Immersion in Ritual

May 20th, 2008

We’ve been travelling now without internet access. This video is from a couple of days ago in Haridwar.

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Our one evening in Haridwar was the most dramatic, bustling, exciting, claustrophobic, sharing, participatory of our experiences to date. We walked from our hotel through narrow, vendor lined streets to the temple site on the banks of the Ganges where an estimated 15-30,000 people gathered for an evening Hindu ceremony. The streets were crowded with people, sounds, and (perhaps most striking) smells. An intermingling of the smell of trash and waste, a nearby river, a crowed population of people and urban wildlife, and food. These different odors took turns in dominance as we passed along our way, at times none stood out. For me, there were moments when I found it actually stomach turning.

We arrived at the temple site and learned (what we should have anticipated but did not) that we would be required to leave our shoes at the entrance. The shoes were left at a kiosk and we were given a number to use to retrieve them. We walked along the black and white checkered marble flat surface to a similar marble set of stairs down to the river. A guide lead us to what were prime seats in terms of viewing and comfort. Out of the thousands there, we were among the few who were recognized as likely to pay handsomely for such privilege.

We sat and watched individuals and families immerse themselves in the Ganges, an act of spiritual cleansing. The body language and facial expressions were varied. One group, apparently a family, played and splashed about. An outside observer with a Missouri background (like me) would have thought this to be, for this group, like a trip to the Ozarks during summer break. Clearly it is more than that, but for this ceremony strict solemnity was not required.

Many of our group took an opportunity to purchase a “flower boat” (largish leaves molded and pinned together to form a cup in which was placed flower petals and a candle). We each individually took our boat to the river, accompanied by a priest-coach. Our priest would instruct us in the ceremony. It began with a hand washing in the river and bringing river water to our heads and a handful to the flower petals. We next repeated, one word at a time, a long list of words given to us by the priest. Our name was asked, and we were asked to give the names of our family members (spouse, children…) The priest would say a prayer, ask for a gift donation, and then we would light the candle and place it in the river where it would be carried away by the tide.

Just prior to the actual Aarti ceremony, a storm set in. The rain fell hard and we were placed, again due to the privilege of wealth, under the few stationary umbrellas. Once these went up the crowds squeezed, as many as possible, around us for protection from the rain. Those not able to find a spot under an umbrella covered themselves with large sheets of plastic candy bar wrappers (I saw a sheet of ‘Charleston Chews’ wrappers nearby).

Eventually the ceremonial lamps were set ablaze. The video above shows a set of nearby lamps. From my position, behind the camera, the heat of these lamps was clearly felt. The look you see on the faces of Shila and Elizabeth will give an indication of how hot these were from only three or four feet away. Flame dropped, sometimes on or near flammable clothing.

Noteworthy for me, was the spirit of openness. We were welcomed to participate and the prayers of the priest were there for us regardless of our religious affiliation. To be sure there was a monetary gain from our involvement, yet the genuineness of our welcome seemed undeniable.