AT FIRST, it sounds like a series of gargles. A coarse gargle. A plump gargle. A soprano gargle. A group of Tuvian throatsingers are performing at a Sacred Arts Festival in Delhi. You cringe; halt a laugh, and sneeze instead. You must not be seen as juvenile.
Then a polka-dotted Tuvian tells you his song is about different kinds of horse-trotting. He comes from the steppes of a little republic inside Russia. He dedicates his songs to sheep, reindeer —“we want to send good wishes to the animals of our country”. Something changes. Perhaps, the beginnings of empathy. From the erstwhile gargling emerges a melody that draws you in. The Tuvian says the largest mountain in his country is 3,900 meters high. You can hear the trample of horse hoof across a green bend. This is what is sacred for the Tuvians. In another 10 minutes, it will become sacred for you.
The sacred — in sound, word and space — was the focus of a week-long international festival in Delhi. It brought together an electic range: Syrian Sufis, Buddhist nuns who had never stepped out of their monastery, the Bauls, and West African drummers. “We wanted to show what African music looks like in the villages,” says drummer Olivier Targagga.
“The sacred is so ingrained in the daily life of Indians that most of us never think of it separately,” says Pami Singh, founder of the festival. When we do, it is often associated with religion. “But religion need not always be sacred,” says Jasleen Dhamija, festival president. “We wanted to present that which is really sacred to people the world over, a belief, a longing for peace.” The festival was a response to the need for a debate on the idea of the sacred, perhaps to a mainstream version of the sacred that is rigid and sacrosanct. To the idea that sacredness can be owned, protected, confined to designated spaces — the temple, mosque, church, the chalked corner in your home that is more sacred because of the many adorned idols.
But when you remember the Aleppo Sufis performing in unison with Buddhist nuns, or Bulgarian choir girls carving their hands to match a Bharatanatyam dancer, there is a sense that the sacred is more malleable, more elastic than you imagined. “Seeing the different ways people connect with divinity expanded my idea of sacredness,” says gospel singer Lavon Hardison. “I realised God is like a good teacher who meets you where you’re at.” When you see her perform in sync with the Bauls, you know there is no linear demarcation of where the non-sacred ends and the sacred begins.
It is ironic that an urban dictionary refers to secular as an antonym of the sacred. Perhaps our collective vocabulary has associated the sacred with organised ritual for so long, we have forgotten how the first notion of sacredness was born — from chaos. Even the Original sacred as it appears in the Rig Veda is a question, not a closed idea, but an open thought that allows for mystery: “Neither being, nor nonbeing, neither presence nor absence, what was there before creation? Maybe He who has created it knows. Maybe he too doesn’t.”
“Sacred is a way of reinventing the self to become accommodative of the other,” says Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and Lalit Kala Akademi chairperson. “Today the whole idea of the sacred is receding from public attention. The sacred has left the shrines and temples. Perhaps literature and the arts are its last residence.”
THE MANY unlikely interpretations of sacred came alive through several panels during the festival. In a Japanese haiku by the poet Agyeya, an empress visits a shrine empty-handed. She refuses to pluck or buy flowers, and offers them to the deity “there/where they have bloomed/untouched, unsullied, unsmelt.” A raw sacredness. In another poem, a surprise conversation with an undressed sex worker becomes a sacred moment.
In a Hong Kong movie, My Mother is Belly Dancer, recently laid-off women are living in a rundown housing estate. One of them decides to learn belly dancing. Others fold their noses in disapproval — racy, slutty. But there is a moment when gray peeling walls give way to a riot of colours, a dab of sisterhood when all the workers break into belly dance. There is something sacred in that transformation.
Similarly, in Rama Mehta’s book Inside the Haveli, an urban 19-year-old Mumbai woman is married into a feudal Rajasthani way of life. She enters the Haveli as if it were a prison, a site of slavery. But something about life inside the Haveli is seductive, seeped in a community ethos that is more appealing than the town outside, where every individual fends for himself. “The protagonist feels she has a stake in keeping this community alive,” says Geetanjali Chanda, professor of literature at Yale University. Through the book the Haveli changes from a place of domestication and captivity into a sacred space.
In Delhi, outside Siri Fort auditorium, another sacred space is being created from scratch, from sand and gravel. For five days, Tibetan Buddhists from Ladakh have grated stone powder through metal pipes to create a Mandala, a symbolic representation of the universe. This particular diagram depicts a ring of fire and four different gates to the paradise of Lokeshwar.
ON THE LAST night Ladakhi monks will assert the impermanence of life by wiping the mandala clean. The ceremony begins with chanting. When a monk’s cell phone beeps, you expand your idea of sacredness to include a new image.
Crescendo: red tongs beat on gold-rimmed drums, the head monk walks slowly to each plant, digs incents into soil. There are gasps, sighs, “I can’t believe they are going to finish this off.” Curious onlookers peer into the Mandala patterns —18 colours and four different kinds of stone. Some squat on the floor, praying with eyes closed. A 10-year-old American rolls his soccer ball to the drumbeat. A mother rocks her baby. Rosecheeked Bulgarian flower girls troop behind the monks; fruity cheerleaders on the sidelines. Their choir leader is performing acrobatic lunges to angle her camera for that perfect shot. A man on a wheel-chair is capturing it all on his iphone.
You stretch your neck out. The foreground is a shower of marigold petals. In the distance, a brush sweeps away what is left of stone; 18 colours of stone powder mix into a deep gray. A monk bends over to scoop it all in a cup. What is it about this moment that makes it sacred? That makes a maverick, the one to scoff at all plush ritual, leap in line for a cup of ash. You want to hold it in your hands, your piece of sacred.
It is like the time you stood on your terrace, squinting at the clouds, looking for your grandmother’s soul. It is 1992. She has just evaporated. You are eight, and marvel at your house turning into a palace of white. As people pour in, the white of mattresses is hidden by the white of people sitting on them, mourning. You are instructed to begin distributing the 24-lined notebooks and cheap microtip pens. One word: Ram. Repeated: Ram. Ram. Ram.
Manicured fingernails are writing the name of God Ram on every line, on each page. They tell you this will make grandma’s soul get to heaven faster. You are confused. Where is her soul now? You imagine it must be somewhere on its way. In a epiphanic leap, you dash up the stairs and fling open the terrace doors. Not that you know what a soul looks like, but what you visualize somewhat resembles an amoeba. A shapeless flaccid creature bobbing the depths of a sea. You know that nature gives cues before any important event. Any moment now, the leaves will crackle; the trees will flap their arms to indicate your grandma is passing you on her way up. You don’t recall how long you spent on the terrace that afternoon, but you think you spotted the amoeba when your legs grew tired. You blew a kiss and darted back down, feeling wiser than those toiling with Ram, Ram, Ram. You may never understand why that moment on the terrace felt more real, more sacred than fire, white drapes, elaborate rituals. Perhaps it has something to do with belief. Of all the images that could come to mind when you think of sacred: vermillion, a dip in the river, thread, a vanishing mandala, you still remember the amoeba. And now, perhaps, horse-trotting.