I am not a religious person. However, by virtue of growing up in a religious society, I’ve always practiced Christianity as a way of life. Church and community have played a major role in shaping my mental models, beliefs, and aspirations. All throughout childhood, I was regular at church, active in the choir, and participated in Sunday school/lessons. I ticked all the checkboxes, like a faithful child is expected to do.
Surprisingly, seldom have I found myself praying in the church or during religious ceremonies and practices. The motivation to go to church has always been about an interest to sing and interact with people who were my community. I’ve grown up immersing in Syrian Christian Malayalam hymns and singing these melodies out with all my heart on Sundays. It was therapeutic for me as an adolescent.
It was 25th December 2021, my first week in Ujjain. First Christmas alone in a totally unknown land, really far away from home (Kerala). The festival, as a celebration has always been about carols, good food, cake and wine, get-togethers with cousins, Christmas trees, holidays, and loads of fun. I was not aware that it was a holiday in my organization and spent the first Christmas working while folks back home spent yet another splendid day with the comfort and company of their loved ones.
Social media was also filled with stories of celebration. Opening the Instagram account or talking to family members was in no way helping the terrible feeling of missing out on all of it. By the end of the day, I was a mess filled with sadness and frustration. That day, I visited the church in Ujjain for the first time. It was crowded with people who were probably getting introduced to the intricacies of the festivity. There was curiosity all around.
I found a place in one of the corners amidst the crowd to sit in and plugged in the earphones with the playlist of Malayalam Hymns. No matter how far away from home, at that moment, I could mentally sit in the church with the beautiful memories of all the Christmas Eve’s I’ve spent there. Some with food, others with wine and friends but most of them at the church with carols and celebration. The next half an hour was all about uncontrollable tears, which took me through the memories of dear ones back home.
Never had I imagined that hymns and churches held so much power and influence to calm me down. No amount of talking to anyone back home could replace the kind of satisfaction and content that reconnecting with this music could offer. It marked the beginning to understand what religion meant to me. It is the familiarity of myself, bred from rekindling the identity which was conditioned in me through years of practicing the religion, that I yearn for it.
As a Christian living in the city of temples – Ujjain, navigating through the Aartis, Jai Shri Mahakal chants, and difficult conversations about my lack of interest in practicing Hinduism have all been challenging learning opportunities. Living through constant reminders that I do not belong to the religion practiced by the majority, here has been an unexpected concern. The biggest realization gained through all of this is gratefulness for the religious practices I grew used to over the years spent at home. It conditioned in me a self-practicable means to seek peace in challenging circumstances. Christmas 2021 helped:
- Realize the power of music in religious spaces to provide warmth and comfort
- Realize the relevance and importance of festivities to unite people and cultures
- Build an understanding of the relationship with Christianity