One evening not long ago, I sailed in a little boat from Ramnagar to Dasashwamedh Ghat. The oars creaked and the Ganga whispered little dreams as a surreal glimmer huddled in the tinkle of bells came closer. Conch shells called out across the water and across its banks, beckoning those like me to the spectacle that was to come.
In a display of the wealth and worth of spiritual light that Varanasi, Banaras, or Kashi, has been known for since time immemorial, the dusk offers its prayers to the holy river, a worshipped deity in herself, in its own distinct style. Holding large metallic diyas in one hand and ringing a bell in the other, a line of priests in bright, uniform silken dhoti-kurtas perform an elaborate salutation in all directions, moving their arms in uniform acrobatic dance in several rounds. A sea of people stood assembled behind them.
In one round, the oil lamps have decorative crowns depicting serpents’ heads; another round is performed with tall layered lamps. It must take a lot of practice to move the huge flame holders about oneself like this, thought the pyrophobic me. They also rotated containers of smoky incense. The fragrance grew stronger, the drumbeats were intense, the gathering swayed to the rhythm of hymns, and the air got more heady.
They say that the way the Ganga loops itself at Varanasi signifies a sort of completion of life, of the point of attaining moksha from rebirth and the worldly sansara. That morning I had seen ashes of the departed floating out into the water. I had seen pyre after pyre at the Manikarnika Ghat. I had seen people taking dips in the river and bowing to Shiv-lingas, their expressions blank. I had seen folks sitting on the steps of ghats shaving their heads to move closer to an answer still elusive.
And in the evening, at the end of the aarti, I saw little diyas lifted from the edge of the ghat and floated out onto the same divine, celestial Ganga, who makes her way down from her home in the Himalayas, on and on for ages and ages as though there was no beginning. Appearing increasingly like stars on an opaque black sky, making their way out of the bounds of those who lit them, the lamps glided away from us. At that moment, all the sounds and the illumination faded. And tomorrow, the whole image would be back- from the beginning, all over again.