RAMADAN: The Gift of Hunger

Ramadan, dawn in Kuwait


Ramadan, a month of sacrifice and endurance in the Muslim world is an occasion for visitors to share in the rewards of abstinence. After sunset.

However Islam is not unique in advocating disciplines at significant times of the year. Devout Christians do not consume red meat during the solemn period of Lent. Hindus eat but once a day during Shravan, a month dedicated to Lord Shiva. On Yom Kippur —the Day of Atonement—Jews, among other taboos, abstain from eating, drinking, washing or performing any sort of work for twenty-five hours.

This said, the sawm (fast) is especially difficult for Muslims since not a crumb of food, nor a drop of water can pass their lips between dawn and dusk during the entire ninth month of the Hijiri Islamic lunar calendar. Intercourse during daytime is further considered a grave sin.

Arab men and a girl sitting on a street bench in Ajman during the fast month of Ramadan


Fasting is hard enough —try it yourself —but when Ramadan falls in summer, the extreme temperatures in Middle Eastern countries push people to the limits of endurance. Then in northern Europe, where the sun may not set until 10pm, Muslims must abstain for a punishing 15-16 hours, especially difficult for the thousands of Muslim waiters when all around are indulging in food and drink.

Shi`ite families fasting in the courtyard of the Imam Ali shrine in Kerbala, Muslims


Muslims fast not merely for atonement, but in an endeavour to come closer to God through scrupulous self discipline. Fasting teaches devotion, patience and fortitude: a dry mouth and a painful stomach reminding how the poor suffer at all times of the year. The experience is spiritual as well as physical. Devout Muslims will perform an extra twenty rakkas (bendings) when offering prayers. Others may spend the daylight hours reading the Qur’an.

Two Pakistani youth studying the Qur`an at the Lal Hussein shrine in Lahore


While highly personal, Ramadan is equally a social occasion bringing people together in the knowledge that irrespective of class, or wealth, all are enduring pain. A feeling of goodwill prevails. People give more generously at this time and cook large meals for the less well off.

Poor Pakistan workers eating an iftar meal donated by a wealthy Arab in Dubai


in Muslim countries, a typical Ramadan day begins when the family rises to eat a nourishing meal before dawn. Shops close after the noon prayer, but during the morning food is sold in souqs and supermarkets for women to prepare dishes to be eaten when the fast is broken.

Men pass the long daylight hours sleeping and listening to Quranic recitals on the television, but as sunset approaches people emerge to pass the final hours outdoors.

Iftar is announced in Doha by firing a cannon IS124222


Waterfront corniches in the Arab states are thronged with crowds as the sun sinks into the Gulf. At the same time, Muslims throughout the world are walking out the last minutes to dusk. Then suddenly streets empty as all head home for iftar – literally break-fast.

Men in Dacca Bangladesh get their first drink of water after a day`s fating during the month of Ramadan


Starting with water, fruit juices and dates, little is eaten at first. Soup follows, then a main meal of meat or poultry, salads and rice.Family members and invited guests commonly sit around dishes laid out on a tablecloth on the floor. Everyone enjoys their food much more for having gone so long without. Festivities last until late, Ramadan lamps twinkle on street corners and foodstalls do a brisk trade in snacks and softdrinks.

Street stall in Dacca selling Ramadan sweetmeats IS12413


Entering into the spirit of things, children run from house to house singing traditional ditties for a reward of sweets. Parks and carousels are crowded and young men race up and down in cars, playing music and sounding horns, but shortly after midnight before next day’s fast begins, you can hear a pin drop…….

Turkish families prayer before an Iftar meal during Ramadan



Persons real or imagined are central to worship in most mainstream religions. Christians venerate Jesus Christ with the Virgin Mary having special significance for Catholics. Buddhists revere Sidi Gautama who became the Buddha and whose effigy is found in the sacred places wherever Buddha is known to have preached. Sikhs follow the teachings of Guru Nanak, the original guru who founded Sikhism in 1469. Then there are the Hindus —at last count exceeding 1 billion —who believe in one Supreme God manifested in hundreds of male and female forms and avatars. This Supreme Being is depicted in the Hindu trimurti/trinity in which the cyclical functions of creation, preservation and destruction are symbolised by three powerful deities: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. With other gods and goddesses mentioned in the Vedas, and in the epic poem the Ramayana, they are worshiped in temples all over India as well as in mandirs or shrines in family homes.

                                                                                                       Brahma, the Creator

Ancient religious texts known as the puranas ascribe the creation of the Universe to Lord Brahma, the first god in the Hindu triumvirate. While an integral part of the Supreme God, he is no longer widely worshiped since it is considered his creative work has been done. Brahma’s consort is Saraswati, the Goddess of Music andLearning.

                                                                                                   Vishnu, the Preserver

Vishnu is the second member of the trimurti. He maintains moral order and harmony in the Universe which is periodically destroyed by Shiva in order to prepare for the next cycle of creation. Hindu scriptures speak of Vishnu appearing as ten avatars which include a fish (here) a tortoise and a boar.

                                                                                                     Shiva, the Destroyer

Shiva, the third member of the trimurti is tasked with destroying the Universe in order to prepare for its renewal at the end of each cycle. Shiva’s destructive power is regenerative, a necessary attribute to making renewal possible. Symbolising strength and virility he has many devotees known as Shaivites.

                                                                                                Krishna, the Compassionate

Painting of Lord Krishna in the meadow with the sacred cow

Hindus identify Lord Krishna as the teacher of the sacred Bhagavad Gita. From Kṛṣṇa, the Sanskrit word for the colour blue, Krishna is often depicted as a cow-herder cavorting in lush pastures. His promise that he will manifest himself whenever moral order declines has sustained Hindu belief for thousands of years.

                                                                                               Kali, the Durga Mother Goddess

Goddess Kali, Hooghly river, Kolkata

Kali, or Durga Devi, is the powerful Mother Goddess who fights the buffalo demon Mahishasura in order to restore dharma. While terrifying to her adversaries, she is equally filled with love for her devotees. Durga Puja, a festival marking the battle, is held all over India, especially in her home city of Kolkata

                                                                                                Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth

Hindu goddess Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, especially worshipped by businessmen

Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and good fortune, is prominent among Hindu female deities. The consort of Lord Vishnu, she has many followers especially among business people who lay their accounts before her image in hope of enjoying a prosperous year. A Lakshmi puja is held on the third day of Divali

                                                                                               Ganesh, Remover of Obstacles

Ganesh, the fat god with the elephant-head is the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is one of the most widely worshipped deities by HIndus

Lord Ganesha, the jolly god with an elephant head, occupies a special place in the hearts of Hindus. Most families have a picture, or statue of him, in the home and he is worshiped at small street shrines as well as in Hindu temples. The annual festival of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates his birthday.

                                                                                               Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom

Mentioned in the Rigveda, Saraswati the goddess of learning, wisdom, and music. Students offer prayers to her during the school term and especially before their examinations. She is often dressed in white symbolizing light, knowledge and truth. Her four hands hold a book, a mālā rosary, a water pot and a musical instrument.

                                                                                                  Hanuman, the Monkey God

 Hanuman the playful monkey-god from Ramayana

Hanuman is widely worshiped in Hinduism. Starring in the epic poem, the Ramayana, he is celebrated for his strength, devotion, and courage while helping Rama (an avatar of Lord Vishnu) battle the demon king Ravana. His value lies in inspiring his followers to conquer obstructions in their own lives.

                                                                                                       Surya, the Sun God

Surya, Hindu Sun God

Surya, the golden Sun God is usually depicted arriving on a chariot pulled by seven horses. Once ranked in importance with Vishnu and Shiva, he has many temples dedicated to him and is invoked in the Gayatri mantra, uttered daily at dawn by millions of Hindus.


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St John's church in Kolkata, dates from 1787


St John’s Anglican Church was among the first public buildings erected by the East India Company when Calcutta became the official capital of British India in 1772. Its foundation stone was laid by the first Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, on 6th April 1784 and the church opened for worship in 1787. Built of stone from the ruins of the ancient Bengali town of Gaur, St John’s bears a passing resemblance to the 13th century church of St Martins-in-the-Fields in London. Its neo-classic style architecture is topped by a similar spire inset with a giant clock said to have been wound every day since its construction. Whether you are a Christian or not, a reason to visit St John’s is that its compound houses a monument in memory of the soldiers who suffocated in a small room in Fort William following the British surrender of Calcutta to the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, in April 1756. Of the 146 prisoners crammed in overnight, only 43 were still alive when the cell was unlocked next morning ——the dead, with no room to fall, remained on their feet. The lexicon “black hole of Calcutta” has entered the English language to mean anywhere small, dark and claustrophobic. The room concerned is said to have measured only 14x18feet.

An obelisk commemorating the lives lost on that terrible night was removed in 1821. The new Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, built a new memorial in 1901, but due to the sensitivities of the Indian independence movement, it was taken to its present site in the shady compound of St John’s Church. Located on Netaji Subhash (NS) Road, St John’s is a quiet oasis in the maelstrom of modern-day Kolkata. Your transport can drive in and park outside the entrance of the church (leave a tip for the gate keeper on your way out).

Monument to the 123 men who died in the Black Hole of Calcutta

Monument to the 123 deceased in the Black Hole of Calcutta, 1756


Young bull for sacrifice at eid ul-adha, Pakistan


Animal sacrifice is mentioned hundreds of times in the Old Testament, but over the centuries, both Judaism and Christianity have gradually consigned the practice to the past.

A fundamental difference within the disturbed world of Islam is that the majority of peaceful Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less abjure, the warrant for violence and intolerance embedded in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is believed to be the direct words of God, revealed via the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad,more than 1400 years ago. It is therefore considered sacrilegious to affect any changes in the text.

Head of the houehold cuts the throat of a cow for Eid ul Ahzar in Pakistan


Whereas Salafists take the Qur’an at its most literal, pious Muslims quietly adhere to its teachings on diet and dress without trying to impose Islamic lore on unbelievers. The problem is that many of their religious beliefs sit uncomfortably in the economic, cultural and political structure of democratic societies playing host to millions of Muslim migrants and refugees,

Islam espouses many customs that aggravate western sensibilities. Perhaps none is more sensitive than the edicts concerning women. Sura 4:34 …”Allah permits the hitting of women”…being one of the most noxious.

Ramadan, the month long fast when Muslims may not eat or drink between the hours of dawn and dusk may have been all very well for a herdsman resting under a date palm in 9thcentury Arabia, but the practice is unsuited in an inter-connected world.



Among other Muslim observances, Eid ul-Adha — the feast of sacrifice — is considered repugnant in societies with a concern for animal welfare. Dating from a time when Arabs offered blood sacrifices to pagan idols, it requires every Muslim family slaughter an animal at the end of the hajj pilgrimage (a symbolic act commemorating the willingness of the Prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son to God, and believed to bring good karma).



On the first day of Eid ul-Adha an estimated 400 million animals worldwide have their throats cut  — bull, buffalo, cow, sheep, camel, goat — whatever the head of the household can afford, with the meat then distributed, as an act of charity, to the poor.

Eid al Adha, collecting me for the poor in Bandar Aceh


How much more compassionate it would be to gift the animal to a poor family for milk. Or to build up a small rural herd. It is also economically more sensible.

                          ” Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day: give him a fishing rod and he’ll eat for a lifetime. ”  

Boy cattle herder with stick in West Africa, rural scene with animals bush





Artwork showing the Buddha meditating beneath the sacred BO tree or Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, in India

Buddhists are not required to worship in temples, but many do so in order to meditate on the Four Noble Truths, the essence of Buddha’s teachings. Meditation itself is a central practice in Buddhism which today counts some 500 million followers. Mainly in Asia but increasingly so in western countries. Those Buddhists who can, undertake a pilgrimage to the holy places associated with the Buddha’s life. Stupas to accommodate any sacred relics are common. Pilgrims walk around these bell-shaped structures by way of paying their respects and to turn prayer wheels containing Buddhist texts. The most important sites revered by all branches of Buddhism are: Lumbini  birthplace), Bodghaya (enlightenment) Sarnath (where Buddha gave his first sermon) and Kusinara (where he died). 

Shrine with bas relief birth of the Buddha at Lumbini, his birthplace in India

Siddhartha Gautama, who was given the honorific title of  Lord Buddha (literally meaning the awakened one) was born in 623 BCE in Lumbini in what is now southern Nepal. This is verified by an inscription on a pillar erected by the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, an early convert to Buddhism in the third century. The Lumbini monuments were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.

he Dhamek Stupa is said to mark the spot of a deer park (Rishipattana) where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his five disciples after attaining enlightenmen

The Dhamekh Stupa, built in 200 BCE, is located in Sarnath, 12 kms from the Hindu city of Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It marks the place where Buddha delivered his first discourse on the noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Sarnath is one of the four holy sites in India sanctioned by the Buddha himself for pilgrimage. Pictured is a pilgrim circumambulating the lofty structure.

Statue of the `death of Buddha` with a monk praying - parinirvana - at Kusingara India

Buddha died c.487-483 BCE. His final days are described in the Pali text called the Great Parinirvana Sutra. On reaching the village of Kusinara in eastern Uttar Pradesh, he instructed Ananda, his most faithful disciple, to prepare a bed for him with its head aligned towards the north. Above is the 61 m. long dying Buddha statue in the Mahaparinivana Temple in Kusinara which all devout Buddhist hope to visit.

The famous Sanchi stupa near Bhopal, built by the Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCW, UN World Heritage site. India

The group of Sanchi monuments, 32 km east of Bhopal in the state of Madya Pradesh, date from the Mauryan Empire, mid-third century BCE. Central is the Great Stupa, a solid hemispherical dome symbolizing the dome of heaven enclosing earth. Four gateways  surrounding the stupa are adorned with scenes from the Buddha’s life. Carvings also depict the Emperor Ashoka’s visit to the sacred Bo Tree at Bodhgaya.

Onks and nuns pray beneath the sacred Bo Tree at Bodhgaya India

Bodhgaya in Bihar, is the centre of the universe for Buddhists. It was here, under a spreading bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama spent six years meditating on the nature of life and the path to nirvana. When the young ascetic attained the higher state known as enlightenment, he became known as Lord Buddha. The Bo Tree and adjacent Mahabodi Temple were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2002.

Swayambuhnath Temple Kathmandu Nepal with new year prayer flags, Buddhism religious texts, stupa

The Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu is believed to have been a Buddhist pilgrimage destination since at least the 5thcentury. Legend says a miraculous lotus planted by a past Buddha blossomed into its golden spire set with two eyes. Between the eyes, the Nepali figure 1 symbolises the one righteous path to nirvana. Pilgrims include Vajrayana Buddhists of northern Nepal and Tibet and  Newari Buddhists from central and southern Nepal. Sacred texts written on prayer flags are believed to disperse as the flags flutter in the wind.

deer, wheel, dharma, Buddhism, Johkang, palace

Lhasa is noted for traditional buildings related to Tibetan Buddhism. Among them is the four-storey Johkang Palace housing the Jowo Shakyamuni Buddha statue, the most venerated object for Tibetan Buddhists. The gilded bronze tiled roof of the palace is topped with two deer flanking the eight-spoked dharma wheel, or “Wheel of Law” central to Buddhist philosophy. The original palace dates from around 642 CE.

Buddha, statue, shrine, room sacred, temple, Maligawa Temple, Kandy

Sri Lanka abounds in Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Everywhere are temples, stupas and rock carvings of the Buddha. There is also the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, whose shrine room contains a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha brought to the island in 4 CE. The tooth is paraded on the Maligawa temple elephant in an annual procession known as the Kandy Perahera.

Buddhist pilgrims make the circuit of Mount Kailash in Tibet

Mount Kailash, in the Trans-Himalayan region of south-west Tibet, is venerated as a holy place by Hindus and Jains as well as Buddhists. Embedded in ancient Asian myths, the sacred mountains has historically attracted pilgrims. Most walk around the base, while especially devout Tibetan Buddhists make full body prostrations the entire way round, an arduous commitment taking some three weeks.

Dazu rock carvings, Tang dynasty, Szechuan province, China

The Dazu rock carvings are a series of Buddha images, displaying Taoist and Confucian influences, in Chongqing Municipality of south-west China. The estimated 10,000 individual statues are in a remarkable state of preservation considering their age, late 9thcentury to mid 12th century. Like many Buddhist sites, today they are visited by tourists as well as Chinese Buddhist and Taoist pilgrims.

Shwedagon, pagoda, Yangon, Buddhist, stupa, Myanmar

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Built by the Mon people in the 6th century, it enshrines eight hairs of the Buddha and a tooth relic.The soaring gold plated stupa is crowned by a hti, or umbrella, embedded with thousands of rubies and diamonds. Entering via one of four stairways, pilgrims buy incense, candles and flowers to offer to at small shrines around its base.

                                                                 Copyright photos available on request 


The mosque takes many forms across the Islamic world. While certain features are usually common to all —notably the prayer hall, dome and minaret—the architectural style and decoration are strongly influenced by regional traditions of the time and country where it was built. Today wealth also plays a big part in the construction of a mosque. By comparison with the very simple Muslim places of worship made of mud or palm fronds found in rural villages in Asia, are the elaborate mosques built by wealthy Arab states with no expense is spared. This said, the purpose is the same: ritualized worship especially on Friday when every male is expected to attend the jamii masjid (literally Friday mosque). Some Muslim countries do not admit non-believers in their mosques, but realizing their value as both a tourist attraction and in spreading the word, increasing numbers now allow visitors.

The Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif Afghanistan

The Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, north west Afghanistan, has foundations from the 12th century. It was rebuilt in the 15th century by the Seljuk Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqarah using both Sunni and Shi’a artisans who covered the entire structure with turquoise tiles, many inscribed with verses from the holy Qur’an. Shi’ite followers believe it contains the tomb of Ali, a son-in-law of the Prophet whom they consider the Fourth Caliph.

Al AZHAR Mosque in Cairo dates from the late 10th century AD, Egypt

The al-Azhar Mosque was established by the Fatimid dynasty shortly after the founding of Cairo in 969 CE. Built by the Caliph Muizz Li-Din Allah, it opened for prayers in 972 CE. The madrassa within the complex initially spread Ismaili-Shi`ite teachings before switching to mainstream Sunni doctrine when the Ayyubid dynasty assumed power in Egypt in the 12th century. The mosque and associated university is the most revered in the Muslim world.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul Turkey

The Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque in the Sultan Ahmet district of Istanbul is attributed to the architect Sedefkar Mehmet Aga who based its design on a fusion of Ottoman and Byzantine elements featuring cascading domes flanked by six soaring minarets. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I between 1603-17 CE,  it takes its nickname from the misty blue Iznik tiles which cover the entire building.

The Great Mosque at Djenne on the Bani river flood plain in the west African country of Mali is dated to the 13th century. The present structure dates from 1907 and it is regularly replastered with riverine mud. Ostrich egg shells on the spires indicate links with ancient pagan fertility rites. It is a UN World Heritage site.

The Great Mosque of Djenne located in the central west African country of Mali is the largest adobe building in the world. Built in Sudano-Sahelian style of architecture, it was raised in the 13thcentury. The nature of its material requires regular re-plastering with riverine mud. The present structure dates from 1907 and with other historic monuments in Djenne, it is inscribed on the UN World Heritage list.

The Badshahi Mosque, built in the 17th century by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, dawn view

The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb c.1673. Paved in red sandstone, both the interior and exterior are decorated with elaborate white marble carvings in a floral design common to Mughal art. At the time of its completion, the Badshahi was the largest mosque in the world. The prayer-hall and courtyard can accommodate 56,000 worshippers.

18th century mosque Yogyakarta Indonesia

The Masjid Gedhe Kauman State mosque of Yogakarta, Indonesia, was built in 1773. Its triple tiered roof design is typical of traditional Javanese religious architecture being also noted for the absence of a dome and minarets.The prayer hall features 36 columns of teak. A pavilion within the complex is for the gamelan orchestra used on various Islamic-Javanese religious occasions.

ISLAM Jaime Masjid in Dhaka, Bangla desh IS11512

The Baitul Mukkaram in Dhaka is the national mosque of Bangladesh.  Designed by the Indian architect Abdulhusein Meheraly Thariani, its unusual large cube shape is modeled on the sacred ka’abah in the holy city of Mecca. The mosque lacks the traditional Islamic dome over the prayer hall which is roofless to allow in natural light. It opened for worship in 1968.

Ubudiah Mosque in the state of Perak, Malaysia

The Ubudiah Mosque located in the royal town of Kuala Kangsar in the state of Perak, Malaysia, features the voluptuous Indo-Saracenic style of architecture popular in Asian colonies of the British Empire. Designed by Arthur Bension Hubback during the reign of the 28th sultan of Perak, it opened for worship in 1917.

Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca Morocco

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the largest mosque in Morocco with the world’s tallest minaret (210 metres) whose laser beam is visible to shipping 10 kms out in the Atlantic Ocean. Standing on a coastal promontory, the huge building designed by architect Michel Pinseau, can accommodate more than 105,000 worshippers. It opened in 1993 and may be visited by non-believers.

Abu Dhabi Mosque

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, is one of the major modern mosques in Islam. In size equal to five football fields, it boasts the world’s largest dome, the biggest chandelier and the longest carpet made of 2,268,000 knots and weighing about 47 tonnes. Opened in 2007, the mosque can hold 40,000 worshippers. Guided tours are available except on Friday prayer time.

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