I recently blogged about the history of Islam India, and then, while reading the travel section of The Guardian I stumbled across a beautiful article on the largest southern Indian pilgrimage festival in which Hindu pilgrims commemorate a Muslim warrior.
Guardian travel writer William Dalrymple jumps right into the thick of extraordinary menagerie of sound and color, following the pilgrims on a journey that unites India’s Hindus and Muslims.
How it All Starts
Each year, from mid November to mid January of the following year, 10 to 50 million Southern Indian men leave their homes and walk to the shrine of demon-dispelling God, Lord Ayyappa atop a mountain in the Western Ghats of Kerala.
Lord Ayyappa hails from the union of the two most powerful deities in Indian cosmology, Shiva and Vishnu, and, according to Dalrymple’s investigations, he “is worshipped as a celibate ascetic meditating in remote mountain forests for the benefit of all mankind.”
As a mark of respect, the pilgrims themselves take vows of celibacy and purity, grow beards and eat simple fruit and millet bestowed by the forests.
Lord Ayyappa’s pilgrims make no caste or creed distinctions. Mainly Hindu, they eat and travel together; and unite at the small hill town of Erumeli to pray not just at the temple but also at the town’s mosque.
Cue: The Muslim Hero
The Mosque prayers honor legendary help given to Lord Ayyappa by a Muslim warrior named Vavar.
“Vavar was a good friend to Lord Ayyappa,” pilgrim Sakkara Swami explains to the Guardian writer. “He had an army, and he and his fellow Muslims helped Lord Ayyappa kill the demon Mahisi, and all the devils who were threatening the world.”
Another pilgrim named Prakashan adds: “In memory of their friendship we visit the tomb of Vavar on our way to see the Lord. Every pilgrim must stop here and seek Vavar’s blessings. This is our tradition.”
A Warm Welcome
Both Mosque and local Muslim community welcome the pilgrims. Imam Hajji Abdul Karim explains “Every year at the start of the pilgrimage season we make a procession from here to the temple, where the Hindu priests receive us. Then we all go on to the church, where the Christian priests make us welcome.”
The Imam has never felt animosity or opposition from India’s other religious communities during the pilgrimage season.
Although he affirms that Muslims only believe in one God, they respect all faiths, he says “The Hindus respect Vavar, and we believe also that he was a great saint. So where is the problem? They believe what they believe. But if they come here we must be hospitable and make them welcome.”
An Important Lesson for the World
This makes the Mosque and the pilgrimage itself a landmark in inter-faith dialogue and relations.
“It’s not just India. The whole world is fighting about religion…” says the Imam. “But this is a place where you can show the light of peace, a place that brings all religions together. All human beings are equal here. There is a lesson here for everybody.”