I was keen to visit Ganga ghat to watch aarati. But at the end of that day I was tired. Exhausted. No energy left at all. I had mentioned to Jetender, the driver of my car who also doubled up as my guide at Haridwar, that we would visit Ganga ghat to watch the Aarati. He noticed my condition.
“Let us not go today. You look tired. Let us make it tomorrow,” he said. I ignored the suggestion. “Let us go today. We don’t gain anything by postponing. I will get ready in twenty minutes, just wait for me.” We had reached the hotel.
We started for the Ganga Ghat. It took about thirty minutes to reach near the ghat. We parked the car in an open area. The river was in full flow. The soil was not red or brown as you see in Maharashtra, it is whitish grey. There were several huts, I avoided looking at the people who lived there. Jetender parked the car in the large space between two huts. I saw ladies and kids near the huts. Some were washing utensils, the others were busy making roti. The living conditions were so terrible for those poor people. I felt helpless. Just as watching extravagant wealth makes you speechless, abject poverty too does the same.
A three wheeler took a turn and parked itself in a queue. The three wheelers in Haridwar have four stroke engines and carry several passengers flouting safety regulations. A few owners decorate these vehicles elaborately. “These auto-walas will await passengers who will return after the Aarati. Please follow me quickly. I have booked a place for you so that you can watch the Aarati from a vantage point. You will have to pay hundred rupees to the Bramhan who sits opposite the Brmhakund where Amrut fell. Let us go quickly, there is too much rush today” Jetender said. I followed him, we increased our pace.
There are several bridges built on Ganga River at Haridwar. They help them handle the almost unmanageable traffic on ‘Kumbh.’ “Last Kumbh saw three and a half crore people coming here to take bath in the river. The pilgrims had to walk ten kilometres, no vehicle could enter, not even a bicycle, and such was the sea of people flocking here for the bath in the river” Jetender said.
We climbed down a bridge, and walked with a brisk pace to reach an open area. There were people sitting on the floor. It was completely occupied, it was impossible, it appeared, to add one more person to sit among them. The view was captivating. The river was in the full flow. Some people, including ladies, were taking a dip in the river. People looked expectantly at a temple on the opposite bank of the river.
“Sir, please remove your shoes and sit here” the Brahmin in white kurta – pyjama told me. A tiny space was reserved for me on the platform! I removed my shoes. I had put on expensive new shoes, I wondered if these will get stolen. Some price to pay for this experience, I told myself. I occupied my place on the platform. The man sitting next to me grumbled as he had to move to make space for me; he was quickly silenced by the Brahmin.
Ten Brahmins appeared on the opposite bank. Clad completely in white. The aarati began. I readied my camera. So did several foreigners sitting on other raised platforms. The idol of Ganga was visible to me. The chanting of mantras began, it was played over the loud speaker. I was told that the subsequent shlokas were recited from ‘Ganga Lahari.’ Then people were asked to promise that they will not pollute the river. People were to respond by raising their hands. All hands went up.
There is some energy around those who surrender to the Lord unconditionally. Even non-believers get carried away by them. Men in blue uniform appeared in the crowd. They had receipt books in hand. “If you wish to make a donation, hand it over to me” they said. They were the volunteers of NGO which conducts the aarati, I was told. “There is no compulsion” the volunteer said, “Give only if you wish.” But the suggestion had its impact. Several devotees had travelled long distance to witness the aarati. Most of them were poor. I could see a good many ladies and men from rural Maharashtra. A few others spoke Gujarati. They go on ‘char-dham yatra.’ This was once in a lifetime experience for many in the crowd. One person handed over a fifty rupees note. Several other bhakts followed the way, and donated small amounts. How else to express gratitude? After all they won’t come here again in their life.
The atmosphere at the aarati was captivating. Brahmins clad in white moved aarati, the flame of which was about three feet in height. The aarati song was played over loud speakers. People watched the spectacle and listened to the aarati with full attention. They had spent time and good amount of money for this darshan. The volunteers in blue also sang the aarati while simultaneously collecting the donations.
Soon it was over. People got up and left. Surprisingly there was silence, no noise. It was as if the people experienced a trance.
“Ganga maiya washes all your sins. Sir, would you like to take a dip?” Jetender asked. I am not a believer in such rituals. I did not respond. Ganga was in full flow but the water was muddy. Some had put flowers in a cone of leaf and placed a light on it – then placed it to drift in the river. On my left I saw ‘Asthi-visarjan ghat’ meaning people put the ashes of their dead relatives at that place. People were moving out but a very few were taking bath at the other bank. The grumbling man sitting next to me also left.
The Bramhan who ‘owned’ the platform called me. He made me do the ‘achaman’ – a kind of purificatory procedure. He then held my hand and tied a red thread at the wrist. I was prepared for this ritual, thanks for Jetender. I placed money in his ‘thali.’ He blessed me.
“Put on your shoes” he said. I was sure that my shoes would have got stolen, I could not find the pair. But I kneeled down to look for them under the platform, and retrieved them. Nobody took them away. Bhakts had scored over a non-believer!
As I came out, a Sadhu approached me and asked for some money. I was in a happy mood, so I handed over some money to him and I asked him to pose for photograph – he did.
On my way back Jetender pointed out that it was full moon. That must have been the reason for this large number of people I thought, but he disagreed. “We always get visitors in such large numbers’ he said.
We returned to our vehicle. The two ‘jhuggis’ in which two families stayed were engulfed in darkness. I wondered if they could get something to eat. I had just handed over some money to a person dressed as Sadhu, I wondered if I should hand over some money to the lady who was washing utensils outside her jhuggi an hour ago? Nobody from that family was visible in the darkness.
“Several huts here, it’s quite a cluster” I mentioned to Jetender. “Many have come from Bangladesh Sir.”
Some come to Ganga ghat out of curiosity, some others because they have to discharge the ashes of their dead relatives, some people come because visiting char-dham will give you salvation, and some come to take a dip in the river to wash their sins.
It is all in the mind. That is where the river of cleansing originates!
Vivek S Patwardhan