Varanasi, or Benaras, one of the oldest cities in the world, continues to be a religious and cultural centre for people from all over the world. The sense of rustic, old-world charm, to this otherwise crowded city, known for its many ghats (steps on the river bank), is conspicuous. Every evening, devotees throng two adjacent ghats, for a prayer ceremony that lasts just under an hour. This ceremony is given additional significance on the days of Vijay Dashmi (Dussehra) and Deepavali, when the number of attendees goes up, guests are invited, and the entire ghat is adorned with earthen lamps. It is said to be an enchanting site and experience.

The Citizen interviewed one of the priests, who prefers to restrict his identity to one of the 12 priests who has been performing the prayer ceremony every evening since 2007. A native of Nepal, the priest came to Varanasi in 2004 as a student himself, and has been travelling for studies and knowledge and living alone since he was 12 years of age. A young and lively individual, one can spot him almost every day, enjoying tea from one of the stalls near the ghats, both after the morning and evening ceremonies. Excerpts:

Q. What is the history and significance of the prayer ceremonies undertaken at the ghats?

Several mythological stories are associated with the significance of these ghats. One theory says that Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva, and the other one says that Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses during the Ashwamedha Yagna, that was performed here and hence the name. The aarti in the evening and morning are a dedication to Lord Shiva, Mother Ganga, Surya (Sun) and Agni (Fire). Now the aartis are held on two ghaats, separately, which a relatively newer trend. At the end, it doesn’t matter if you light a hundred lamps, or just one, it is all a question of faith and belief.

Q. What is the selection process for this coveted role that you perform? Also, which part of the hour-long aarti is most challenging?

I came to this city as a student of Sanskrit and Yoga, and after undergoing the required training, I got a chance to perform the evening prayers. There are no stringent rules or favouritism, for even if I leave today, the best suitable replacement will be found. However, one week of training is mandatory, and fluency in Sanskrit is also required. It goes without saying that only a Brahmin priest, who knows all the prayers, mantras and shlokas recited during the aarti, can perform this. Since the entire ceremony lasts almost around an hour, it does get physically taxing, especially because it involves constant handling of heavy metallic prayer instruments. Personally, the part where we have to sway several jots (lamp wicks) together at once, is the most difficult, as people are present really close, and there is a slight sense of danger.

Q. The evening prayer ceremony attracts a heterogeneous crowd of thousands. Tell us something about the people who visit the ghaats.

A. A majority of the attendees in the evening are visitors. The locals mostly come to enjoy or hang around the ghats. Even for the people outside the city, the fascination simmers down after the first few minutes. I think only about a quarter of people who turn up, are devotees in the truest sense, but since it tough to identify them, no can say with surety. Otherwise, people are so worried about taking the perfect picture or video, that they sometimes forget that the entire spectacle is unfolding in front of their eyes.

Q. Though worshipped as a Goddess, one cannot deny the deplorable condition of the river Ganga. What your views in this regard?

A. I believe that people lack a basic sense of understanding about the synergy of nature and god. They uphold traditions, in the name of devotion, turning a blind eye to the problems of today. So on one hand they consider the river water holy, on the other hand they don’t hesitate to dump the trash in their bags or pockets in the river, or even spitting paan (betel) into it. Even though the river is called a ‘Mother’, it is far from clean because people are ignorant, and have been following this practice for centuries. Though it will not fair to blame the people completely, as no other system of waste management is in place. All of the city’s garbage and sewage is thrown in the river anyway.

Q. Varanasi is an essential stop-over destination for the several foreigners that visit India. Do you think they help spread the message of spirituality, sacredness and religious piousness, which the city stands for?

A. An overwhelming majority, I would approximate it to 80-90%, of the foreigners come to Varanasi as ‘tourists’. Only a very miniscule proportion of them come here for studies or exploring spirituality, and end up accepting the city in its equality, the good with the bad. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad they bring tourism to the city, but for them, probably it is just another stop on the way to exploring the mysteries of India. Add to that the fact that living and accommodation expenses in the city are extremely economical. I have met several foreigners, who have stayed here for months, to kill time, loneliness or both. A majority of the foreigners stay here for a short period, and that I think is not enough to let one appreciate the city for everything that it stands for.

Q. In today’s world, everyone is chasing the elusive state of peace and happiness. What message would you like to give to the people to help them channelize their energy, and bring about a positive change in their lives?

A. As boring as my answer might sound, don’t chase happiness outside. If you are able to understand yourself, what you want, and where you want to be, you are already miles ahead of most of the people in this world. People chase money and happiness together and often think one comes at the cost of the other. But the problem is that in the process of making money, they consciously let go of happiness by the virtue of choices they make. Don’t fall into this trap, and do not look at religion or spirituality as a measure of last resort, to restore balance and peace in your life. Just remember, you can be happy, peaceful, rich and successful, all at the same time, only when you being your journey inward, rather than chasing an obscure idea of what the outside tells you.