Day 8: Saffron, Sāman, Soma.

11 November 2011. Day 6/final day of Panauti somayajña.

“The view that gods are dependent on man’s sacrificial rituals is a misapprehension. It is truer to say that in the Vedic view the gods need man’s participation in the Vast Cosmic Order of which the sacrifice is the dramatic, symbolic re-enactment…This mutual participation is summarized in the sacrificial ritual. The birth of the universe is a sacrificial offering of Deity to Itself (RV 10.90; 10.81.5) and the gods’ participation in it is mirrored on earth by the human ritual which is itself an epitome of the law of life, of taking and giving, the eternal exchange.”
–Jeanine Miller, from chapter 1, “Bhakti and the Rig Veda,” in Love divine: studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism

I normally have words for situations, even if they’re empty syllables to fill the silent spaces, but I say little this morning. My eyes hold every sight with care as I walk, trying to remember everything.


Each morning, the townspeople have been awake for hours by the time I walk to breakfast; they talk in small groups as they prepare for the day’s duties. As I look upon them today, wondering morosely if I’ll ever encounter them again, they gaze back. I am startled to see a few of the women make circling gestures with their hands and point to me. I overhear pradakṣina several times, and Canada once.

When I reach the Soma-śālā, already it is different. The garland-makers, their huge baskets of blooms, and the draped flowers all around the altars are gone. One of the fire-altars is smoking. The kitchen tent is down, and the giant pots that have fed us so well are now emptied and resting on a mat. I enter and begin circling; moved by the wish to continue, I keep walking.

The Soma-temple feels somehow empty, like a home in which the children have all moved away…so it is odd to see a small group of Westerners, who arrived a few days ago, snapping photos and taking video of the yajña in its final waning. One of them turns a video camera on me as I walk by, and when I try to bend my head and politely step away, he moves with me. It is difficult to remain focused. I pull my shawl over my head to hide from stares and recordings, but the cloth doesn’t make me less conspicuous; I wore my prettiest clothes today, a many-coloured dress and dupatta, and now I look like some sort of hippie rainbow nun.

Slowly I become calm in pradakṣina, held in the centripetal embrace of its energy. Locals, who recognise me, back away and gesture each other to move, to give me space. A few touch my hands in namaste. While I walk, volunteers begin taking down the śālā’s decorations; Ujjwol hands me one of the saffron banners, and this precious gift I hold between my palms. The priests seem weary but are soldiering gamely on. I think on them, and their sacrifices of selves into this rite, as I round the yajña-śālā twenty-one times.

It is not long after I finish, that one of the priests places the huge Soma-vessel on his head, and the others gather the utensils, presses, everything used for the rite. It does not seem that anyone has issued instructions to do so, yet the crowd falls into a procession, led by the musicians and the priests. The musicians play a reedy sprightly song, I hold my flag high and smile at its bright saffron fluttering above the crowd, and the Soma-vat and pole sway merrily as we all walk. I hear murmured mantras. Some women behind me begin to sing…Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare… clapping to the song’s rhythm. We can hear the front crowds raising cheers and the answering cries of Jai!; I think on God and call out Jaya! though I can’t always hear who or what the group is praising. The atmosphere is one of mindful, dedicated joy.

The procession stops, and somehow the priests move to the centre of the encircling mass of devotees; I am standing only a few feet away from the men and the massive Soma-vessel. It is the Sāma Vedins who draw in breath to sing, and I forget about my own breath for a moment.

Until this ritual, the only Sāma Veda chanting I’ve heard came from recordings, and I didn’t like it; it sounded harsh and somehow strained or remote. Only here did I hear, and at last understand, Sāma Veda as the Veda of devotion, the beloved mystic song, the heart’s cry to the heart of God. Tears burn my eyes as the priests sing today. Their song is so sweet; it’s like a lullaby to the Soma. They’re singing to the Devas’ soul, the eternal Ecstasy. Too soon, the chant ends, and we continue.

We pass the grounds of Indreshwar temple. The huge bell rings over and over as processioners move past with outstretched hands. I, too, touch the cool, ancient metal, and strike it reverently. It is the first temple bell I have ever rung.

The procession ends at the river, where the vessels are offered into the river’s current, and the priests bathe, laughing and splashing each other with water, in what I imagine to be intense relief and joy at the ritual’s completion. The procession disperses, and we follow the priests back up the hill on a rocky climb. The devotees raise a bright silken banner over the site:

And with that, all is finished. The attendees begin to slowly drift away.

I remember the rest of the day as if lost in an aimless dream. Ujjwol left for Kathmandu, and when I returned to the grounds one last time, town officials were presenting certificates to sponsors, while the priests completed clean-up tasks behind them. I wandered Panauti for a long time and finally decided to walk around the Indreshwar temple. When I reached the complex, the temple was locked, so I bowed to the small shrines around the structure. And I encountered Baba at one of the ancient temples, where he stayed when in Panauti, and took his hospitality for a short while before bidding him farewell; that evening he was departing to walk to Bhaktapur. For a brief moment I contemplated walking with him, but I knew it would only be to escape the empty feeling here.

I want to write all sorts of vibrant thoughts, share all kinds of fascinating insights, but the chants are still echoing in my mind, and for now, I want to steep my heart in reverence instead of squeezing my mind for conclusions. I am told that the Vedic Society next year will travel to Kashmir for their annual rite; I hope they are able.

Update 2 January 2011:
I know that plenty of recordings and films were taken in Panauti, but nothing has yet been posted about them. Trying to report this experience in words is ridiculously insufficient, and I procrastinated in writing this entry, in describing the final day, because even in my blog I didn’t want the yajña to conclude…

But today I discovered something wonderful, something that helps both my mood and my descriptions.

If you point your browser to this link, and click on “Videostream: Pravargya-film: Part I: the regular performance,” you will see a very good-quality recording of the pravargya, from a somayajña in Delhi, 1996.

Perhaps the greatest happiness of all, for me, came in discovering that this recording covers several ritual occurrences besides pravargya: In the 30-minute film, the priests begin the Subrahmaṇyā at 26:20.

Anyone interested in the ritual details mentioned should definitely take a look at the video. Of course, if any visual or aural record of the Panauti rite is made available, I will return to this post with updates.

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© Arjunī and ridiculously reverent. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Arjunī and ridiculously reverent with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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