With his coffee table book on places of worship across India, Dharmendra Bhandari hopes to bridge some fissures in folks’ mentality

It is an A-Z of pilgrimage spots in the country. Well, actually A to W — as in ‘A for Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal and Assam to W for West Bengal’. Dharmendra Bhandari’s colourful publication, Mosaic of Faith — Places of Worship in India, seems a good addition to the shelf of the faithful from various religions as well as those interested in catching a glimpse of India’s heritage of interfaith harmony within the covers of a single book.

The rarity of books treating places of worship from different religions in the same study was partly what inspired Bhandari to write it. But he frankly admits, too, that “faith and humour sell well in India,” and having already written a book on cartoonist R.K. Laxman, which he says “became a bestseller” (demanding a re-print after 5000 copies sold out), this time he turned his attention to faith. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, monasteries and dargahs, all find a place in the book, which he has published himself but is distributed by Jaico.

In India, as across the world, matters of religion and faith have been hijacked, so to speak, into the arena of politics, and the serenity associated with spiritual discourse has all but disappeared in the more contentious, often violent issues arising out of intolerance. This has led many free-thinking spirits to reject the idea of formalised religion altogether. The author agrees and wishes through this book to remind people of India’s multi-faith traditions of tolerance.

The book has a foreword by the Dalai Lama, and the author is happy that the Tibetan spiritual leader has pointed out Indian civilisation’s unique distinction of having not only “seen the birth of four of the world’s great religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism” but also having “provided a sanctuary for so many others, such as Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.”

Taking his own example, Bhandari notes, “I am a Jain. Since childhood I used to go to Hindu temples, and I didn’t know the difference between Hindu and Jain temples.” Similarly, he says, he used to visit shrines like Tirupati, Vaishno Devi, as well as sites sacred to Buddhism, the dargah at Ajmer and other pilgrimage spots. His own penchant for visiting places sacred to various faiths led him to collate the information for this book, he says.

Besides, he felt that due to diverse factors, “people were losing faith in the story, the traditions, the trivia related to” the different shrines. Thus, he says, taking care not to write too long on any one topic, he has tried to present the history and description of different places of worship in a simple manner that “even children can understand”. He has included what he calls “trivia” about the shrines, and also information on how to reach them. The book was released in New Delhi by eminent scholar and president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations Dr. Karan Singh some time ago and the author plans launches in other cities soon.

Retired from teaching at the University of Rajasthan, Bhandari holds a doctorate in Commerce, is a chartered accountant and has been on the boards of numerous banks and business houses. Since he is not practising as a CA, he remarks, he likes to devote time to writing on topics aimed at counteracting Indians’ tendency towards divisiveness. “I would never call myself with pride an Indian: I am a Jain, I am a Hindu, and even within that a Rajput, a Brahmin, or a Gujarati, a Rajasthani,” he says. Thus, his book is also a way of “trying to bridge the gap” and remind people “one doesn’t have to be too narrow-minded.”