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Sweeping Air by Meera Subramanian


By Meera Subramanian

This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University


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. Now, each day is finite. Now, each and every thing of beauty has a cost. What did it take to bring this beauty here? I watch the meticulous preparations leading up to the aarti, and each object the priest touches whispers its past to me, a hidden history of labor diverted from other work that wouldn’t have been destined for fleeting flames. I think of the…

…seed that was sown that grew the plant that yielded the flower. The hands that plucked the flowers – orange marigold, pink rose, white jasmine, purple petunia, red carnation – and threaded each one onto a garland. The priest’s hands undoing the work as he places each blossom around the lingam. Someone mined the silver and mined the gold, and a boy with too-big jeans has been polishing the metals for an hour. It was likely a woman who gathered the fodder that fed the cow that made the milk that was churned into butter, who stoked the fire that transformed the butter into ghee. Perhaps a farmer in Punjab grew the cotton and a day laborer harvested the crop, which a man now twists into wicks for the oil lamps, fueled with the ghee. Did a child’s small fingers make the match that he strikes to make the flame? Who forged the bell that hangs overhead? Who harvested the sandalwood and ground it into the powder that made the paste daubed onto the lingam? Who grew the fruit set on the platter in offering? The priests took the time to learn the prayers, tongues wrapped around Sanskrit. The worshippers took the time to come to temple, winding through the footpath galis, between the cows and over the dung in the dark during a blackout so ordinary that a flashlight was already in hand. They reach up to ring the bell and bow their heads, calling to the gods. They bring sweets or a few rupee coins to leave on the priest’s rug, woven from wool that someone sheared from a sheep. When it is all done, the priest sweeps the air with tail hairs from a water buffalo, bundled together into a silver-handled broom.