Time Zones: Two Hours by the Ganges River

With Pen and Paper, a Hindu Priest Helps Pilgrims Trace Their Past

Ashish Sharma Pawan, 28, a priest in Haridwar, northern India, records in a 144-year-old book the genealogies of families visiting the ancient city to pay homage to their dead.
Ashish Sharma Pawan, 28, a priest in Haridwar, northern India, records in a 144-year-old book the genealogies of families visiting the ancient city to pay homage to their dead. (Emily Wax - The Washington Post)

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 10, 2007

HARIDWAR, India As the sun sets over the banks of the fast-moving Ganges River here in the foothills of the Himalayas, the pilgrims and their priests laze in the 4:30 p.m. twilight. Some sip lime sodas on the windy veranda of the Haveli Hari Ganga, once home to Indian royalty and now a hotel for religious devotees.

"I am here," announces the bearded Ashish Sharma Pawan, a priest who serves as a family record keeper and who arrives holding a thick, 2 1/2-foot-long sheaf of handwritten entries dating back 144 years.

Millions of Hindu families in northern India come to priests such as Pawan to record their family trees, a tradition that has survived Mughal conquests, British colonialism and even the Internet. They also ask him to conduct funeral rites or simply to help them pray by the Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges, as the river is known.

On this winter afternoon, all around the winding alleyways of this ancient city, religious tourists have arrived by train, by bus and by swollen feet. Those with money hurry to their hotels. Those without carry foam mattresses and mosquito nets to camp near some of the most hallowed temples in Indian mythology.

Haridwar is one of Hinduism's holiest cities, and a journey here is as sacred as a Muslim's journey to Mecca or a Catholic's trip to Rome. Some come to see the record books and perform pujas, or prayers. Others come to spread the ashes of loved ones.

At 5 p.m., Pawan carefully unties the dark blue and red woolen book cover. Just as four generations of his forefathers did before him, he unfurls the frayed pages of records for 2,500 families.

The pages are filled with script in Arabic, Sanskrit used generations ago and dialects of Persian mixed with tribal languages. These days, Hindi is northern India's predominant language. The foreign letters in the book represent the past, says Pawan, 28. There are hundreds of priests, or pandas, like Pawan in this city, and each works for a set of families.

"It's so lovely that we still feel so emotionally connected to seeing the books," coos Parthi Krishnan, a hotel manager marveling at the record book's faded pages. There were remarks written by relatives through the years: "A good listener," one entry said. "Hard worker," another said.

"You see, a computer has no feeling," Pawan explained. "There is an intimacy in seeing the handwritten notes of a family."

At 5:45 p.m., it's time for the evening river worship known as ganga aarti, held every day on the western bank of the Ganges.

Pawan's brother carefully takes the book from his arms to return it to the records library, a tiny concrete room filled with books. The door to the room is padlocked.

"We take better care of these books than we do of ourselves," Pawan says.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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