“I guess Mecca is that way,” I joked to Mariel as we watched the sunset to the west of our train. We’d been sitting by a group (family?) of Muslim men — including a young teenager and an old man with an awesomely long white beard. Despite language barriers, we had shared smiles and hand gestures (advanced communication such as “what time is it” and “can I place my oversized backpack on this train berth above your head”) since we boarded in Agra. From their various states of undress and wide range of blankets and pillows, it seems like they have been on the train for a while. Knowing the Indian railway system, it could be days.
Now they are fully clothed. As the sun sets, they are taking turns praying, each washing his hands at the nearby sink before laying down on a blanket, facing the western setting sun, standing and subsequently kneeling. In front of a train full of people, the sunshine on their faces making their devotion even more beautiful. I sit here, directly in between them and the window, Mariel’s and my game of gin rummy temporarily paused. Respectfully trying not to stare but at the same time intrigued by the openness of their worship, the ease with which they recite their prayers. Bending their torsos forward, kneeling, standing back up.
It’s another example of what I love so much about India. People here are so comfortable with, and expressive of, their faith. It’s a beautiful, collective expression. Restaurants and shops that house small shrines to Krishna or Ganesh, marked by constantly and reverently burning incense. Red paint dotted in between the eyebrows of Hindus. A restaurant in Agra turning the TV off for a few minutes because they know that people will be praying inside a nearby mosque. Hundreds of Sikh men in beautifully wrapped turbans stripping down to their skivvies to bathe in the holy waters of Amritsar’s golden temple. What if people in the US were all this open with their faiths? All this devout? Would we get down on our knees on a Greyhound bus? Would we pray to God through the bars of a train? Is it a lack of commitment, or a fear of religion, or an assumption that we can do it on our own, that keeps us from surrendering so wholly to our faith?
And an even scarier question: what’s holding me back?
postscript: three days later, I realized why there were so many devout Muslims on their way to Delhi. (Our friends weren’t the only ones; men were taking turns to pray throughout the train.) As I stood on a street corner in Old Delhi, across from Gate #1 of India’s largest mosque, waiting for a rickshaw driver to take me on a tour of the neighborhood’s greatest foodie secrets, Muslim men flooded the streets. (I stuck out like a really pale thumb.) My rickshaw friend later told me that the Imam of Saudi Arabia was visiting that day, which explained the thousands and thousands of visitors. They were mostly men, all milling about before entering the mosque or setting blankets on the ground in anticipation of prayer. It was beautiful and fascinating; and always comforting to be able to connect the dots like that while traveling.