After an eighteen-hour flight with a connection in Dubai, my daughter, Tempe, and I landed in Delhi. Throughout the trip I posted photographs on Facebook with simple descriptions. Palace of Winds, the Baga Border at sunset, a boat ride at dawn on the Ganges.
Before the trip I had wondered if I would be gifted with a dramatic adventure tale, as travel in my hippie-chick days provided when I hitchhiked through Europe, a sleeping bag and dulcimer strapped on my back and a chip of acid hidden in a lipstick tube and no return ticket to the States.
But that was a lifetime ago. Now I need a plan and reasonable comfort. I hired a driver and a guide—I designed our itinerary after talking to Indian friends here and reading sections of the Lonely Planet, India.
Still. There was that little part of me that wanted a bit of unplanned adventure or enlightenment. Was the trip to be the ‘reveal’ about the mother-daughter relationship? Or could something magical and transformative happen? E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India kind-of-thing, the English woman in the cave? Something mysterious and life changing minus the cruelty of the British Raj.
In Delhi, there was a planned tour of a Sikh temple but I asked if we could visit the ancient Sufi temple instead. After all we would be visiting the Sikh Golden Temple in the Sikh holy city in Amritsar, so we wouldn’t miss learning about Sikhs. I had read in the Lonely Planet about this ancient Sufi mosque in Delhi and the beautiful devotional singing of the sacred texts. I was curious about Sufis.
In my early twenties, I had a life reading by a trance medium, a psychic clairvoyant recommended by the Edgar Cayce Foundation. In the reading I was told that for my spiritual development I would do well to read the Sufi poets. Sufi is the mystic arm of the Muslim faith. It wasn’t until years later when I began to write poetry that I read Rumi and Hafiz, Sufi poets translated into English and popular in the West.
Thus, we were set to visit the Sufi mosque during their evening worship. The temple mosque was built to honor a twelfth century Sufi poet and saint, Nisam-ud-din Auliya. Our guide, Vishal Sen, a twenty three-year-old extremely devout Hindu, admitted he had never before been in a Muslim service, much less a Sufi mosque but he was our guide and eager to please. We were two foreign women, white and non-Muslims, seeking to enter a mosque for an evening worship. I worried that we might not even be allowed to enter.
Hidden away in a tangle of bazaars selling offerings to the Sufi saint the mosque was not easy to find. The way to the mosque was crowded with devotees along a warren of alleyways. Tempe and I had covered our heads with our shawls, as all the women wore head coverings. It was night and the jumbled street stalls lining both sides were filled with noise, smoke and the smells of devotional perfumes. I held my daughter’s hand and we scurried through the throng, trying to keep up with Vishal.
Close to the entrance, Vishal paused at a stall crammed with baskets of fresh rose petals. He gave the man a few rupees and told us to pick four petals each and to hold on to them, not to lose them. He stopped again in front of a very old man. Vishal told us this was the Shoe Guardian and for us to take off our shoes and give them to the man along with twenty rupees. He would watch over our shoes.
At last we joined the Sufis streaming into the mosque. After the entrance and the request for a donation, I noticed that the women were on one side and the men were passing on the other. I grew anxious. Vishal directed us to follow the women and reassured us that we would meet up on the other side. I wondered what other side he might be thinking of.
Tempe and I were swept by the crowd of women into a room filled with lattice screens where the women kneeled and tied red silk, tiny knotted threads into the lattice patterns. The room was filled with a loud strange murmuring. We passed through, marveling, and anxious into a large low-ceilinged marble room filled with worshippers seated on the floor.
Vishal Sen! He was waiting for us, seated among the women worshippers. I assumed that because he was a guide he could be in the room with us and the women. He told us that the red threads in the lattice were prayers for protection for their husbands and children.
We sat next to him on the ancient inlaid marble floor. At the far end of the room there was a low platform-like stage in front of another room that held the white marble coffin of the Sufi saint, covered in mounds of fresh flowers. A Sufi priest stood on the platform and sang passages from the sacred texts and the worshippers sang along with the priest.
Sometime into the service, Vishal nudged us. Time to eat a rose petal and voice a prayer and a wish. One wish per petal. We ate the petals, one at a time. I prayed to finish my book, all four petals worth.
During the singing, a woman close to us held up her phone and was Face-Timing a man. Here we are in this centuries old amazing Sufi moment and wouldn’t you know it—an obnoxious cell phone. Tempe observed the man on the screen was not talking but singing, probably her husband in a distant country, or just in the other room with the men. She and her husband were worshipping together. I was chastened.
The next day I asked Vishal, a passionate follower of Shiva—how did he know what to do? To buy four rose petals? To warn us not to stop in the murmuring lattice room of tiny red threads? How did he know when we should eat the petals and pray? He had acted so confident and had taken such good care of us.
When pressed, Vishal admitted, he had been very nervous at the thought of himself as a devout Hindu guiding tourists through a Sufi worship service. He then smiled slyly and confessed— the night before he had watched it on YouTube!
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