MUMBAI, India (RNS) — Shashank Sharma walked past the green sign that said “Imamia Hall” and pushed the metal gate to enter a tree-filled compound. The white Shiite mosque inside was latched and padlocked, so someone came to open it for him. He entered, surveying the prayer space, the light flooding through the windows, the green carpeted floor. He silently said a prayer.
“It was unbelievable that I am a Hindu, and the mosque is being opened just for me to enter it,” Sharma, 34, said of his visit to the mosque in Delhi, where he is based. “It was an overwhelming feeling being in a big mosque all alone. It was a very touching experience.”
This is one of 76 houses of worship that Sharma visited last year in June as part of his effort to visit the most places of worship by anyone in a month. In May this year, Guinness World Records certified his record. Sacred spaces Sharma visited included Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples, Sikh gurdwaras, mosques and churches, as well as a Baha’i place of worship.
“I don’t want to make any political statement, but I have been troubled by the way that communal harmony has taken a hit in the past few years,” said Sharma, who works as an education consultant and researcher.
India is officially a secular country, with a majority Hindu population (966 million) and significant minority populations of Muslims (172 million) and Christians (28 million). But since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, minorities have come to feel increasingly under threat. In May, for the fourth year in a row, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the U.S. State Department designate India as a “country of particular concern.” Sharma’s record comes against a backdrop of increasing sectarian tensions, including crackdowns on interfaith marriages and cow protection-related lynchings.
Sharma sees his personal crusade as a small step toward spreading the message of communal harmony. “With this record I want to tell the common man: Visiting a place of worship that is different from yours should not be seen as something anti-Hindu,” he said. Though Sharma considers himself Hindu, he is not especially religious. “As Hindus, we normally don’t visit non-Hindu places of worship of other religions,” he said.
At times when visiting non-Hindu sites, he felt a vague unease. “I was not sure what would be their reaction if the people there found out I was not a follower of that religion,” he said. But nothing untoward happened. Sometimes people were surprised to find a Hindu at a non-Hindu house of worship. “But there were no negative experiences.”
It all started about 15 months ago, when he saw a call-out on the Guinness World Records page proactively inviting people to try for this record. He began visiting the shrines last June, in the peak of the Delhi summer. “I did feel tired,” he said. “But at no point did I think of giving up.” The idea to attempt this record was sparked around the same time Sharma was aiming for another record — the most museums visited (24) in a 24-hour span.
He used Google maps to walk around and organically find his way to the sacred spots. Some of the places he visited are prominent monuments that see hundreds of tourists every week. Sharma had been to some in the past, including Jama Masjid, one of the subcontinent’s biggest mosques, and the Lotus Temple, a flower-shaped architectural structure dedicated as a Baha’i place of worship. But many of the other structures he was visiting for the first time. He was surprised by the number of churches he discovered in Delhi.
Sharma ended up visiting more than 100 spots, but for the purposes of the record he sent proof for 76. He also had to send videos and photos of each visit as evidence, as well as have a witness accompany him. One of those witnesses, Nikhil Gulabani, is a friend who traveled from out of town to accompany him.
“Frankly speaking, I know he is a bit crazy,” Gulabani, 38, said with a laugh. “This was not the first time he was trying something crazy.
“I didn’t see any reasons why he would not be able to achieve the record,” said Gulabani, who runs a family business in Gwalior, a city in central India.
For Sharma, the entire experience has been rewarding. “It was exhausting, but also satisfying, and I felt proud,” he said. “Even if not for the record, I felt like I did something.”