Thursday, August 11, 2011

Music and Worship

I'm in India on business which may make it a little tougher to blog about music. On the other hand, I have evenings and a 3 day weekend free, and Delhi is a large city with plenty of live music. Well, at least some live music, anyway.

My first musical experience here was an unexpected pleasure. I went with a couple of locals to Gurdwara Bangla Sahib on Wednesday night. We removed our shoes and socks, leaving them in our car, and walked to the gurdwara. The view is amazing.
A Gurdwara (translates as gateway to the guru) is a place of worship for Sikhs. The Sikh faith is interesting, most men of this faith take the surname Singh, and it's at least to some degree a warrior faith; I believe every male Sikh has a sword as both a symbol of their faith, and in the past as a tool for fighting. As a fantasy geek and D&D gamer from way back, any faith that includes swords is definitely cool!

This particular gurdwara is considered the most prominent one, and it's easy to see why. The site is beautiful in it's architecture and use of water, and the gurdwara itself is a feast for the eyes (intricate stonework, beautiful water features and golden towers) and ears.

The ears in particular: for the hour we were there they had a group in the central area, somewhat like an altar, playing and singing songs related to their faith. The vocalist sang solo and almost continuously with a strong, rich and attractive tenor. He was backed by a tabla and a couple of harmoniums. The combination of instruments, especially the tabla, the different use of intervals while singing, and the foreign language gave it an exotic (to me) Indian flavor and greatly enhanced the vibe in the temple.

There are little intricate rituals being performed all over - as you go up the steps to the gurdwara, people stop and touch each step, then make a motion towards their mouths and hearts which reminded me of our Catholic ritual of crossing ourselves over our forehead, mouth and chest during mass - committing our mind, words, and heart to Christ. Other rituals are performed at various places in different ways around the gurdwara and its grounds.

A mixed crowd of Sikhs and Hindus were worshiping (meditating? I'm not sure what the terminology is) inside the gurdwara and we sat down on the floor, my local Hindu friends meditated while I prayed for a half hour. By typical Western standards it was a pretty humble musical experience - not much flash, fairly repetitive, just good solid musicianship in a beautiful setting.

For me it was more than that. Praying with my eyes closed, asking for help with my issues and for all of those around the world who are in such difficult positions, the sound and it's exotic associations made me feel more connected to the locals, even though their language is incomprehensible to me and their culture is fairly foreign too. To quote a perhaps trite Led Zeppelin song and theme, even though we are all different "The Song Remains the Same." I hadn't brough my Flip since I wasn't sure that would be acceptable, turns out I could've brought it. I wish I had, it would be wonderful to share more of the experience.

I was greatly comforted by my prayers and the atmosphere in the gudwara, and it was a nice first step into the Indian experience in Delhi. After that we walked around the gudwara grounds doing some of the traditional activities like petting the catfish in the reflecting pool, getting a handful of a porridge-like substance handed to us to eat while we walked around (I was warned to avoid anything prepared in carts but I went ahead, I was feeling very connected and it seemed important to participate; it gave me no problems at all), circling the flag pole while praying - you're supposed to make a wish and if it comes true then you must go back again. Meenakshi had been granted her wish (she didn't say what it was) so she was returning to pray in thanks.

Afterwards we headed back out of the gurdwara and walked through the Connaught Place district, the high end shopping district in Delhi. The area is an interesting mix of familiar (McDonalds, Benetton, Sony and other familiar stores and brands) and exotic (the architecture was quite different, the climate is hotter and more humid than I'm used to, the way the pedestrians deal with traffic and crossing streets, even the food are all quite exotic to my Seattle sensibilities).

We visited a park and ate at a local tea shop. It was an interesting evening and I'm looking forward to more trips into Delhi, and a little more live music too if I can arrange it. Next time I'll be sure to bring my Flip so I can share the sounds and sights as well.

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