Performing Aarti in Haridwar

May 20th, 2008

In Haridwar, a family together performs Aarti to Mother Ganga by moving the leaf boat of flowers and fire in circles and then placing it in the water. (Click on title below left to open a brief video in a separate window.)

Performing Aarti

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.

Aarti in the Rain

May 20th, 2008

This post goes with John Rudisill’s “Immersion in Ritual” above. Essentially, it is a narration to accompany the 5-minute video below (“Haridwar-Aarti”), taken in Haridwar on the late afternoon and evening of 19 May.

One guide took us from our hotel in Haridwar to the ghat (landing) where we had reserved places. When we arrived at the top of the bank, however, he turned us over to a second guide, who later informed us he was a priest. Not all of us were completely comfortable with removing and checking our shoes before we went down to the river on the wet, slick steps. As we join the more than 20,000 people already there, you can hear Shila doing a head count (“How many are here? 1–2-3-4-5 . . .”).

Our places were reserved on small wooden platforms set on the steps, each the worship space of a priest. Worshippers stopped by with leaf boats full of flower blossoms they had purchased, and the priest added small pots of flame, some color, and blessings. Then the boats were put into the river, where the current caught and swirled them away. You can get some sense of how many people were there in the shots of the opposite bank of the river. The crowd continued well upriver beyond the range of my small camera, and there were just as many people on our side.

Remember when you went to the beach with your family and you splashed your grandmother and she splashed you back? When a family takes a holy bath, there seems to be some of that keen loving pleasure, combined with worship, grace, and a photograph to commemorate the occasion.

As evening arrived on this occasion, so did thunder and rain, but no one’s spirits seemed to be dampened. Our platform featured an umbrella, which our priest raised for us. He then tried briefly to keep the platform clear of folks who had not paid for a space, but we were not willing to push people off, and the press of the crowd soon made him give up. Our range of vision became more and more limited by those who moved close to stay a little less wet.

My camera’s battery ran out before I could photograph the climactic fire ceremony you can see at the head of John Rudisill’s post on this amazing evening. Nor did I get the monkey and her baby who jumped down, shouting, next to Lee McBride, and then ran under our platform. Far less dramatically, my last shot is of one of the priests, silhouetted as he follows an Indian Premiere League cricket match play-by-play on his cell phone. It was like one of those stories or movie scenes in which the minister gets the World Series score during a hymn — but you are meant to know that the Deity smiles with understanding.