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Religion

Gods I’ve Seen

From ancient rites to contemporary beliefs, Abbas explores contemporary Hinduism

Abbas

Abbas A day after its puja, devotees drown a statue of Durga, the Bengali avatar of goddess Kali, in the Hoogly river (local name of the Ganges). West Bengal, Kolkata, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

Abbas introduces his book ‘Gods I’ve Seen’, which draws on three years’ worth of travelling across India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bali, photographing the ceremonies and artefacts of religions jostling side by side in the region, including Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. The tome is a continuation of Abbas’s study of major world religions, featuring ritualistic elements – wind, water, earth, and fire, magic, and the spiritualism of animals.

I am not the first, nor, I suspect, the last traveller, to have been enthralled by India – and irritated, if not exasperated by the Indians. My reading induced in me a certain feeling of goodwill towards Hinduism, this religion of 330 million gods and goddesses who change name, nature and sex, who marry, divorce and ask for alimony, who are strangely familiar to us in their doubts and weaknesses and so are, all in all, very human gods. These gods do not have the loftiness or the arrogance of the monotheistic gods; like us, they are capable of the best and the worst.

Rituals

In Bikaner, at five o’clock in the morning I wake up with a start to the yelling of a pandit reciting the sacred texts through a loudspeaker at full volume. I am surprised by this blunt intrusion into my room and my sleep, for Hindu temples only rarely employ the human voice. The puja bells at dawn are much more of a nuisance – the gods must be well and truly deaf! At six o’clock, when the muezzin calls the pious to prayer, I understand the reason for this use of technology: the two priests are evidently in vocal competition, each making sure that the other may not monopolize the airwaves. I would no doubt have enjoyed this sacred spar had it been in the afternoon, for one voice proclaims the uniqueness of god, the other praises multitudes. But at dawn, with a long day’s work ahead of me? What to do, other than clear out of this city?

Abbas After a dip in the river Ganges, women pilgrims dry their saris. Varanasi, © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas A day after its puja, devotees drown a statue of Durga, the Bengali avatar of goddess Kali, in the Hoogly river (local name of the Ganges). West Bengal, Kolkata, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas The Kumbh Mela's most auspicious day, Feb. 10, 2013. Naga sanyassis hurry towards the sangam to take their ritual bath. Allahabad. Uttar Pradesh, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Hindus celebrate the Ativila yearly festival. Outside the Marianman temple, women are in trance, holding a pot of fire or a bouquet of leaves. Udapuwa village in the Puttalam district, Sri Lanka. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas The Hindu temple Shiva Subramaniya celebrates its annual festival. A devotee, suspended from hooks inserted in his flesh follows the Golden Chariot, housing a resident deity, which is paraded in th (...)

Worship

In Kolkata, having worshipped Durga for several days, the Bengalis then drown her in the river Hoogly. Merry processions bring her to the riverside to bid her farewell and throw her into the sacred waters. The same holds true for other divinities: the celebration of Wishwakarma, the divine architect and god of labour, precedes that of Durga, after which comes the festival for Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. An exercise in wastefulness, repeated every year. I ask a Bengali professor why the authorities do not decree a puja (prayer ritual) for cleanliness, to clean the city of its all-pervasive filth using just a portion of what is spent on statues. “It is because Kolkata is the city of joy, and we must celebrate our gods and goddesses,” she retorts. Obviously.

Abbas At dawn, a Hindu devotee prays to an altar by the lake. Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Temple dedicated to goddess Maatara, an avatar of Kali. Devotees pay respect to Charan, the goddess's feet. Tarapith, West Bengal, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Led by a Brahmin, Hindu pilgrims perform "Anthyasthi", last rites for their deceased, on a ghat by the river Ganges. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas The Golden Temple, the Sikh's most sacred place. A leaf in a pilgrim's hand, ready to receive the morning darshan (food offering). Amritsar, Punjab, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas School for Hindu priests in the Tiruparan Kundram temple. Students perform afternoon "face wash" ritual in a farm nearby. Madurai, Tamil Nadu State, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

On The Road

At the Chennai museum, contemplation of a statue of Shiva Nataraja elevates me to the highest spheres of spirituality, as would a painting by Cézanne or a Beethoven symphony. I also discover Shri Devi and Bhu Devi, Vishnu’s two companions, one of whom displays an aristocratic gentleness while the other has the look of a voluptuous country girl. I am amused by my own sensual and spiritual communion with these two goddesses, ever so carnal in their bronze bodies. Who were the great artists who brought them to life? Why have they remained anonymous?

Abbas A bazaar in Old Delhi, near the Fort. New Delhi, India. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Man asleep. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas A section of a highway being built. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Students in the courtyard of their school. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas A traditional wedding by wealthy Jain Hindus. Two pundits preside over the religious ceremony, attended by the bride's parents (left). Jaipur, Rajasthan. © Abbas | Magnum Photos

Beasts

As soon as I arrive in the karni Mata temple, a little rat comes to sniff me, probably a scout sent ahead to see if I am rat-compatible. Clearly I am, for immediately afterwards another rat, fat and no doubt holy too, climbs up my leg. I let him know, this fat, sacred rat, that despite having immersed myself in Hinduism for more than two years, it has not made me a rat-lover, and that I see in him neither a god nor the reincarnation of a maharaja, but a simple fat rat, and that I would prefer us to keep our own counsel – me, a bipedal Homo sapiens, and him, a four-legged Rattus norvegicus. I ask him firmly but politely – for we are being observed – to get off my leg. He complies.

Gods I’ve seen is out now, published by Phaidon.

Abbas The Karni Mata Hindu temple where rats are cared for. Rats are fed grain. Deshnok, Rajasthan. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Sri Ranganatha Swamy Hindu temple. The temple elephant blesses a pilgrim with his trunk after receiving a cash donation. The pilgrim has offered her hair to a resident deity and her shaved head is (...)
Abbas Horse, Udaipur, Rajasthan © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas Crow in flight. Jaffna, Sri Lanka. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas The Amabameta Hindu temple, where cocks roam freely around as the temple's pets. A young boy plays with one. Udaipur, Rajasthan. © Abbas | Magnum Photos
Abbas | Gods I've Seen - book cover © Abbas | Magnum Photos