By the time everyone finished lunch, it was already early dusk. The sun was nearly gone, and a cold darkness crept in from all sides, even like the fog that had congealed into a dense curtain over the warm waters of the Ganga. I pulled my cap tightly over my ears and made sure the children were well covered and warm. Vaishali and the kids had also pulled out their jackets, put them on and zipped them close. Mufflers and caps came out, and people huddled together instinctively for warmth and for company. The halogen lamps on the ghats were lighted one by one, and soon the ghat was awash in their heavenly yellowish glow. The diffuse glow of the halogen lamps through the descending pall of the light fog, gave an otherworldly feeling to the whole show.
Five or six men accompanied by a couple of young boys, dressed merely in dhoti-kurta, a traditional Indian dress, materialized from nowhere, and started their preparations for the Ganga aarti – the fire worship of the Goddess Ganga. First, they changed into ochre colored clothes, right there on the ghats, oblivious of the cold, or the staring eyes of the strangers who surrounded them, eager to witness the event. Then they started to clean and polish the brass lamps which would be used to hold the cotton wicks and the clarified butter or ghee, for the Ganga Aarti. The small boys, dressed in mere pyjamas and a woolen top, rubbed and polished the lamps enthusiastically, singing songs, and playing with each other. An elderly gentleman sat in one corner, at the edge of the ghat, covered in an ochre colored shawl, and polished his own set of lamps. It was obvious he was the chief priest here.
‘I will go climb up the boat and watch the aarti from there,’ I said to Vaishali. She nodded and huddled on the ghat with the children and her friends. Looking at the aarti from over the Ganga made sense, as the priests will be facing the Ganga. I made my way slowly towards the boats, and gingerly climbed on to one of them, trying not to get my shoes wet in this fearfully cold weather.
Soon I was standing on the top of the boat, looking at the ghat and the events that went on there from over the Ganga. The boat rocked gently, as the waves shook her, and a gentle, cold breeze blew. It was dark all around me, dark and quiet, and I had eyes only for the lamps that were being lit now. I hoped I could watch this event without disturbance, hoping for my communion with Mother Ganga once more. But this was not to be.
Few children had seen me go towards the boat and climb it. And soon they, accompanied with their parents, made a beeline towards the twin boats to have a better look at the Ganga Aarti. I will not have solitude tonight!
Soon both the boats were full, even though some people had stayed back, preferring to look at the event from the safety and warmth of the land rather than from the cold perch on top of the boats.
The young men and the old priest were ready now. Their ochre robes tied tightly around their slender frames, their lamps lit, their conches and cymbals ready.
The old priest brought his conch to his lips and blew it, the sound booming across the ghats, washing us with its resonance and carrying far across on the waves of the Ganges. He continued to blow, incessantly, stopping in between to draw breath. The young children accompanying the troupe took up the cymbals and large brass bells and started gonging them with wooden mallets. It was a rhythmic cacophony over a background of the melancholy wail of the conch – they were trying to rouse the river Goddess.
While the old man blew the conch and the young boys beat the gongs and the cymbals, the young men had picked up the lamps; each lamp was a storeyed structure meant to accommodate thirty-forty cotton wicks. All these wicks had been immersed in ghee or clarified butter and had been lit with the sacred fire from the temples. The lamps looked like a miniature inferno in the hands of the priests who held them.
And then the priests began the aarti or the fire worship of the river. Their hands moved rhythmically, up and down, left to right in arcs and then in a clockwise circular motion. They invoked the Mother Goddess, offered her the sacred fire, roused her to bless us mortals. Their feet moved, and their bodies swayed as they waved their hands carrying the towering lamps – its flames flickering and swaying and dancing in the wind. And then the priests turned; they turned, together, in another direction and started the whole process of dancing with the fire again.
One by one they faced all the four directions and repeated the process, the flames rising up into the night sky, smoke issuing from them and creating a halo around the men who held the lamps. The four directions done, the priests pointed up to the sky and then down to the nether worlds – thus paying obeisance to the river in all the cardinal directions.
I stood dazed, looking at the flames, rising up into the sky, flickering like the tongue of a snake, red, orange, crowned by the dark smoke that issued from the lamps. Below me, the reflection of the flames danced in the water, mirroring the action of the priests, playing it once more for the benefit of the River Goddess – I do not know if she saw this dance, or heard the ancient cacophony that the group of priests produced from their conches and their bells.
The priests were singing now, calling upon the Goddess in a language as ancient as mankind, in a verse written thousands of years ago, calling upon her for her beneficence, her benevolence, her love. They sang together, some voices nasal, some guttural, the effect eerie, making my hair stand on end. The flames flickered and rose higher and higher, the priests sang, and the gong kept clanging, faster and faster – the flames almost blinding me from looking at them continuously.
And then it stopped. As abruptly as it had started, the priests suddenly stopped singing and put down their lamps, and stood still, their hands folded, their eyes closed. A moment later, it was over.
Their collective trance now broken, people started to move about, collect their belongings and move towards the boat for our trip back to our hotels. I saw Vaishali and the kids move towards the boat. We needed to get back quickly and get ready for the gala dinner tonight. Tonight, will be our last night in Varanasi.
To be concluded soon……..
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