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Ganga Aarti Ceremony (Rishikesh, India)

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A daily religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganges and the biggest 'must see' attraction in the hippy haven of Rishikesh.

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      09.01.2011 14:06
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      Rishikesh's must-do attraction

      If you are visiting the holy city of Rishikesh for just a short time - as opposed to locking yourself away in an ashram for weeks at a time - then the single most 'must do' activity in the city is attending the daily Aarti ceremony down by the banks of the Ganga river. This takes place for about an hour before sunset and for a while after. We didn't find out quite how long it kept going because our western bottoms were numb after about one and a half hours sitting on stone steps and we snuck off before it finished but nobody seemed to mind.

      ~Getting There~

      Our guidebook maps were rubbish so we asked the hotel receptionist where to go. We were staying at the Divine Resort on the quiet side of the river away from the 'action' and he told us to head down the hill, across the Ram Jhula bridge (about 15 minutes walk away) and then turn right. As we headed through the bazaar on the other bank of the river my husband just kept asking the shop keepers where was the place for the ceremony and they told us to just keep going. From the bridge I had spotted an arc of concrete sticking out into the river with a statue on it and I suspected that was where we were going and indeed it was. After some serious shopping along the way by my sister and her girlfriend who fell in with the long established tradition that first time visitors to India must buy a mound of cheap hippy clothing, we found a small neat park which I later discovered to be the grounds of the Parmath Niketan Ashram, the organisation that manage the daily ceremony. I'll admit I was a little concerned that we might be going somewhere that we shouldn't but nobody seemed to take any notice of us so we parked up for a while to sit and watch the world go by.

      We sat there for about half an hour taking things easy in the afternoon heat and waiting to see what was happening whilst resisting the temptation to just come out and ask. People-watching in Rishikesh is great sport - the yoga-loving guru-seeking westerners are terribly serious and we watched them head through the gardens to the river and return 15 minutes later looking wet and inspired by their devotional dips. Some of the visiting families were just having a great time, and lots of very elderly people seem to be quietly and serenely waiting to die. One sweet old lady with a broken arm shuffled up and started talking to us. I have no idea what she said but hubby gave her a few coins and she wandered off smiling and chattering away only to get stopped by a chap who told her off and sent her back to return our money. We felt very bad for getting her into trouble and a little chastised for giving her anything.

      ~Lets Get Ready to Rumble~

      We spotted a mass of saffron-robed young men heading down to the river and we decided that it must be time to go and join them. We gave them a five minute head-start and then left the park, passing into the area where the ceremony takes place. We dropped our shoes off with the shoe keeper and headed down to the ghats. Ghats are steps by the side of a river or lake. You get different types - bathing ghats where people swim and wash, dhobi ghats where the dhobi wallahs do the laundry and in Varanasi the famous burning ghats where cremations take place. These were clearly the singing/praying/putting flowers in the water ghats. People kindly showed us where to go. We didn't feel awkward because there were lots of other western tourists who were just as clueless as us about what was going on although a few very blond and very earnest white people were clearly well in with the local system and were gathered around a fire on the waterfront chanting and throwing seeds onto the fire. I later read up about the ashram and learned that amongst the many rules and regulations for the pilgrims using their one thousand rooms of accommodation, attendance at the daily Aarti is a requirement (along with not smoking, drinking, eating meat or eggs or playing cards).

      A couple of singers with prodigious lung capacity were singing beautifully, repeating the same lines (as far as I could tell) with almost hypnotic intensity. For the first half most of the singing was by a man and then a woman took over later. The saffron-clad young men were occupying the mid-section of the stepped ghat with a few women in white also singing along with them. The pilgrims were spread out on the steps to either side nodding along with the music.

      ~Shiva and his Concrete Platform~

      In front of the ghat there's a sadly rather ugly curve of concrete stretching out into the river. In the centre of this is a large statue of the god Shiva. In photographs that I've seen of the ceremony taken prior to this year, the statue has been either sitting directly on the waterfront or more latterly on a mound of rocks in a similar position to where it currently sits. I can only conclude that the concrete arc is a very new addition and an attempt to give Shiva a rather more comfortable and permanent home. It's a shame that it looks like an unfinished section of a car park. Lots of little birds nest under the platform and they got very excited as the sun was going down - I guess it's good time for catching insects but the twittering adds an extra dimension to the impact of the sunset.An old white lady dressed entirely in white appeared at the waterfront and started dancing. Well that's perhaps a kind interpretation of striking odd poses like a demented swan. The locals were as confused by her as we were and were openly taking lots of photographs of her. My sister - who spent a lot of time at festivals a decade or two ago, claimed there were always a few "nutter women" (she may now work in local government but sometimes the whole political correctness gets forgotten) at such places. "Sometimes you can have just a bit too much enlightenment" she said. "Too much LSD more likely" said my husband. I think most people were just wondering if she'd throw herself in the river which was very fast flowing but we were soon distracted and didn't spot her again.

      ~Here Comes the Man~

      After about 30 or 40 minutes everyone leapt to their feet in excitement and a man in red with big bushy beard and a long afro hairdo appeared. I've seen his photograph in many places and he seemed familiar but it was only afterwards that I discovered that he was H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji Maharaj, the president and spiritual leader of the ashram. I don't know if he's always in Rishikesh or if we just got lucky being there at the same time but people were clearly very excited. He moved through the crowd and sat by the fire with the other people and started blessing people. After a while he moved back to the steps and started to lead the singing. Like the singers before him, he had a great voice and we were actually starting to get into the mood of the event despite being utterly clueless about what was happening

      During the singing and just after the sun went down, people were placing flower baskets in the river. You can buy a little leaf-basket filled with blossoms, a candle or small lamp and sometimes some incense sticks and these are placed carefully in the river and sent on their way. In Rishikesh people didn't get into the water during the ceremony which was probably a good thing given the speed of the current.

      ~Have you got a light?~

      As it became darker large metal candelabra-like things were passed through the crowd and the worshippers placed their hands over the fire and wafted it around themselves. I thought that this must be some kind of purification ceremony at first but I suspect now that I've been getting my religions a bit muddled. Apparently the significance of the flames is that the worshippers are offering a small light back to God in thanks for the much bigger light he gives them every day in the form of the sunlight. We kept out of the way for this - mostly out of fear of accidentally dropping something very holy or setting fire to ourselves which would undoubtedly have been horribly embarrassing. We took a lot of photographs and nobody seemed to mind - indeed everyone was taking photos and it seemed to be no problem. You wouldn't go into a cathedral and shoot pictures during a service but it seemed to be acceptable at the aarti. The music, the atmosphere, the pink sky as the sun went down, the little candle baskets floating off down the river were all very moving and not having the slightest idea what was going on didn't spoil it in the least.


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