judaism.

Eighty per cent of India's 1.1 billion inhabitants are Hindus. They pray to many different deities, including Shiva, Vishnu, and Kali, who often appear in various forms. Many Hindu temples have images of several deities, whose names change depending on the region and local language.

Though the diversity may be confusing, if you visit a temple you will experience rituals called pujas that are similar everywhere.

The Chamunda Devi Temple in Palampur, in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is one of the Hindu temples that is open to non-Hindus. So long as you do not disturb the rituals, you can watch for as long as you like. The temple is dedicated to Chamunda Devi, a form of the goddess Durga. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the temple every year to receive her blessing.

Outside the temple are shops where pilgrims can buy offerings for the deities: scarves with golden threads, incense and small, white balls of sugar. Then they go through the gate. The pilgrims hand their offerings to one of the priests sitting in front of the images of the deities. The priests pass on the offerings. As for the pilgrims, they receive sugar balls, a return present from the deities, as it were, called "prasad."

Central to Hinduism is the belief in reincarnation. Hindus' goal is "moksha," liberation from the continuing cycle of death and rebirth, known as "samsara." "Moksha" depends on "dharma" and "karma." "Dharma" is one's righteous duty. The better one performs "dharma," the better one's "karma" - the sum of all one's actions and their consequences - and thus the chance of liberation.

The cycle of rebirth and goal of liberation are also key elements in the philosophical system of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, "the Enlightened One," who lived and taught in northern India more than 2,500 years ago.

Early Buddhism had many adherents in India, but today the religion plays almost no role in the country.

One of the world's most prominent Buddhists lives in India, however: the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He and about 100,000 of his followers fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 after a abortive uprising. Since then, he has made his home in Dharamsala, which lies nearly 2,000 metres above sea level in the shadow of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

Red-robed Buddhist monks and nuns live in Dharamsala's cloisters. The Dalai Lama can be seen in town mainly during his annual spring teachings there. Next to his house, a museum dedicated to Tibet is a reminder of repression in the Chinese-ruled region.

Western visitors are welcome in the large Buddhist temple nearby. The faithful spin golden prayer wheels, which are inscribed with sacred formulas. Drums and horns can be heard during the prayer sessions, and young monks debate loudly in the cloisters.

Sikhism, founded in the 16th century, is much younger than both Hinduism and Buddhism. About 2 per cent of all Indians are Sikhs. The men stand out with their uncut beards and hair, which they cover with a turban. Although Sikhism and Hinduism have much in common, Sikhs believe in one god only, and their caste system is far less rigid than that of Hinduism.

Sikhs' holy book is the Granth Sahib, and their priests recite from it in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The best time to visit the temple is after sunset, when the atmosphere is especially impressive. Visitors have to remove their shoes and walk through ankle-deep water - a ritual washing - before entering one of the gates.

You can easily reach Amritsar by train from Delhi. The trip from Amritsar to Dharamsala in a rented car takes nearly a day. The Chamunda Devi Temple in Palampur is just a half-hour's drive from Dharamsala.

If pilgrimages fascinate you, you can spend three weeks instead of three days on the trail of India's religions. On Mount Abu in Rajasthan, there are temples of the Jain, followers of yet another religion founded in India. The synagogue in Kochi, on the southwest coast, is testimony of the country's Jewish heritage. And the Jama mosque, dating from the reign of the Mogul Empire, is one of the most beautiful places in Delhi.

Internet: www. incredibleindia. org (dpa)