15 July 2013

Ganga Aarti

We arrived in Varanasi and promptly took a nap. However, around 4pm, we decided to go out and explore the city. Varanasi is known for its Ghats along the Ganges River, and we headed that way. Picking out way through crowded streets and winding allies, we ended up at a Ghat. It was pure chance that way made it there.

When we arrived, we could see that a crowd was gathering. It was about 5pm by this point. We stopped and watched for a while. Sitting on the bleacher-like steps of the Ghat, we had a great vantage point to see what was going on.

Some people were selling little trays of flowers, others were trying to get people to climb aboard the wooden boats floating in the harbor and still others were setting up platforms for a ceremony. We then recalled that we had heard a ceremony took place each evening. Realizing we had stumbled upon the correct site for the ceremony (called Gange Aarti) we decided to stay and wait for it.

I was curious about the trays of flowers so I went to a vendor that was selling them. He told me that they were offerings. He instructed me to light the candle in the middle, make a wish and send it off to float in the Ganges. I gave him a small donation for my wish and he helped me light it and set it afloat. (Side note - I didn't want to touch the Ganges, that water is DIRTY!)
There was a bit of wind picking up, so it didn't want to stay lit - but eventually I got it lit and out there.

Tammy and I continued to sit on the steps and people watch. All of a sudden I felt a presence near us. A very LARGE presence. I turned to see a huge bull that had wandered up behind us. I stood up and pointed him out to Tammy. After a quick "take my picture with it!" moment, she asked if she should get up too. I replied probably so. She stood up without a moment to spare because just as we stepped away the animal decided to urinate all over the place! Our nice spot was no longer very nice!

Watching the people further, we realized that people were paying to sit in the boats to watch the ceremony. We had been asked by several hawkers to go sit in their boat, so we decided to do as the locals do. We went to a boat. We didn't really know what was going to happen or where, so we asked the guy for his recommendation on where it was best to sit. He placed us towards the front of the group of boats. This turned out to be prime seating! We could see the entire ceremony with ease. It was the best vantage point!

We sat there waiting for the ceremony to begin. Many people began to fill in the area. Some came down to the river to bathe. We even saw some drinking the water. I know that to the Hindus, the Ganges River is a holy river - but it is truly a polluted body of water. It is said that 20% of it is simply fecal matter. We were shocked at how many people partook the water.

We had to wait until 7pm before the ceremony began. It started off with the clanging of a metal mallet against a metal plate and bells ringing. At first, the ceremony seemed to center around a family that was being blessed. The family was dressed in red, the color of weddings, so perhaps it was related to a wedding. Then the family left and we were left with a group of men (priests?) who performed the ceremony. They were wearing an outfit that reminded me of a Japanese Kimono. They sang, danced, rang bells, chanted and more.

At times, the audience clapped along. Fire was a major element in these dances. They each had a piece in their hand that would be flaming. It looked like an olympic torch, with a curved leaf (rake head) bending over it. It was elegant. Smoke from incense filled the air and flames danced. Various props including something that looked like a feather duster, were brought to the men performing the ceremonial dances. There was so much energy in the air. I was simply happy to be there, witnessing this ceremony, even if I did not understand it.

When we first got on the boat, Tammy and I were again sold flower offerings and we didn't know when we should set them out to float. A lovely woman in the boat next to ours decided to help us out. She did not speak English, but with hand gestures and facial expressions she let us know to set them out at that point and helped us do so. After they were lit, she anointed us with water from the Ganges. She was so very helpful and really wanted to be sure we had the full experience. (She's the one smiling at us in the photo below)

The ceremony was beautiful and it was really a treat to see. I'm sorry that I don't have many photos of it. As luck would have it, my camera battery picked the beginning of the ceremony as the perfect time to be exhausted. All this travel and this was the first time I've had such luck. In some ways, I was freed and able to just appreciate the ceremony without having to think about documenting it.

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