Holy Baths

May 20th, 2008

This video (“In Devprayag”), placed here for continuity in the blog but completed well after our return to the U.S., adds illustration to Mark Wilson’s fine description below of our visit to the beginning of the Ganges in Devprayag. His text explains what the video shows: the three rivers, the suspension bridge, the mountains. The video runs about 3 minutes, and so it may take a minute to come up on your computer.

In mild disagreement with the comment on religion with which Mark ends his post, I’d point out that the ghat we used to climb down into the birth of the Ganges was constructed for sacred purposes, like the little rooms for pilgrims pictured in the video — though there are no signs warning off visitors with secular curiosities. Our position seemed to me analogous to that of one walking into a European cathedral while a service was in progress. If one wanted to examine Christopher Wren’s work on the rood screen, one would wait until the service was over, deferring to the building’s purpose.

Hinduism seems not to have services in the European sense; the Ganges is holy 24/7. So when the ghat on the Ganges is the church, and there are only individual acts of worship, it is a natural practice for priests to approach potential worshipers. And playing by Indian rules, it’s their ghat.

In Devprayag

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.