It's Solstice time, it's Christmas time, and coloured lights are shining everywhere now on shrubberies and trees and houses here in Canada. It's the part I like best about this year I sometimes think. Despite the fact that I won't climb about in the cold and storms to bedeck my own house, I will happily admire the neighbours, and content myself with the lighting of candles. Besides, I feel like I've already just celebrated in a festival of light that moved and amazed me.
On the night of the full moon in the month of Kartik, the gods descend to earth to celebrate in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, and the people there welcome them in a festival known as Dev Deepawali (or sometimes Kartik Purnima). Candles and earthen lamps known as diyas line the ghats (steps down to the river) and the many, many temples at the river's edge are hung with lights and decorations. Miles of temples!
I am in a hired rowboat, one of hundreds, maybe thousands out on the Ganges tonight. Varanasi is a pilgrimage city, home to millions, and a good portion of the populations has turned out for the celebration both on land and water. The gathering of boats is so great that flower-sellers and food-merchants are able to jump from vessel to vessel with ease.
We have bought special votive candles from a young boy that are circled with marigold flowers. When we set these floating candles out on the river (make a wish!) to drift like tiny lanterns I am fondly reminded of the times at home when I've set candles on the river at home on the winter solstice.
But unlike the quiet and icy peacefulness of remembered Yuletides, this celebration is filled with the clanging of bells and gongs, the chanting of Brahmin priests performing the fire aartis by the river's edge, and wild Indian flute and drum music broadcast with loudspeakers over the dark water. There is the sudden and constant pistol-shots of firecrackers going off at close range, launched from the prow of a neighbouring boat, there are crackling bursts of fireworks, and shouts from the shore as a large paper lantern released into the air lodges in a tree and sets it alight, endangering the building it grows beside.
The Youtube clip below is short (and not my own), but gives you an idea of the soundtrack of that night.
It was chaoes. It was magic. :)
And somehow, thousands of miles from home, I felt very, er, uh, Christmasy.