I read in today’s paper that all over India trains are filled with people returning to their villages for Chhath Puja, a women’s prayer ceremony which honors the Sun God. The memories of my experiences in Varanasi came back.
I was walking back from school one afternoon when suddenly I was flowing along in a procession of women drumming and chanting. They had baskets of offerings and long stalks of sugarcane. During this festival women go down to the Ganges and pray to the setting sun. It is a very intense time of prayer until the minute the sun goes down. Then the mood changes abruptly. Everyone starts laughing and talking and they walk back home for the night.
The noise of chanting and drumming at 5am woke me and I hurried down to the river in the darkness. The tension of waiting for the sun to rise was palpable. Women walked out into the river in their saris with their offerings turning three times. After the sunrise the men of the family joined the women during the part of the ceremony where milk is poured over a coconut offering into the river.
I was the only westerner and I had a camera. Just when I thought perhaps I was being intrusive I would be offered a prashad, the sweet you receive after prayers. Friends included me asked me do the ritual pouring of the milk over the coconut after the sun had risen. It was one of my most memorable times in India. In the dark with hundreds of women praying for their children & families. We had everything in common and we had nothing in common. The veil seemed very thin.