A day in the life of Deoghar

A day in the life of Deoghar

Today is “puja”… a spiritual celebration. Specifically, today is “Saraswati Puja” – celebration of the Goddess of Knowledge and Wisdom. What a way to start a work week! With preparations beginning days in advance, the entire Chetna Vikas office had been transformed into a thematic feast for the senses… a colorful altar for the ritual worship of the goddess Saraswati.

Saraswati is the personification of knowledge – arts, science, crafts. She represents “shakti”, creativity and inspiration and presents herself when the weather is pleasant and Nature is in its full grandeur. In fact, along my rickshaw ride into work today, the rough, dirt roads were lined with small, tented “shrines” each featuring brightly colored streamers, ribbons, fabrics and flowers leading up to a large, clay goddess figure (carefully hand-painted and decorated with jewellery and human hair). All week long, I had watched hundreds of these clay idols slowly take form – beginning as rough, orange figures and slowly transforming into delicately shaped and intricately painted figures in dancing postures.

There are various rituals that are followed in the worshiping of Saraswati. Firstly, the idol is clothed in white – yellow is the second most predominant colour in the celebrations, used to indicate the onset of spring and the blossoming of mustard flowers. Families dressed in bright yellow gather together before the idol of Saraswati and pray for the blessing of knowledge. Flowers and wild berries are offered to the goddess, and students place their books before the deity (they refrain from reading and writing all day). Then, an elaborate puja, with sandalwood, ghee, joss sticks, and incense is done to the sound of shlokas, conch shells, and drums. After the ceremony, which lasts for several hours, people spend the afternoon eating vegetarian food and initiating children into the world of the written word.

Having had the unexpected opportunity to abandon my laptop and my work for a day full of festivities, I wanted to explore the residual night-time puja activities. So, I decided to head into the Barmasia neighborhood after dark to snap night-time photos of the lively and active evening vendor stalls. Indeed, whether it is puja or not, walking through Barmasia after dark is a surprising sensory experience and opportunity to shop for anything from aspirin, to fresh produce, to a hot dinner – where each item emerges from the most unsuspecting wooden “stall”.

The stalls sit side by side all along the road, many with a bare bulb light source, and each with a vendor that is either a weathered, friendly face with active hands and a loud voice, or a wise looking and experienced elder nodding off between customers, or a young boy, with a scale in his hands, squatting amongst the produce to collect and weigh each sale.

Needless to say, the advent of a camera on the streets of Barmasia, especially in the hands of a foreigner, was enough to cause an unbelievable crowd. The locals trailed and crowded around me with lively and friendly interest, asking endless questions about the camera, and excitedly moving close to see the digital images relayed through the camera’s eye.

At one point, I looked up from an odd, halting conversation with two young boys to find that almost 50 people or more had encircled us to hear the strange exchange… the boys were asking me for advice on how they might best learn English and how they might earn a lot of money one day! Somehow, with many smiles, customary head “tilts” and shared photos, I eventually managed to extract myself from the masses and traffic of late night Barmasia.

On the way home, I reflected on the degree of interest in foreigners here in Deoghar. It strikes me that – as I’ve experienced so many times before in the developing world – I am forever in a cycle of learning and receiving so much more than I ever feel I am able to give and offer. The humility in which I am bathed each day, during the simplest and smallest of gestures of life in Deoghar, is refreshing and welcome. It makes me remember something I saw painted by hand on a brick wall here in town today…

It said: “Be courageous. Do not seek to lead your bretheren. Serve them.


[This is an excerpt from a journal I kept while working in India years ago. I lived and worked in a very remote, rural town called Deoghar, near the border of Bangladesh. This specific journal entry was written on February 11, 2008.]