Evening is falling, and I am in a boat on the Ganges. We are in Varanasi, and have made our way downtown by cycle rickshaw, two of us ladies squeezed into a seat which was surely made for narrower hips than ours, pedalled through slums and down busy city streets to the river’s edge. It’s late March and the air is warm; the lights on the river bank are bright and the sounds of India are floating across the water.
We are here for the evening aarti, the Hindu ceremony or puja which is performed every evening here on the ghats along the river. Our boat is one of dozens, maybe a hundred, which makes its way slowly to the spot where the priests are already in action on the steps leading up to the town. We cram together, most of us tourists, some Indian but many westerners, like me understanding very little but soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of this moment. It feels like a festival, and it’s hard to believe this takes place every night.
We buy offerings from passing salesmen, burning tealights in straw boats beautifully decorated with flowers including the marigolds which are omnipresent in India. I buy one as a prayer to whichever gods we are praying to (to be honest, I’m not sure, but anything is worth a try). With a silent entreaty to protect family and friends who need the help, I carefully float the offering down the river.
We are packed close together in our boats, but this is a friendly gathering in the wide open spaces of the river. However, I don’t escape completely unscathed, as the oar of a neighbouring boat, in a wonderfully inexpert move, splashes Ganges water right over me and my camera. Thankfully the camera survives, and despite being warned that the river water is filthy and bathing is not recommended, I am able to say that I have been blessed by Mother Ganga regardless. But I wash my hands thoroughly before dinner.