Apr 28, 2012

When culture evolves, who decides what is “authentic”?


I just returned from India where I had the chance to attend an aarti ceremony along the Ganges River in Haridwar.  The ceremony is a Hindu ritual that involves the five elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether – and, in some locations like Haridwar, is performed every evening at sunset.

As I had never been to this type of ceremony, I had few expectations and was just looking forward to an opportunity to learn more about Hinduism and Haridwar.  On the way to the ceremony, I met another visitor who claimed he was “skeptical” of the ceremony.  Though I was not particularly interested in his negativity, I was curious as to what made him skeptical of a ceremony that my hosts had described as “traditional”.  He explained that he had been to an aarti in another location and was told by a local that the ceremony had been introduced to that area by the tourism board, in an effort to increase tourism.

As we watched the crowd grow, the sun set, and the priests perform the ceremony, the man changed his tune.  He said he “felt better” about the experience; he believed that this was genuine.  Out of the hundreds – possibly thousands – of folks we passed by, stood next to, or spoke with, not one was a foreigner.  These people were not putting on a show to bring in foreign tourists.  They were practicing their religion and sharing the experience with others who had come to do the same.

I was, of course, left pondering some issues of cultural sustainability:

If it were true that a tourism board introduced the aarti to other locations, did it make the ceremony – practiced in the same tradition as others, such as in Haridwar – any less authentic?  Is the introduction of the aarti to new areas not, in some ways, actually an act of cultural sustainability?  Does it matter who introduced it, so long as the traditions are kept intact and respected?  Does not every tradition and ceremony have to start somewhere?  Does the attendance and/or participation of “outsiders” or foreigners in some way render the ceremony sacrilegious?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts!  Please share them in the comments section below.

Visit this site to learn a bit more about the aarti ceremony and it’s possible origins.


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