History & Culture

Let there be light

Meaningful illumination: The ritual of Aakashdeep  

Champa pulled the string that made the lighted lamps rise on the bamboo scaffolding. She aspired that her lamps join to play with the stars,” wrote the iconic Hindi poet Jaishankar Prasad in his short story titled “Aakashdeep”. The metaphor of lighted Ganga waters resounds with thousands of lighted lamps along the ghats (landing steps) of the sacred ancient city of Varanasi on the occasion of the festival of Dev Deepavali.

Way back in the 1980s, one barely heard of this festival for it was something that the locals and the pilgrims observed organically. Suddenly, along with the Kumbh in Prayag, Deepavali in Ayodhya, the occasion of Dev Deepavali in Varanasi on 12th November 2019 is the next big Hindu religious festival promoted by the Uttar Pradesh government. It is part of the map of ‘Hindu’ high tourism. It needs to be clarified that the festival does not have links with the story of the Ramayan. Interestingly, it bonds with the epic Mahabharat, the “Padma Purana” and the central figures of Lord Krishna, Goddess Lakshmi, and the Moon.

Prayer on the Dashashvamedh ghat

Prayer on the Dashashvamedh ghat  

Transforming the realm of myth, epics, and beliefs existing as organic rituals, the spectacle of Dev Deepavali is expanding the canvas of pilgrimage tourism within the frame of geopiety. The fascinating journey of the festival illustrates joining the faith in the discourse of religious economy and nationalism. There is a wide array of conversations with knowledge resources in Varanasi who present a variety of perspectives to the festival.

The context

Cultural commentator and former journalist Amitabh Bhattacharya, who calls himself ‘a student of Banaras’, narrates the phenomenon of a ritual called Aakashdeep that starts from the day of Sharad Purnima (full moon of the month September- October) and ends on Kartik Purnima (full moon of the month October-November) when it is celebrated as Dev Deepavali.

Sharad in the Hindu month of Ashvin (September-October) marks the end of the monsoons. People look forward to a good harvest. The element of prosperity links the festival of the moon to the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi. Bhattacharya recounts, “Starting from the night of the Sharad Purnima, the faithful works to evolve himself in the month of Kartik which is called Purushottam (The supreme man).” He reminds Sharad Purnima is locally called Khojagari in Banaras. “The goddess Lakshmi looks out (Khoja) and showers wealth on those worshippers who stay awake all night to worship her; the moon in turn showers elixir (amrit). The faithful concentrate on their dead ancestors. Remembering them, they gather energies to develop themselves. Hence, the devotees pay homage to them by offering a lighted lamp on the riverfront through the month of Kartik. The Ganga flows to the sky transmitting their prayers to the ancestors and enabling their energies to empower the devotees.”

One important point to note is that the Ganga with the lighted lamps on her riverfront becomes a metaphor of an aspiring path for enlightenment. Says Bhattacharya, “The path with the oil lamps is called Sheesh Marg (path of rational mind). In the 10th chapter of the Gita, Lord Krishna even says that He is the Sheesh Marg. The lighting of the lamps in the month of Kartik symbolises the striving by each devotee to create inert equilibrium and a rational mind to reach the shelter of Narayana.”

The “Padma Purana” speaks extensively of the sacredness of the month of Kartik and the importance of the deep daan (offering of the lighted lamp) as the highest atonement by a devotee. Surendra Mishra, who is involved with the organisation of a large number of cultural events in Varanasi, says, “After the bloody battle of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas and Draupadi offered ‘akash deep’ (lamp lights hanging in the sky) in honour of the dead fighters and soldiers.”

All celebrations in Varanasi acquire a holistic form and the month-long festival of Aakashdeep is no different. “The lamps are formally placed along the ghats not only by community of ritual priests taking care of various ghats but also by neighbourhood communities and by individuals who perform their rituals,” says Sushant Mishra of the Ganga Seva Nidhi, the non-government organisation that takes care of the Prayag, Dashashvamedh and the Rajendra Prasad Ghats.

The NGO organises the daily Ganga aarti (ritual) on all 365 days. Dr. Sanjay Mehta, whose father Late Dr. Bhanu Shanker Mehta was a prolific cultural commentator on Varanasi, says, “In the olden days, the bamboo scaffolding with the lamps hanging was prevalent only at the Panchganga Ghat, the last of the 84 ghats. However, there is a logical geographical context to the ritual of the Aakashdeep. From Sharad Purnima onwards, the water of the Ganga that rise during the monsoon starts to fall. For the several fishermen and boatmen who travel the waters in the night, the lamps act like rural lighthouses. This is reflected in the story ‘Aakashdeep’ by Jaishankar Prasad.”

Food and music

Food and music too play a role in the celebration. “The association of the moon as a central backdrop from Sharad to Kartik Purnima inevitably brings the cooking of white-coloured food. Milk pudding (kheers) with saboodana (sago), makhna (white lotus puff) is commonly consumed. This month is important in the gaatha of Krishna worship,” describes Bhattacharya. It was in this period that the first of the ten incarnations of Krishna as the fish (matsya) was born to save the world and establish the dharmic (moral order). “Hence, one heard that the ganikas (courtesans) of Banaras visited the temple of Balaji and decorated the image of Krishna with white butter. Through the night they sang beautiful songs in raga Bhairavi that bring out both compassion and devotion,” adds Bhattacharya.

Patriotic fervour

Until the mid-1990s there was a small function to mark the celebrations of the Dev Deepavali. Then, in 1999, Late Pt. Satyendra Mishra founded the Ganga Seva Nidhi an NGO that committed itself to conserve the rituals and the health of the sacred river. As part of the programme, he conceived the daily Ganga aarti on the Dashashmamedha and Rajendra Prasad Ghats. Post the Kargil war, inspired by the Mahabharat, he blended Dev Deepavali with honouring war martyrs. Mishra involved the three-armed forces, recounts his son Sushant. On the first day of Kartik, soldiers light ‘Aakash Deep’ at the Dasashwamedh Ghat. The ritual is accompanied by the playing of the National Anthem by the military band.

An installation of the India Gate and the ‘Amar Jawan Jyoti’ (Eternal Flame – honouring the Soldiers) is also set up on the ghat along with a pontoon stage. While on normal days, there are only seven boys dressed in elaborate ritual clothes perform the aarti, on Dev Deepavali, there are 21 boys each accompanied by two girls who are called Riddhi and Siddhi.

Looking forward to a grand celebration, Sushant adds, “This year, we celebrate the 20th year of our festivities. The impetus given by the government has made the festival almost international.”

Economics of pilgrimage

The unorganised business of religion dominates the city of Varanasi. Hindus and Muslims have existed in a collaborative partnership for centuries. Even today, the elaborate lighting and the floral decorations for Dev Deepavali have the two communities working together. “There is an increase in flowers this year. Most flower vendors from both communities get their supplies from Kolkata,” informs Sushant.

Nevertheless, there has been a decline in business for the traditional potters. In the olden days, says Moti Ram, a potter from Varanasi, “Our business peaked in the month of Kartik. People not only bought clay lamps for Deepavali, but the consumption was enhanced in the hanging of the lamps as Aakash Deep. However, today, the lamps are usually the plastic-coated aluminum bowls in which a wax candle is placed.” Nevertheless, the consumption of bamboos for the scaffoldings has gone up with the elaborate marketing of the festival.

The impetus has resulted in hotels being booked for the next two years. Each of these vignettes reflects a dimension of buyer and seller world views, previously undescribed in consumer research of geopiety economy. However, a great concern is the callousness regarding ecological sustainability. The past record, both in Prayag and Ayodhya, is poor. The cities were marked by lack of waste management. On interviewing several locals, a similar scenario awaits Varanasi, if proper measures are not taken in time.

Meanwhile, pilgrims, tourists and the local Banarasi are keen to becomea sea of humans in motion. They pass through territories not their own but seeking something we might call completion, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way. Their eyes look up to the hanging sky-lamps, recalling the lines of Jaishankar Prasad – “For whose oath are you lighting the waterways… For that whom you consider the lord… In the dark days on the waters, how desperate were we for every one ounce of light.”

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 5:58:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/let-there-be-light/article29853052.ece

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