In Uttarkashi, I meet a trekker guide who drives me to Gangotri and then guides me into the mountains to Gaumuhk and the Gangotri Glacier, one of the major sources of the Ganga and filled with spiritual significance for Hindus.
It takes about 4 hours to drive from Uttarkashi to Gangotri along a road that is in need of repair from the massive flood that took place last year. At places it was slow going and rough. Gangotri is a very important city for Hinduism and thousands of Indian pilgrims visit the town during the summer months, because there is a temple that houses the goddess Ganga. During the winter (or the coldest 6 months of the year) the town is abandoned and “Ma Ganga” is moved to a safer temple way down the valley. We arrive in Gangotri on perhaps the most important day of the year: the unlocking of the temple and the placing of “Ma Ganga” in her home for the summer. It is an auspicious time, and there are many pilgrims and all the important military, political and religious people are there. Gangotri is at 11,000 ft.
We arrive and the ceremony has already begun.
In the first image, two men prop up a structure that is like a make shift stretcher, which is adorned with fabric and symbolic objects. My guide is visibly excited and explains:
Look. Look. There is a local god.
He points at the two men dancing with the stretcher on their shoulders.
He is dancing himself. People are not moving him. The God is moving the people … automatically it is moving.
I respond: “OK.”
The stretcher dancing goes on for about 30 minutes and the dancers are replaced every so often. A drummer keeps the rhythm going. Concurrently, other dancers start to encircle the stretcher carrying various symbolic objects, of which I recognize a few. There is Shiva’s Trident (which I have always thought looks conspicuously like the Trident of Poseidon, but this is an issue for a different time and a more focused discussion), and there is Rama’s Bow. There is even something that looks like a large and elongated dradle, but I know it is not. I’m not sure what it is.
A man screams, opposite me, on the outer edge of the circle of people who are watching the spectacle. He begins to gyrate and shake and move his arms wildly from side to side. Now, let’s be clear: I like to dance and I have had my own bouts of loony dancing over the years but like to think I keep the out-of-control, wild possession stuff to a minimum. His movements are not that extraordinary in that he wasn’t pushing the limits of what the body is capable of. I’ve seen all sorts of dancing at various techno clubs; but when I see this sort of dancing at a club or anywhere, I keep my distance. He inches forward and enters the Hindu Mosh-pit. He is the one in tan pants and the black and green sweater with white horizontal lines in the images above. After the stretcher dancers leave, the dancers carrying the objects and the black and green sweater flailing man continue, and, then, a woman enters. She is wearing a red sari and a pinkish-rust colored button down sweater in the images. She is elegant and engages with the other dancers and creates embracing motions and huddles and such. I mention both of them because they seemed out of place to me; so, I ask my guide.
The man in the black and green sweater. Is he part of the ceremony? or is he just dancing on his own?
No, he’s not part of it.
Well, then is it crazy, drugs or religion that got him out there?
Oh, no, no, no … He became moved by a spirit. It wasn’t him dancing.
and that woman who suddenly joined in? (I point)
He looks and ponders, “Oh, her? Yes, She was taken possession by a local deity.”
I respond: “OK”
The dancing ends and then the ceremony continues at the entrance of the temple with singing, chanting, lustrations of various types, as everyone waits for the doors to be unlocked and Ma Ganga placed inside so they can enter for more ceremony and prayer. I feel like I am at the heart of Hinduism.