A religious experience is usually collective but often individual. A large mass of people come together, united by a common belief, and pay obeisance to an idol, or an image, submerging the self in the sea of humanity. And there is the individual way of approaching the sublime—of staying away from a crowd, and seeking out beauty in unexpected ways, where there may not even be a spiritual goal, rather a personal journey.

Art worship: The experience of a visit to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is akin to a religious pilgrimage. Ameya Tripathi

What applies to religious experiences also applies to approaching art. I thought of this over the summer, when two different experiences, separated by a quarter century, came together in my mind in a way I had not anticipated. The first experience was in Haridwar in India (more about that later); the second, at the Louvre, in Paris.

The long line of people determined to get quickly to their destination moved steadily along crowded corridors. Some carried folded maps showing exactly where the image they were after was located. Others were so enchanted by the idea of being within the sacred space of the image, they even stood in front of pillars on which signs were posted, pointing them towards the image, getting themselves photographed with the image of the image, their fingers raised, flashing the V sign.

Also Read Salil’s previous Lounge columns

As we got closer to the sanctum sanctorum, the excitement heightened, the pace quickened. We sensed the sudden burst of energy in everyone’s flagging feet, and people’s voices got more animated. We were near the room where she sits.

We entered the room, and our eyes gravitated to the far end, where we saw dozens of people, craning their necks to rise above the heads of people in front of them. Some carried their children above their heads so that they got the divine glimpse. Several hands rose, carrying cellphones, as if ringing the bell in a temple, but their fingers clicking the phone instead, a triumph of hope over experience, a victory for devotion over reason, a matter of pure faith that the image they had pointed the phone at would get captured, and they’d be able to take it home. More often than not, they ended up photographing the bare ceiling, the clean wall, the image of another cellphone, perhaps even the hint of the image on that cellphone’s screen. And some cameras captured nothing but the power of the flashlight, obliterating any shade of nuance; others got a good view of the rear of the head of the person in front of them.

That image offered a mysterious, enigmatic smile. The woman was not a goddess; she is supposed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine trader, Francesco del Giocondo, and she is known as La Gioconda, or more simply, as Mona Lisa. What’s striking about the experience of seeing Mona Lisa at the Louvre is not only the sheer number of people who come to this vast storehouse of art to catch her sight, but how similar the experience is to going on a religious pilgrimage, as if one is standing before Michelangelo’s Pieta at St Peter’s Basilica, or even the Kashi Vishwanath.

Mona Lisa’s is not the world’s most beautiful face. There is no erotic suggestiveness (though some have hinted slyness in that flicker of smile on her face). Nor is it an awe-inspiring landscape (for that, look at the largest painting in the Louvre—Marriage at Cana, by Paolo Veronese—an exceptionally detailed rendering of Christ turning water into wine across the wall). But who has the time for that, or the Egyptian statues of Ramses III, the code of Hammurabi, or the Dutch masters?

The fascination that the crowds had for the familiar, ignoring the more interesting painting across the hall, took me back nearly a quarter century, when I was in Haridwar, writing about the Kumbh Mela. I was travelling with a visiting American friend who went to college with me. She stood transfixed at the sight of tens of thousands of men and women, making their way to the ghat, to perform ablution rituals. It was tumultuous and noisy, and she was riveted by what she saw, and yet happy to be at some distance—we were on one of the bridges, looking at the sea of humanity.

I pointed her the other view, of the quiet, golden sunset, as the sun’s rays lit fire across the ripples of the river, as though millions of little diyas had been set afloat by some hidden hand. It was a miracle, occurring daily, but it seemed, at that moment, that only the two of us cared. She came from a sparsely populated part of the world, and found the large, peaceful congregation fascinating; I came from a crowded city, and the calm landscape the river offered was more soothing. Who felt more content? What the river did to the masses, or what the setting sun did to us?

The conformity of a large crowd; the serenity of placid waters—side-by-side, at ease with the other. Like those paintings, at the Louvre.

Being alone in a crowd is special—Mona Lisa knows that. She stares back, unruffled, even as hundreds of people freeze her in digital frames. But photographed a million times, the smile loses the enigma. It becomes a still icon, its ability to excite lost, and it becomes kitsch, not a miracle. For that, the view not seen offers greater joy—like the transformation of sunlight into fireflies on a trembling river.

Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com