Yesterday was Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights that gets celebrated everywhere including in the U.S. and other countries where Indian people live. The area of Rishikesh where I was staying is full of ashrams and hostels, but not people’s actual homes. So it’s apparently not the best place to witness the spectacle called India’s Christmas as people try to outdo one another with the amount of lights they can decorate their homes with, so I’d heard.
You would have thought it should be called India’s July 4th! With all of the fireworks I saw and constant sound of firecrackers all night long, you’d think it was that instead… or a war zone. It honestly often sounds like that anyway with firecrackers or perhaps cars backfiring loudly, often. In fact, it happens so often I’d definitely gotten used to it. And they must be loud since one of the “bomb” sounds happened when I was on Skype with a girlfriend and her face looked shocked. “Oh my God, what was THAT?” she said. I told her it was nothing and happens all the time. She replied, “I was about to tell you to duck!” Funny what you can so quickly get used to.
But the night of Diwali was a bit over the top. All I can say is thank goodness for ear plugs! Cause if it isn’t firecrackers or scooter horns, it’s the sound of the MOST annoying Indian child I have ever heard in my life, constantly screeching all the time who just happens to be staying across the hall from my room. I honestly don’t think he learned how to speak, just whine and shriek.
It may sound like I’m complaining. I’m definitely not. All of these new sights and sounds are what you sign up for when you travel. I was happily taking it in… but also knowing that my days in this part of Rishikesh would be numbered. This birthplace of yoga that may have once been serene and quiet is not that any longer. It certainly has its own charm though. I’d enjoying many a meal at the plentiful restaurants and Bohemian style cafes overlooking the beautiful teal-colored Ganga, enjoying the shopping, new foods and huge mix of international people. I was also throughly enjoying what Parmarth Niketan had become famous for worldwide, it’s daily sunset fire/light ceremony, the Ganga Aaarti.
The Aarti happens every single night at 5pm and ends around 6:30p, followed by satsang with resident swami, Pujya Swamiji. It is extremely popular with residents and guests of the ashram, as well anyone visiting that area of Rishikesh coming to check it out or perhaps get lucky and simply stumble upon it. The Aarti apparently began years ago when Pujya Swamiji was looking for a solution to the ongoing problem of Indians using the sacred Ganga as a toilet. He thought if there was a way that people would cherish and respect the sacred Ganga in the evenings like they did when they prayed in the morning, the Ganga would stay sacred and clean. He began a ceremony on the marble steps leading to the Ganga directly in front of the ashram which has continued to take place ever since.
The rather large group of boys and young men who live, work and study at the ashram sit on the steps and sing as a choir while a puja/fire ceremony takes place below just a few feet from the water. One of the older men plays the harmonium and is the lead singer on a microphone, while another teenager plays the tabla drum and a couple other play the finger cymbals (a pair of which I bought myself in Rishikesh). A small group of people sit directly around the square rim of the fire and are led in a ceremony being chanted by a few of their other young men. Throughout the ceremony, they take handfuls of rice and what appears to be dirt and throw it into the fire as an offering.
Pujya Swamiji calls Aarti “the happy hour of Rishikesh” as it is meant to be a time to give thanks for our lives and connect to the divine and light within. It is a free event open to the public of all religions, cultures and and walks of life. After the fire puja ends and a bit more singing, there are occasionally performances or honoring of special people visiting often being recognized for philanthropic efforts or contributions they have made to community. Pujya Swamiji will often acknowledge their good deeds by gifting a sapling of the the rudraksha tree, the popular sacred brown beads malas are often made of. Once the acknowledgements are complete, small brass candelabras and little dishes with candle wicks are lit and passed though the crowds to be spun gently in circles so people can bless themselves with the light of the fire, placing their hands over the flames and covering their heads, faces and arms.
Between the gorgeous gold/deep yellow and cranberry long skirts and shirts/sweaters/scarves all the young men wear (their daily uniform), the beautiful colors being worn by all of the Indian women, the glowing flame of the sparkling fire puja and candelabras, the Aarti is truly a radiant sight and experience to behold. I felt super grateful to be able to take part in this ceremony on Diwali especially, though I was grateful each and every night I was there.
One evening, I felt like staying apart from the large crowd that always gathers so I decided to enjoy the sounds of the Aarti on my favorite place, the roof. Aarti is timed perfectly to catch the sun setting over the Ganga, often a beautiful deep red in color. After watching the sun go down, I closed my eyes and meditated to the sounds of the singing in the background only to finally open them to the darkness that now surrounded me. It was a real treat to to take part in my own sacred and solo way. But on that night of Dewali, I truly gave thanks for the radiance around me and the light within I was continuing to feed, simply by being part of these ceremonies in the MotherLand, pretty much right outside my front door.