Lost in the wonder of the Ganges

Varanasi Travel Blog

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There is a place which is located on the banks of the River Ganges in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It has been called many things by many people, "the city of temples", "the holiest city of India", "the city of lights", and "the city of learning". More than 60,000 Hindus come year after year to perform their religious rites in the Ganges River. They come to seek enlightment and answers to life's questions at the ashrams, many of which are over 3,000 years old and scattered around this city. The city is called Varanasi.

I got up at the break of dawn and standing at the “ghat” – an area of steps leading to the banks of Ganges River, and I stared at the majestic magenta of the sky. The whole city was serene and I felt that everyone was still curled up asleep under their blanket against the cold winter morning of India.

It was amazing how this peaceful morning will later on transform into another chaotic day of worship, but for now I relish the sight of boats still tied neatly to the river side and how the calm waters mirror the buildings that stood near the river. 

A few minutes later, others begam to trickle in, the guide motionen us to step into the boat and the first part of our journey into the mystical river started. I always take a quick glimpse around the boat and notice the different expressions of the faces that enjoyed the beauty of the old Maharaja buildings along the ghat.

From a distance, a girl with a small basket on her arm jumped gracefully from one boat to other, finally landing on ours. She gave a simple sales pitch, “Have a flower candle, make a wish and float it on the river.

It will bring good karma for your life”. How can I say "no" to that? I bought one, lit the candle, made a wish and watched my flower candle float on by the river, content with the hope of good karma and a good life.

Not too long, from the east, slightly shrouded in fog, the perfectly round orange disc of the sun began to shyly reveal itself. Everyone in the boat was changing positions, showering the sun with photo snaps from different angles. I could not deny the stunning sunrise that morning on Ganges River. All eyes were hypnotized by this beautiful creation of God.

The boat continued our peaceful cruise down the Ganges when a frantic scream from one of the passengers surprised us all. She pointed toward the river and as I followed the direction of her finger my jaw dropped.
A rotten corpse was floating right next to our boat! Crows were having the time of their lives feasting on maggots over the surface of the body. It was such a grotesque sight.

As it turned out, the Ganges River is a place where the drama of life and death collides each day. Hinduism believes that performing cremation rituals and placing the bodies in these sacred waters will smoothen the transmigration of the spirit from the physical life to Nirvana, apparently it is actually a common, yet important, ritual to those that live (and die) here.

I heard the sound of bells repeating loudly from Dashshwamedh, a famous ghat for the bathing ritual, what was once an empty place just a few hours ago is now packed with hundreds of people who were ready to bathe with the sacred water of the Ganges as a symbol of purification.
I was also surprised that not only the Indian nationals go and take part of this ritual but some of the East Asian ethnicity as well.

It was fascinating how several practices of purification varied from one another. There was a ritual that each person would fill a small metal bowl with the river water, once it is full, they would raise the bowl above their heads and as they closed their eyes and prayed, poured the water back slowly into the river. They repeat the same ritual over and over again.

After these prayers, the supplicants would slowly enter the Ganges and once in the river, they had the freedom to express themselves in the self purification process. Some would just dip their bodies up to their neck and continued meditating, while others repeatedly soaked themselves in and out the Ganges facing the four different directions of the compass while reciting a personal mantra loudly.

These various different expressions of self purification held my attention as I tried to bring myself closer to this Hindu practice of giving a token of deep appreciation to their Gods.

There is a ritual that I do not recmmend to travelers. However, it is the act of performing “Ganga Jal”, another tradition of “purifying." This involves using a small brass pot to drink the sacred water of the Ganges. A Hindu tradition that unfortunately needs to be avoided by travelers if they want to continue the journey without a tummy ache!

Further along on the river’s fringe, not too far from sewage and a garbage dump, a line of the “laundry army” was chirping away while busy at their work washing clothes, bed linens, blankets and sari.

I was just wondering how on earth these fabrics could possibly be even remotely cleaned considering how polluted Ganges water seems to be. But the beauty of this river is that once these fabrics are stretched out for the sun to dry they seem magically clean, and the exhibition of color swatches along the sidewalk gives a splendid touch of another side of the Ganges’ morning charm.

As the boat moved back toward the place where we started, I pondered. No matter how dirty my initial sense first told me the Ganges is, it is and for some, it will continue to be the only source of water for the people who live around the area, and a thousand years of being sacred for Hindus, somehow seems to “purify” the river, as well as those that meditate in it. The view of a decomposing body, the bathing ritual and Ganga Jal enticed me to relate to one of the values in life that people tend to forget – obedience.

I take off my proverbial hat to give respect to the people who perform the purification ritual fervently despite the fact that the condition of the Ganges River may leave something to be desired. I realized that I originally failed to comprehend the beauty of this unique practice that I saw and felt this morning. Something that was beyond the capacity of the values I believed in now seemed very clear to me and as I enjoyed the last part of the morning’s boat trip I really knew how wonderful it was to be lost in the wonder of the Ganges…

*This article was published in Venture Magazine on September 2010.

ratu says:
Wooooooooooooooooooooooooooow
Posted on: Feb 08, 2012
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Varanasi
photo by: rotorhead85