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

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.

Then he rushes through the labyrinth of a nearby market, past three-foot-tall pyramids of the bright red powder used by married women to smear their foreheads, sweets salesmen stirring massive pots of boiling milk filled with almond slices and sugar, and merchants hawking brass candleholders shaped like peacocks.

At the river-splashed steps leading down to the Ganges, thousands of people crowd together, holding on to one another to avoid slipping.

At 6 p.m., dozens of bells ring out and a traditional Hindu devotional song sounds fuzzily through the loudspeakers.

Many sprinkle their foreheads with water. They whisper: "Purify me. Purify me. Purify me," since it is said that the Ganges can help wash away sins.

With their bare feet planted on the wet steps, some sing softly, calling on the goddess of Ganga to turn, see them and listen to their prayers.

Pawan helps the pilgrims light cotton wicks that are drenched in ghee, or clarified butter, and poke out of lamps like branches from a tree. The pilgrims wave the lamps in a circle like wands, and the fires glow all around the river. Many of the worshipers cup their hands over the flames and pray.

Then they light candles that are nestled on leaf boats amid strings of marigolds. They launch the boats into the river. With thousands of candles afloat, the water comes awake with a warm rush of flickering light as Pawan watches and smiles.

Afterward, at 6:30 p.m., Pawan visits a shrine that serves as a symbolic bed -- a lime green chest with a stack of glittery blankets -- "for the Goddess Ganga to rest at night," Pawan says.

Standing in a doorway nearby, Davinder Kumar, 18, is wrapped in a blanket. His head is shaved, a sign of mourning. His family of day laborers saved for nearly 15 years to send 40 of its members by train to Haridwar, thousands of miles from their village. This day, they entered their father's name in the book and spread his ashes.

"We are happy to enter the lives of our ancestors in our family book," Kumar says, his eyes moist. "To pay homage to the departed soul is a wonderful tradition."

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