The riverside lights that grace Hinduism’s holiest city capture beliefs and traditions that resonate even with non-believers. Peggy Hansen has this Perspective.
They hang high above the pavement, oddly unripe fruit dangling from bamboo poles. A slight breeze rises, and they rustle quietly against each other like fall leaves on a forgotten pathway. The ghat is crowded, aswarm with vendors and sadhus, tourists and locals, pilgrims and bathers, but none of them look up: They're not wandering, but moving with some purpose, even if they couldn't put a name to it. No matter, because the baskets aren't meant for them, at least not yet. And it's still midday, when the intended audience doesn't need their help.
At dusk, the baskets are transformed, empty wicker cavities suffused with warmth and light as each is lowered from its perch, a tiny earthen lamp placed in its belly, then gently raised back to its vista point high above the river. Sky and water merge as the blue hour deepens, impending darkness softened by rows of handmade lanterns flickering along the western fringes of the river. As air and water slide together toward slumber, the glowing baskets wake to take charge of the night shift.
Clustered in groups of twos and threes and eights and tens, the lanterns line the riverbank like runway lights, meant to guide the souls of those departed ones who've lost the path and wander, desolate and aimless, in the night. The tiny lighthouses call out: “Here we are, this way to the river, this way to the peace you have been seeking.”
Not all who wander, to be sure, are lost….and not all believe in souls, or afterlives, or even the sacredness of certain spots on Earth. But in Varanasi, standing toe to toe with the great Ganga as night gently descends, it feels right that there are lanterns, and lamplighters, to light the way for those who do.