Religion. Do I go there? What is to gain? What could I lose? And yet here I am. And here beside me is the territory of ritual, history and God. And here’s me stepping into it..
I think most of us have our stories of religion. Whether we grew up with it or not. Whether it was found or it was lost. Mine begins in a Jewish family, quite Orthodox in fact, until I discovered I was possibly atheist, but let’s call it agnostic, but always felt connected to Jewish culture if not belief, now living in and raising a mixed-faith family, rewarded by the richness and challenges that brings, living in a city that’s probably the most diverse on earth. I love that my neighbours are also mixed-faith; in fact between our two houses there are four religions, a fifth if you include our other neighbours. In our local neighborhood, there’s a friendly Sikh gurdwara, a serene Buddhist temple, a vibrant synagogue, the oldest mosque in London, churches from myriad denominations, and probably lots more besides.
I’m constantly intrigued by religion. I revel in its rituals, its festivals, its music, its community, and of course the centrality of food. It can transcend the individual, traversing time and space, helping people in their search for meaning. But as for dogma, division, rigidity and intolerance – well, who needs those unfortunate bedfellows…
I was just out of my teens when I travelled to India, at a time when my relationship with religion was also on the move. You can’t ignore religion in India, and this was indeed its attraction for me, particularly the Eastern philosophies and their take on the nature of reality and the human mind. (Well I was a budding philosophy student at the time!)
India is of course birthplace of several religions, and melting pot of several more. Religion is everywhere you go. Little shrines line roadsides like holy telephone boxes. Calls to prayer echo evocatively from lofty minarets. Sacred cows meander their way nonchalantly through crowded streets. Berobed sadhu holy men wander the cities, their hair long dusty and matted, their foreheads marked with vibrant tilaka, their souls freed from earthly bonds. And if you catch India at festival time, well expect to be roused by song, doused in water, exhausted by dance or splattered in paint.
India’s turbulent history has also sadly witnessed much religious division and violence. And yet there’s also a history of peaceful coexistence: a prime example being the 16th-Century Muslim emperor Akbar, whose tolerant rulership ensured the flourishing of people of all backgrounds. An early advocate of mixed-faith relationships, he married a Hindu princess. (She in turn must’ve been pretty tolerant, since she had 34 of his other wives to contend with!)
With a multitude of gurus, sects and ashrams, there’s also a fair share of spiritual quirkiness. A friend once related an encounter with a pilgrim who, out of pure religious devotion, had kept one arm continuously extended skywards for several years, such that it’d become locked rigid, forever pointing to the heavens. And I’ll never forget a gathering for the ‘Hugging Guru’ Amma, renown for her warm embraces which her acolytes experience as deeply profound. Being a foodie, I was particularly tickled by the little sweetie she gave me apres-cuddle.
Talking of food, you may recall that my last post ended on a train – a 1000-mile journey south, where breads and meat give way to rice and vegetables, reflecting the climate and the prevailing Hindu-influenced vegetarianism. An archetypal dish of the South is the humble thoran – a dry Keralan curry of coconut, vegetables, seeds and leaves – sometimes eaten in ceremonies and celebrations. Thorans can also be sampled more locally in London, particularly Tooting, but the best one can be found in a shipping container housed on a once-derelict site in Brixton.
Like Gunpowder (see last review), Kricket is an Indian small-plate venue. It’s situated in Pop Brixton, a council-supported project and community hub where assorted shipping containers house various independent food and retail outlets. The architecture is undoubtedly clever and eye-catching. However it also finds itself mixed up in the ‘Brixton gentrification’ debate, a topic only a notch below religion for potential explosiveness. It’s a complex issue, but suffice to say that all businesses there have to participate in local community projects as a condition to trade, which seems pretty sound to me.
Kricket’s grilled hispi thoran makes a star out of this humble brassica. Finely chopped and dry-fried with an assortment of nuts, seeds, and leaves: it’s like a savoury Indian muesli and comes with a similarly-satisfying textured crunch. Piled up and sprinkled with dessicated coconut, it resembles a snow-capped mountain. The flavour is surprisingly complex, with a careful balancing of brassica sweetness, sour notes from mustard seeds, and a herby earthiness from curry leaves. The spiced heat lingers and ripples in your mouth like a vintage wine. But this isn’t claret, it’s a cabbage, and this dish is very fine indeed.
The jostling of its constituent nuts, seeds and leaves, the coming together of disparate flavours, and the unifying riot of spice, resembles the melting pot of religions and peoples that make up India. And indeed London. And that’s why I love this dish, and those places, very much.
For more of my travel stories around India, including a dangerous encounter on a bus, you may like to check out: ‘Lamb-chops at Gunpowder‘.
Sadhu wanderer, Udaipur
Roadside shrine (to heavily-bearded men with freshly-amputated limbs?)
Dawn pilgrimage for monsoon festival, Mahabilapuram
Holy beach cow, Kerala
Nandi bull, Mysore
Fatehpur Sikri (ancient Mughal capital of Emperor Akbar)
Jain temples in the mist, Junagadh
Bahubali Buddhist statue, Sravanabelagola
Pop Brixton / Kricket