I am overly pragmatic. Each day seems so finite, and there is so much work to do. Big work, made out of endless little work. Schools to construct. Minds to make literate. Wells to dig and water to purify. Inoculations to give and hair to braid and food to feed growing bodies. So many streets to sweep and toilets to build.
Instead, it is time for aarti, the Hindu puja taking place this night, and every night, in hundreds of little temples like this one in Varanasi, India. Someone led me here to this place, tucked into the labyrinth of alleyways behind the Manakarnika Ghat, where bodies are burning. On the way, along the other ghats on the water’s edge, we passed a series of Ganga Aartis – floodlights! amplification! – that attract Indian and foreign tourists alike for the full pilgrimage experience. The masses were stacked on the steps that link city to water and packed into handmade wooden boats just offshore, cameras flashing.But the power went out moments after we passed and we found our way by flashlight to the temple building dimly lit with the inverter’s stored energy.
The Hindu priest is kind, allowing my camera and my curious eyes as I witness the rituals I have watched since I was young. Shiva is the focus here, the stone lingam – more breast than phallus – the centerpiece set in a square of silver embedded into the floor like a pious pit. The priest spends more time in careful preparation for the ritual than it will take to enact it, when three other priests join him and, together their hand bells thunder in unison in rhythm to their chants. As a child, the smell of flowers and fire and the hypnotic sound of the chants would transfix me. Now I can appreciate that this ritual incorporates the five elements into one seamless act. Always I have viscerally loved the moment when, at the end, I can place my cupped hands over the heat of the flame and bring them to my face, my eyes closed.
But I have grown old and I think too much….