Every evening at the Pashupatinath Temple, people gather on the other side of the ghats. The entire place lights up with diyos. It’s the time for arati that’s been held every day for the past eight years. The arati ritual consists of two parts: music and light. With three musicians playing a flute, a harmonium and a tabla each, the music starts with an invocation to Lord Shiva, the reigning deity at the temple of Pashupatinath.
The prayer to Lord Shiva is found in our classics, and is followed by a prayer to Bagmati, a Sanskrit lyric composed by Swami Khemraj Keshav Sharan more than two decades ago. Next is a prayer to the Panchayan deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Surya, and Ganesh.
There is also a short worship of Goddess Saraswati, and an arati song in Nepali, also by Khemraj Keshav Sharan, that’s very popular with the devotees. Perhaps the next segment is the most popular: devotees seem to be in anticipation of it. The tempo rises to the beats of the rousing Tandav Stotra, supposed to be written by Ravan, an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva. As soon as the music starts, several people start dancing on the sidelines. There are children in the group, women and also young men, and all of them dance with abandon.
When this segment is over and the calmer music starts, the dancers leave. But many people still listen to the Panchakshar Stotra: a hymn where the first letter of each line comes from Namah Shivaya (the first line starts with Na, the second with Ma, and so on). By the time the Rudrashtakam starts, the crowd has thinned, but most of the people who remain sing along, as they have been doing from the very beginning.
The Rudrashtakam is a hymn beginning from the eight (ashta) letters of Rudra, one of the many names that Lord Shiva goes by with. Finally, the music ends with a call to many famous gods in Nepal, including Baba Muktinath, etc. Flowers are then offered to Bagmati and Prasad is distributed to devotees. The arati, on the other hand, is a spectacle worth watching. Three priests line up on the bank of Bagmati from where the Pashupatinath Temple is in their direct line of vision.
“First, we start with incense,” informs Pundit Bheem Bhattarai who has been part of the arati ritual since its inception eight years ago. Next, they worship the Lord with coal incense which burns with vegetable oil and many different woods. The major attraction of the ritual comes next, where three large structures with fifty-four diyo (small oil-lamp) each are raised to the Lord. “It’s well known in Hindu culture that gods like light, and that’s what we offer when we offer them an arati,” says Bheem. In perfectly synchronized motions, the priests first dip the lights four times on the bottom, then circle it seven times on the top.
“It’s a standard ritual that we train in before we practice it,” says Bheem. “The motions at the bottom symbolize the worship of the Lord’s feet, and those on the top are for his head.” Each of the items of worship is rotated in this manner. But the beauty of the motions is particularly evident with the diyos, their grandness is spectacular to watch on a dark night.
The arati made of camphor (kapoor) in a big vessel accompanies the Tandav music. After this, the priests worship the Lord with a piece of cloth, a fan made of peacock feathers, and the tail of a yak. “These items offer coolness,” says Bheem. “Lord Shiva must be hot and tired after the Tandav dance, and the coolness will comfort him.”Finally, the ceremony ends with the ring of bells and blowing of conch shells. Durga Prasad Khatiwada, a musician who plays the flute to accompany the arati every day, informs that the music of bells and conch shells is dear to gods.
“The logic of ringing bells in a temple early in the morning is to wake up the gods with a sound they like to hear,” says Durga. Since Durga is one of the founding members of the Shri Pashupatinath evam Ganga Arati Sewa Samiti, he had acquired information about this ritual. The current general secretary of the committee, he shares that the idea to start this ritual came from such rituals conducted in India.
“The ritual is about respecting and increasing the glory of the River Bagmati and Pashupatinath Temple,” says Durga. “It enhances not just the beauty of the temple but adds to the fame of the entire city.” The arati at Pashupatinath is held at 6:30 pm during summer and 5:30 pm in winter.