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Visiting Indian artist creates stone altar that sings of Jerusalem’s religions

Vibha Galhotra brings her vision of spirituality and nature to a downtown rooftop, with a focus on climate change

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Visiting Indian artist Vibha Galhotra, at the entrance of the wooden meditation temple at Jerusalem's Muslala, with the stone altar in back of her, at its center, created as part of her 10-week residency in the Jerusalem International Fellows, through May 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Visiting Indian artist Vibha Galhotra, at the entrance of the wooden meditation temple at Jerusalem's Muslala, with the stone altar in back of her, at its center, created as part of her 10-week residency in the Jerusalem International Fellows, through May 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem now has a temple shared by three religions. Created by a visiting Indian artist, it is located on the Terrace of Muslala, an urban rooftop site atop the city center’s iconic Clal Building.

The space, a wooden meditation structure originally built for Israel’s Midburn festival and later moved to Muslala, is centered by a stone altar emitting soulful sounds and songs, harmonious chants and hymns, sung by Jerusalem religious leaders and teachers.

Vibha Galhotra, who spent three months in Jerusalem as part of Jerusalem International Fellows, a 10-week residency program for artists, recorded each religious figure for her project, then built the round altar from slabs of creamy Jerusalem stone, over the course of three days.

She calls it “Mountain to the Sea.” It’s a kind of playlist for open-source religion, where the guiding principle is an open mind. The audio recorder embedded inside the altar plays a continual 45-minute loop of the sounds offered by Galhotra’s band of spiritual guides.

“There has to be one point where everyone can meet all together, for a common cause,” she said.

The common cause in this project, however, is not actually religion. While the recorded voices are those of people who preach and teach religious topics, they spoke to Galhotra about climate change and the environment, a common theme in her work as a visual artist.

Using sound for her work was a first for Galhotra, who doesn’t speak the languages of the different participants but found that their sounds and tunes conveyed their messages.

“I think we need to ask different kinds of questions,” she said. “Art gives me the power to ask simple questions.”

Galhotra spoke with well over a dozen religious thinkers and leaders, including Franciscan nuns, a Holy Sepulcher friar, a member of the Coptic church, a muezzin, and an imam of an Old city mosque, as well as a Jewish philosopher, a cantor and teachers.

Each religious representative was able to carefully select the music that represented them.

They were open to speaking with Galhotra because she was asking about climate change, she noted.

“If I had asked about religion, that would be putting my nose into their business,” said Galhotra. “The question wasn’t offensive. It’s about sustainability.”

So far, said Galhotra, her audience is responding, with people sitting for long stretches to listen to the sounds of “Mountain to the Sea” as they consider the messages inherent in the tones and songs.

“Mountain to the Sea” is in place at Muslala, which will be putting on a festival called Gag Eden (Roof of Eden) June 6-9.

Visiting artists Anna Lublina (second from right) and Vibha Galhotra (far right), part of the Jerusalem International Fellows at a salon in Studio of Their Own in late March 2022 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Galhotra was one of four Jerusalem International Fellows, who are brought to the city each year to collaborate with artists, ensembles and cultural institutions in East and West Jerusalem.

Her fellow artists were Claudia Lavista, a choreographer from Mexico who worked with the Catamon dance troupe; Anna Lublina, a visual artist from the US and Germany who held a workshop at Bloomfield Science Museum on cloth and weaving; and Sofia Borges from San Paulo, Brazil, who taught visual art skills at the Ibdaa School of the Arts, a high school in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Each of the fellows spent the 10 weeks meeting and working with Jerusalemites, and held a salon about their process and their findings toward the end of their stay.

“The objective is not to make best work of art but to connect with the Jerusalem cultural ecosystem,” said Elise Bernhardt, founder and director of the Jerusalem International Fellows.

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