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Kolkata: In the Footsteps of Saints

India is a country with a strong religious and spiritual tradition. Religion is still very important in the lives of the vast majority of Indians and a flair for spirituality lives on. The birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, meditation, and yoga has attracted—and still attracts—people from all over the world in search of spiritual awakening—or at least a more spiritual perspective on life. The most famous example are probably the Beatles, who visited an Indian ashram in 1968. Last week, I spent two days in Kolkata, which was at the center of the life and work of some important religious and spiritual icons of different faiths.

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The Hooghly River in Kolkata is a distributary of the Ganges that flows into the Bay of Bengal some 100 kilometers south of Kolkata.

Kolkata is dubbed the City of Joy. But in the 20th century, Mother Teresa drew the eye of the world to the dreadful living conditions of the city’s slum population. The parts of the city that I saw looked orderly and pleasant (for Indian standards that is!): there are lots of trees and green areas, well-kept houses and shops, and even a functioning tram network. The Kolkata Metropolitan Area is one of the most productive in India in terms of GDP. At the same time, the area around Kolkata is one of the poorest in India and around one third of its population lives in slums.

Albanian-born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who would later become famous as Mother Teresa, joined the Sisters of Loreto at age 18. After just two months in Ireland, she was sent to West Bengal where she concluded her novitiate and took the name of Sister Teresa. Wanting to practice her beliefs more actively, she left the convent in Darjeeling in the late 1940s to start her famous missionary work with the poor in Kolkata. Some of her former students joined her and they became the «Missionaries of Charity».

The convent is housed in an unassuming blue building that also contains Mother Teresa’s tomb and a small museum about her life. Mother Teresa is a beloved icon not only for Christians, but also for Hindus. Around Kolkata, pictures and quotes of her are everywhere, reminding people to behave in a way that does justice to the Mother’s city.

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The tomb of Mother Teresa in the Missionaries of Charity convent in Kolkata

Kolkata has also brought forth some of the most important Hindu leaders, including Sri Ramakrishna and his chief disciple Swami Vivekananda. Across India, you can see pictures of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in streets, temples, and homes. Vivekananda founded two religious organizations, the Ramakrishna Mission and Ramakrishna Math, in honor of his teacher. Their headquarters are at a place called Belur Math outside Kolkata on the bank of the Hooghly River which, as a distributary of the holy river Ganges, is considered sacred.

Vivekananda in many ways shaped people’s understanding of Hinduism today, inside and outside of India. With his modern interpretation of Hinduism, Swami Vivekananda helped popularize Indian spiritual practices such as yoga and transcendental meditation in Western countries.

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Ramakrishna Temple at Belur Math

Swami Vivekananda was not only an important religious figure, but also played an important role in Indian independence as one of the key figures in the national movement of colonial India.

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A reminder of colonial times: The Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

When I visited, locals were celebrating the festival of Chhath, which is dedicated to Lord Surya, the god of the sun, and his wife Chhathi Maiya. Rituals include fasting, offerings to the rising and setting sun, holy baths in rivers and ponds. At Belur Math, the devotees, who were mostly women, performed their rituals in the holy waters of the Hooghly River.

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