Meet the World’s Craziest Religious Fanatics

Religious fanatics have a terrible reputation. You’re already probably thinking lunatic suicide bomber or lunatic weirdo knocking on your door trying to convert you and your unborn children. Shouldn’t we be trying to rid the world of these nut jobs? No. Religious fanatics are cool. Weren’t we always taught to stick up for what we believe in? Just because some people take it to the extreme doesn’t mean they should be avoided. Religious fanatics make for fascinating travel experiences and meeting them is worthy of a place on any travel bucketlist. Jefferson Taylor had had visits from one Mormon too many. So after using the pages of his free bible as rolling paper (only joking :-)) he went on a mission to meet religious fanatics and check out the world’s most important pilgrimage sites. All of the following can be experienced with little more than your own sense of adventure…

Sikhism – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar. People of all faiths are invited in.

At the Golden Temple in Amritsar. People of all faiths are invited in.

Sikhs travel for thousands of miles to visit the Golden Temple, the holiest site in their religion. So when I turn up without a turban I’m expecting to be turned away. But these fanatics like to share… Gold shimmers softly on a placid lake, creating a neat reflection of the Golden Temple. Pilgrims are everywhere; many are asleep on the cool marble floor and a few comically strip down to long underpants for a dip in the blessed water. Standing at the gateway I admire the hair twiddling of contestants in the world’s greatest beard competition. Length and style are quite staggering. Streams of avid pilgrims flow past me and I follow. Plates clatter together, spoons stir vats of curry, a cauldron bubbles. Joining the seated pilgrims in a gigantic dining hall I watch my tray load with sloppy dal and sweet rice pudding. I offer my thanks. “Do not thank me” a volunteer quickly whispers before throwing more bread out from his basket, “thank God.”

Huge groups of volunteers cook free meals to all pilgrims. This is the size of the washing up operation.

Huge groups of volunteers cook free meals to all pilgrims. This is the size of the washing up operation.

Everything at the temple is free. Free for everyone. Not just free for Sikhs. It’s all free for everyone regardless of their religion. And every space is taken. In an overflowing dorm I throw a blanket onto the floor and bed down amongst the excited chatter of pilgrims and the covert scurrying of bed bugs. Nowhere has ever made me feel so welcome.

Many sleep on the floor. The surrounding building contains many shared dorms.

Many sleep on the floor. The surrounding building contains many shared dorms.


Buddhism – Kangding, China

I’ve always been envious of a monk’s contentment; no Coca-Cola cravings, no anger when your roommate finishes the milk, no getting pissed when the bus is cancelled. I wanted to achieve such repose and, being a 21st century Westerner, I wanted it in the shortest time possible. I sit down with three monks in the Tibetan town of Litang (officially part of China), and ask if they’ve reached enlightenment. A language barrier comes between us so I pull out the iPod and play some Rolling Stones – “I can’t get no satisfaction” – and they here my plea. Two days later I’ve been assigned a teacher and my training begins. I must turn a prayer wheel 40,000 times. Which is a lot. The iPod isn’t allowed to keep me company and I’m so eager not to cheat I keep under counting and forgetting where I am.

These prayer wheels must be turned 40,000 times. And that's just the first step.

These prayer wheels must be turned 40,000 times. And that’s just the first step.

All monks are religious fanatics. They live and breathe their religion, sacrificing everything in pursuit of their chosen path. The men around me have been in this temple for 30 years. Some smile, some don’t, but all look happy in a peculiar kind of way. Unfortunately, turning a prayer wheel 40,000 times hasn’t made me feel anything other than boredom. But I’ve finished. Next up is 40,000 prostrations. Standing, kneeling, stretching forward, kneeling, standing, and that counts as one. It’s not circuit training you barefooted nut case! After half a day I haven’t made a thousand and run away from the monastery in embarrassment. It seems that anyone can plant a bomb or preach the gospel and call himself a religious fanatic. It takes a lot more than that with Buddhism.

Monks gather for teachings.

Monks gather for teachings.

Colored flags fly high above the temple.

Colored flags fly high above the temple.

Hinduism – The Streets of Agra, India

There’s always a festival going on in India. And the best ones come with powdered paint and scores of crazy locals paying homage. I’m unsure how it started. Photos confirm that I look like a reject from an Umpalumpa audition. Every sweaty step through Agra’s pulsating streets smudges red and green paint deeper into my pores. The marble domes of the world’s most beautiful building peak over a well and laugh at me. I am in no state to see it. No state to mingle with the package tourists who queue impatiently at the entrance to the Taj Mahal. Family processions compete, prosperity being judged by the ostentatious parading of the loudest rickshaw mounted speakers. Powdered paint is flying in the air like smoke from a child’s grenade and the streets somehow simultaneously define joy and resemble a war scene. Even the cows are being smothered in paint.

Early stages of the paint battle.

Early stages of the paint battle.

I’m being picked on. Foreigners joining the celebrations of Durga Purga is to funny for the Hindus to pass up. They take turns in slapping and smearing my face with paint until I become unrecognizable, transmogrified into some kind of failed Disney creation. Teenage women claspes my hands and lead me in Bangra dances that my hips fail to follow while old women shove ten rupee notes into my mouth to encourage a perpetual encore.

The next stage of the powdered paint fight.

The next stage of the powdered paint fight.

Approaching the Ganga the chanting began: an ecstatic chorus directed at a woman god riding a tiger. Eventually the plastic statue is taken into the murky water and left to float downriver. It all seems so remarkable and different. But here comes beauty and madness of the local fanaticism. There’s another festival starting next week and two more next month. These powdered paint fights are happening almost every week. Forget Christmas and Easter and just having two celebrations a year. The Hindus in India’s holy cities practically have a celebration every day, including one when they all get insanely stoned in honor of Lord Shiva.

The woman god that is left to float down the Ganges.

The woman god that is left to float down the Ganges.

Islam – Shrine of Imam Reza, Masshad, Iran

I wasn’t going to make it to Mecca so I set my sites on the next best thing: the world’s biggest mosque. Dominating the town of Masshad in Northern Iran, some 700,000 worshipers can pray in the multiple courtyards surrounding Imam Reza’s shrine. This isn’t a place of Taliban trainees. There’s an openness to the mosque and shrine, reflected in the fact that I’m allowed to enter and explore. There’s bling and more bling, the silver catching the sun’s rays and the marble floors reflecting my pensive grin. I’m in a shalwar kameez, dressed like the locals as I enter one of Shia Islam’s holiest pilgrimage sites. On the way to Masshad I had seen dozens of people walking in the desert sun, pilgrims setting off on foot to pay homage. Men sit in tears all around me, joyous eyes lost in a trance. Others stand in reflection and a benign security man uses a staff to enforce the strict female dress code.

One of the many courtyards at the mosque.

One of the many courtyards at the mosque.

As the call to prayer rings resonantly through the town the crowds file into the courtyards, mats rolled out for prayer. I watch silently. I’m not turned away. Emotion fills faces, golden facades stand above ten thousand bowed heads, and I find myself moving with the crowds, going inside. Before the shrine comes a network of corridors, each covered in twinkling gold. Chandeliers hang, tears roll down cheeks, and joyous cries are caught between sobs.

Heading inside into Imam Reza's shrine.

Heading inside into Imam Reza’s shrine.

There’s an unthinkable opulence here, one that contrasts the humility of the pilgrims. But as Imam Reza’s shrine moves into view all manners and modesty are lost. Elbows fly into faces, people barge, and there’s a dodgy moment when I’m convinced that everyone will be crushed and trampled. 700,000 people can’t fit into a single room with a single coffin. I’m lifted off my feet, moving in unison as the crowd sways and hands reach out to touch the sculpted golden resting place. My finger brushes the coffin and the crowd moves me onwards to the exit where I sit down in exhaustion. A man approaches with a crazed stare. There isn’t another white person around. “My friend” he says “let’s go drink tea.”

Everyone madly pushing to touch the shrine.

Everyone madly pushing to touch the shrine.