Altars of Yearning: How India Prays by Shripriya Thirani – Review

Book: Altars of Yearning: How India Prays
Author: Shripriya Dalmia Thirani
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 152; Price: Rs 3000

Whatever it be, it definitely has found a reason to exist amidst most of us (even for atheists, secretly?) The power of prayer is something that people grow up listening to, especially if there are god-fearing, deeply ‘religious’ parents in the household. Now the question arises – is prayer a way to propagate a specific religion via young minds the moment they can comprehend things? Or is prayer simply a way to express the inner yearning of the human soul?

Are prayers answered? Is there a time and place for a prayer to be answered? How can one know if their prayer has been answered or no? What if it isn’t? Before heading into a volley of such questions and more, the book reviewer would like to draw the attention of the reader to the fact that this book has embarked upon photographic storytelling.

Women praying to trees with threads tied around them, women wading their way with their lower bodies immersed in water to offer prayers to a river, children engrossed in deep meditation (Wow! Does it happen for real? The boundless energy sure can be mitigated)—these are just few of the glimpses into hundreds of stories that each picture is trying to tell.

An image of two men offering water to Surya Dev (Sun God) seemed particularly appealing to the reviewer as there was something about it—the sun at the distant corner, water flowing down to reunite with the river while these men stood with their heads bowed and their eyes closed—that was truly peaceful.

Religion and prayers have been strangely but sensibly kept apart in the book. What is worth commendation is the beautiful way in which the photographer/ author has managed to capture some of the most intimate moments of people’s lives. It can be considered as a step forward in uniting the land of diversity that we call India.  What is also worth mentioning here is that the author created history when she won the rights to start Mumbai’s first and largest restaurant in the Arabian Sea—Queensline.

Be it a sardar offering prayers at the Golden temple, an ummachikutty (a more endearing term for a Muslim girl, usually used in Malayalam) praying with her palms half closed, an ash-smeared sadhu blessing a lady with peacock feathers, a man with his head bowed down under a cross, or a woman with a young baby under a bridge looking at images of some of the thousands of Gods that are part of our ‘stressful, seemingly helpless’ times.

There is mystery and mysticism in some photographs but unquestionably each of them has a story that’s being narrated to their ‘supreme’ protector. This book is definitely a visual delight and can be browsed through to experience India in its rawness.

However, the reviewer felt that rather than a few beautiful quotes here and there, a better insight into the pictures by way of the author’s experiences would definitely have facilitated a better connect with the readers. There were moments when the reviewer wanted to know more about the pictures—about the precise practices observed by the subjects. Definitely, it might have been skipped as the motto here was not to speak about certain locations or practices but about that one emotion where people surrender themselves completely to some invisible sense of ‘power’ and ‘peace’.

A drawback however could be its price. The reviewer wonders how many people would want to shell out 3,000 rupees to browse through images that tell stories at a time when there are moments worth capturing all around us and when we are all busy telling our own stories. How many of us will pause to reflect?

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