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Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu. Snakes, especially cobras, along with cows, are considered the most sacred animals in India. They are worshipped for fertility and the welfare of the family. Snake worship was probably an ancient animistic ritual that was later absorbed into the mainstream Hindu Faith.
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #12 (March 16, 2004), page 20.
Prayer made visible
Living Faith: Windows into the Sacred Life of India
Photography by Dinesh Khanna
Text by Pico Iyer
HarperSan Francisco, 2004
Hardcover, 208 pages, $24.95
By Josephine Bridges
"When you look at Khanna’s pictures," writes Pico Iyer in his introduction to Living Faith, "— and this is often true for a foreigner walking through India’s streets – what strikes you is not the difference between all these creeds, but some deeper kinship: in all of them an individual retreats from the world, if only for a moment, to talk to whatever he or she considers Absolute." Collected here are images of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Sufis, and Jains at worship. For lovers of beauty, these are magnificent photographs. For people of faith, they are prayer made visible.
India is "a model for tolerance of a kind. It is, after all, home to many of the world’s great monotheisms, cradle of its most visible polytheism, the place where the founder of its great non-theism (if that’s what you wish to call Buddhism) was born." While animosities, killings, and wars in the name of religion are all too common in India, "on a private level, individually, something else is taking place. Indeed, private acts of worship and devotion may be, more and more, how people try to cope with the larger forces unleashed by people taking the name of religion in vain." Though one of Dinesh Khanna’s photos depicts a bloody ritual, and another shows men holding guns, nobody is dying here, nobody is killing. These are all pictures of peace.
They are also pictures of India "as it exists when there are no cameras around." A small shrine on the dashboard of a taxi contains incense sticks and flowers used in a ritual that begins the driver’s working day. Sacred markings on the hubcap and tire of a truck may "ensure safe passage on India’s treacherous highways." In my favorite of Khanna’s photographs, a single marigold rests in one of the pans of a vegetable-seller’s scales, "an offering to the instrument of his trade."
Living Faith contains several photographs of Peepul trees, which are revered by both Hindus and Buddhists. String and clay figures adorn one of these sacred trees. Another, growing through a wall, has become a miniature temple. A small shrine rests beneath a third. A face, decorated with garlands of flowers, has been carved into the base of an enormous Peepul tree, and offerings lie on the ground beneath it.
"Colour" writes Iyer, "is what seizes you as soon as you set foot in India, or start paging through the magnificent images collected here." Indeed, the color in Khanna’s photographs ranges from the vibrant, almost shocking crimson of a temple in Bengal to the subtle delicacy of ochre and gray temple spires surrounding the tiny forms of a sleeping mother and child dressed in gold, orange, and blue.
Dinesh Khanna’s photographs show us that in India the spiritual is everywhere; it is not separate from daily life. Pico Iyer writes that Khanna "is not saying that faith has been practiced or commemorated here, as in the great cathedrals of Europe, around the monuments of Pagan or Borobodur, amidst the temples of Egypt; he is suggesting that it is happening right now, over there, behind that corner, or in the quiet of that room."
While Living Faith celebrates religious devotion specific to India, there is also here the profound implication that, wherever he or she looks, all over the world and in the cosmos beyond it, the seeker will find the sacred.