You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
– Charles Bukowski
I’m always intrigued by the spectacle that surrounds religions. I’m speaking generally, of course; and generally speaking, religion has been the mother of pageantry.† It seems that no matter what the religion, people around the world are enchanted by the spectacle it can present. And what I’m fascinated by in places like Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal or India is the way in which faith and religion, at their most mundane and extravagant, are completely intertwined with daily life. In the holy city of Varansi, India, along the Ganges River, there’s a nightly performance called Agni Pooja or Fire Worship. It’s a dedication to the Hindu deities Lord Shiva, Agni, Surya and Mother Ganga, another name for the Ganges. Intended as a ritual for pilgrims, it’s neither staged for tourists nor commercial revenue (coming from the Land of Megachurches, this is something I still can’t wrap my head around) and is the epitome of religious grandeur.
†To be fair, I know pageantry isn’t owned by religion. Some high school proms in the U.S. can compete with the showmanship of most religions around the world.
I think the photo above conveys the spectacle of the ceremony, where thousands gather every night to watch priests lead a ritual in order to pay worship to their gods. What it doesn’t convey is the grandiosity of the ritual. What’s not apparent in the photo, is that this is only one of three stages at this site and one of a number of simultaneous performances along the river’s bank. In fact, these five priests are atop a smaller platform to the side of the main grandstand. Another thing that’s not clear in the picture is the Ganges River in the darkness beyond the platforms and the thousands of people in boats viewing the ceremony taking place. And, like I said, this is a nightly occurrence. Whether you’re a believer or not, it’s hard not to be moved by the intensity of conviction in man’s desire to connect with something beyond himself – a conviction that can illuminate the world around him, or leave it in ashes.