A spirit of religious tolerance

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An exhibition celebrating the many religions of India hints at the essential secularism of Indian society

Amit Mehra

In a country where more than 400 languages are spoken and almost 15 religions co-exist, there’s bound to be an array of festivals. To mark India’s Independence Day on August 15, the Consulate General of India launched a photo exhibition showcasing these diverse festivals, rituals and religions of India. On display were distinguished images by celebrated Indian photographer Amit Mehra.

Many dignitaries graced the occasion and also took part in the flag hoisting ceremony. Those present included Consul General of India in Melbourne, Manika Jain, former Premier of Victoria Ted Baillieu, Arun Sharma of Celebrate India, Ted Gott (Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria), Christine Fyffe (Speaker of the Legislative Assembly) and Matthew Guy (Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Planning), amongst others.

Talking about the relevance of the event, Ms Jain observed, “The exhibition gives a glimpse into the diversity that is India. This was our way of showcasing the various rituals and religions that we have grown up with”.

She hoped that the exhibition would encourage a better understanding of India and its culture.

Mehra’s photos on the walls did all the talking. From a snapshot of a ritual at a shrine in Kashmir to a religious procession carried out by Muslims in Rajasthan, the photographs spoke a thousand words on the cultural vibrancy of India.

One of the photos beautifully captured the spirit of Holi (Festival of Colours) as celebrated in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh. A group of people drenched in red basked in the glory of the hue, as the colour seamlessly blended them together. Another was a picture of faith as a young Buddhist monk, draped in red with eyes shut in veneration to God, blew the trumpet to start the morning prayers at Sakya Monastery in Uttranchal. A third celebrated the religion of humanity – a woman, draped in yellow, eagerly fed a flock of pigeons at the Muslim shrine of Hazratbal in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Be it dance, a prayer, music or a festival, Mehra presented a colourful mosaic of Indian religions.

He said on the occasion, “The main objective behind the series is to show India as the largest democracy whose core strength is secularism”.

Ted Gott couldn’t agree more. Calling it a “vibrant and colourful exhibition,” he said, “All of the religious faiths practised in India are fascinating, and this fascinating exhibition serves to illuminate their rich depth and complexity”.

A Jain practice that believes in reverence for all life and the avoidance of injury to all living things has been skilfully captured by Mehra. Young boys with their mouth masked (to avoid the risk of even accidentally swallowing an insect) head for prayers to mark the birth celebration of their god, Lord Mahavira at the Jain temple in Ahemdabad, Gujarat.

As well, in Mehra’s ode to India’s secular spirit, a young man with heavily kohled eyes and nose painted in red, fixes his crown before he heads out to perform Ramlila (a mythological drama) in Delhi. Another image has Christian priests wearing long robes and holding candles, offering prayers during Sunday mass at the Orthodox Syrian Church in New Delhi.

Dwelling further on the topic of religion, one cannot help but notice that the expanding Indian community in Melbourne has paved the way for a rise in the propagation of Indian religions in Melbourne. Religious processions carried out frequently in the city are a testimony to the same.

When asked her opinion, Ms Jain said, “It’s all very relative. To some it might seem propagation but for others it could be a celebration of their religion”.

She further added, “I myself believe in the theory that there’s no one universal truth. Everyone has freedom of speech and expression. What could be right to one could be wrong to another… as long as it’s legal to do what they are doing, it’s all good”.

When asked if there’s any one religion that intrigues her most, Ms Jain said, “I am curious about all religions. All have a similar kind of conduct, only the practices are different. Religion of peace and humanity is what I believe in”.

On left: Consul General of India in Melbourne Manika Jain