Flowers for the family
The guide from the hotel was an austere man with dark skin, cropped hair, and a tiny rat’s tail. Sweat beaded over his brow and ran down his glasses onto his white kurta shirt. He tried his best to keep everyone together, but we were like wide-eyed puppies in amidst a stampede: two British couples, an Indian family, and a few others we only barely spoke to.
We journeyed into a massive blistering mass of bodies called the Ganga Aarti. This is a festival that draws 55,000 people across India who come here to the Ganges River near it’s source to give thanks and power to loved ones.
What strikes me about Indian festivals is that they're so colorful - bright reds and oranges everywhere. They're also always overwhelming, like a shot put to the senses: smells that range from putrid to sensuous, sounds that fluctuate from shrill and piercing to soft and melodious.
We were led down a stadium bleacher through the pitching sea of people to a small booth where we dropped off our shoes and then pushed our way toward the crashing river. Everyone around us chanted and swayed to a song that we did not know, but now cannot forget. More than once I caught locals around us clandestinely snapping us into their selfies. The crowd was enraptured and we were greeted with nothing but smiles. Occasionally a little woman or two would come gatecrashing through the tight pack and dive into the river, burst up, and splash water into the crowd. People would raise their hands and accept the blessing but I couldn't help but recoil and try to shelter my camera from the mud.
Fire burst through the crowd from all around us and people parted for priests holding oil lamps, dripping shreds of burning cloth and pumping out an impressive amount of heat. The chanting grew louder, and the swaying of the priests intensified as flaming little banana leaf boats with candles swirled past on the water.
Our guide tugged our shoulders and we worked ourselves back up out of the crowd. He warned us all to circle-up and watch for pickpockets in the melee, and one by one were taken to meet a priest by the water who rattled off words like an auctioneer. Amid the din and the chaos I had to lean in closer. What was he telling us? To put money in the banana leaf boat that we were holding? Sure, and I placed 5 rupees. He scoffed. "This is what you want to honor your family with? More!" He shouted. I wondered what the utility of burning money was. I placed a few hundred more. He demanded several thousand. I refused and he sneered, and as we shoved our boat off, he plucked the money out.
We said a few prayers for each of you.
We each received a bindi.
Returning to the group, the couple from the UK had found that between their brief encounter with the priest and walking back up the steps, their wallet was gone. They wanted to look for it, but our guide thought it wasn’t much use trying.
Tired and overwhelmed, we marched back up and out and headed home.
This festival occurs every single night.