Daily Dispatch 6: The Ganges Guides Us

RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.

Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.

We boarded our bus for the ride to the sister city of Hardwar, also along Ganges, where we saw murti – religious figures of deities, persons and icons – smiling out from their watery abode. Hinduism forbids the destruction of murti by burning or disposal, leaving people to dump their broken or “incomplete” figurines in flowing water like the Ganges. Gurus and politicians, noting that the murti add to the fouling of the river, condemn the practice, but, short of a clear alternative, it continues.

Hardwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. Meanwhile on the shore, the poor held out their hands for alms, some of them selling aarti boats of flowers and camphor wax. Young men approached us for selfies along the banks of the holy river.


Daily Dispatch: Day 6
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We made our way through Hardwar’s bustling market, pausing to buy beads or finger textiles. Wooden prayer beads are as they always were – but there were signs of modernizing, too. A teashop sold chai with frothy milk from an automatic machine, while another stall sold key rings in the shape of the Facebook logo. Like Rishikesh, the holy town of Hardwar is “pure vegetarian:” no eggs, meat or fish is allowed. Stalls on the ground sold every vegetable imaginable, but the only animals in the market were alive and well. Monkeys swung from electric cables while cows walked moonily up and down the streets.

From Hardwar, we took a bus, a boat and finally a rickshaw to Parmarth Niketan, an ashram down by the banks of the river. The leader of the ashram is Chidanand Muni and his second-in-command and designated successor is Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji. Bhagawati, who was born to an American Jewish family, stumbled across Rishikesh while traveling in India while pursuing her PhD some 25 years ago. In a talk to our group, Bhagawati recalled first walking into the river and feeling a “deep spiritual awakening.” Through tears of “truth and homecoming,” she said, she knew she needed to stay. Bhagawati spoke to us about the challenges of being one of few women spiritual leaders in her field, and how it motivates her to continue public speaking and attending events.

“At least by being there,” she said, “I’m going to be able to be a model [for other women].” Eighty to ninety percent of those who come to volunteer and live at the ashram are women, most of them from overseas, she added.

As the sun set over the Ganges, we returned to its banks for an aarti among well over 100 devotees. Many were not Hindu – two clutched Dalai Lama bags – and still more had come from far away. A young man with blond dreadlocks shut his eyes and rocked from side to side as the guru, Chidanand Muni, chanted. It was Bhagawati’s spiritual birthday, he said, and the anniversary of her first visit to Rishikesh. As devotees threw flower petals over her, tears pooled on her cheeks and she closed her eyes in joy. The water, which had been calm and still in the morning, rushed past us in full, ecstatic flow.

By the end of the night, at our hotel, it was too dark to see the river – although we could hear it rush along into the dark. Two classical Indian musicians, one on violin and the other on tabla, performed on the balcony of our hotel, their song competing with the far-off vibrations of rickshaw horns and the Ganges, flowing on into the night.


Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Taking Out The Torah at Rego Park Jewish Center


Two hundred people might easily fit in the sanctuary of Rego Park Jewish Center – but by 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, barely 10 have taken their seats for the start of the service. As the first hour passes, more and more worshippers filter in, reaching for the prayer books in their niche on the back of the seat. They join in with the service with varying levels of vigor as soon as they find their place on the page.

The building dates back to 1948: its main sanctuary is painted pale green and pink, with wooden wall paneling and unusual Art Deco flourishes, like the two spindly menorahs that flank the stage. The walls are lined with stained glass windows in purples and blues – names like “Sidney and Mary Sekula” or “In Memory of Anna Hess” picked out in white against images of hands, books and scrolls. Two round metal light fittings, gleaming like spaceships, hang from the ceiling. On the stage, two flags – Israel’s and the United States – hang limply to either side.

Rabbi Romiel Daniel stands on the stage and faces away from the congregation, rocking gently backwards and forwards on his heels as he chants in Hebrew. To his left stands the sexton, known as the gabbai, in a black velvet yarmulke. Occasionally, he will call out into the room: “Page 25! Please stand. … You may sit. … Now, page 51…”

A little over an hour into the service, Rabbi Daniel steps to the ark in the center of the stage. It has a purple velvet curtain, embellished with gold and edged in silvery beading. There is a large Star of David in the middle above some Hebrew text. He tugs on a cord once, twice, three times – the curtain opens. Inside, five or six scrolls are nestled snugly together on a shelf, up off the floor. The congregation rises as one and chants together: ‘ein kamocha baelohim adonai v’ain k’maasecha…” (“There is none like Thee among the gods, O Lord, and there are no works like Thine…”)

Four other men come onto the stage to help remove two of the scrolls from their spot on the shelf. The scrolls are the size of small infants: the helpers take them in their arms and hold them against their torsos, resting the wooden ends of the scroll on their right shoulders. One scroll is wrapped in an embellished purple mantle, similar to the curtain that hid it from view; the other in a plainer taupe cloth with a colorful embroidered pattern. The other helpers reach for a dazzling silver crown and a set of matching finials, decked with little bells. Rabbi Daniel takes one of the scrolls from the helper and begins to walk. The others join him, moving slowly down the stairs and in an anti-clockwise direction around the pews.

The men and women of the congregation slip gracefully to the end of their benches, ready to greet the parade. Before, there had been whisperings between them of the outside world (“So windy outside!” said one woman during the chanting, shaking her head), but now there is only the quiet repetition of “Shabbat shalom” from one worshipper to one another. Hands are lightly shaken, but every head is turned towards the procession, like a field of sunflowers looking to the light. The scrolls and the texts they contain may be the central reference and at the center of the liturgy, but more than that, they are at the center of the faith – to be adorned as treasure and, in turn, treasured.

The scrolls are paraded down the aisle: as they pass, people reach out with their prayer books, knocking them against the mantle as softly as a kiss. Almost every man wears a fringed prayer shawl around his shoulders – these too are stretched out over the fingers and touched against the scroll. Some worshippers simply reach out with their bare hands, and then bring their fingers slowly to their lips. They look enraptured.

The procession moves in a U-shape down one aisle, across the back of the room and back up the other, more swiftly than before, before returning to the stage. The crown and finials removed, one scroll is laid on the podium and the other returned to its shelf. The congregation sits once again.