And then, suddenly, it started to the accompaniment of conches, and cymbals. The ululating sound of the conches, the coordinated cacophony of the cymbals and the resonating boom of the damroo, the one handed drum, symbolic of Shiva, echoed across the dark waters of the river, quickening the pulse of the people who had gathered to witness this event. The sound was an ode to the river, a sonic request, an acoustic invitation to rise, to awake and to accept the fire offering that was just beginning.
Scores of priests, clad scantily in ochre robes in spite of the biting cold of the December night, held aloft their multi-storied prayer lamps, flickering with the holy fire, red and orange and crimson, and sang to the river. They sang in a tongue as ancient as the city, a tongue of the Gods, of the Arya, the civilised people. Their voices rose and fell, in a metre defined by the ancient sages when the world was still young, and passed down through the generations, from tutor to pupil, chanted religiously, studiously, sincerely, staying faithful to the metre. Thousands of years of chanting, memorising, teaching, passing down, ensured that the chant still sounded as it would have sounded when the Vedas were being written…… it was a blast from the past, as if a voice recorded millenia ago was being played out once more to please the deity, to rouse her from her slumber, to plead to her to bless the ordinary mortals who stood along her banks and watched with open-mouthed wonder.
The priests moved, swaying slightly to the rhythm, their hands tracing clockwise circles in the night air. They moved together, through years of practice, and sang together, and moved their lamps together. And then they turned, quarter of a circle at a time, paying their obeisance to the cardinal directions – east, south, west, north, up and down. The sound rose steadily, the rhythm becoming more vibrant, till the crescendo was reached and the priests shouted – Har Har Gange – and it was done…..
The people stood spellbound, as if in a trance.
Slowly everyone disengaged themselves from the scene, and the boats started to move, to back up into the waters of the river, whence they had come. Our boats backed up too, the diesel motors of the barges groaning, sputtering, spewing black smoke, and sprinkling the waters of the river with the droplets of diesel which had escaped combustion in the primitive engine which powered the boat.
Soon we were on our way again headed to one of the ghats where the boat would deposit us, and we would board the buses again to go to our hotels for the night. Tomorrow was the big day….the official Reunion function at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University. …
To be continued –
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