Along the Ganges River
The Holy Ganges
The sun seemingly rose out of and above the holy Ganges river until it hung large and low in the sky. It glittered and reflected long, yellow strands on the water and casted a mellow, dewy glow over the the ghats. The misty morning air filled with the aroma of sandalwood and jasmine flowers. The ghats erupted into a riot of colour and activity.
Varanasi, also called Kashi (city of life), is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is a holy city for Hindus and pilgrims who come to the holy Ganges river to dip in it. It is the belief that this act will wash away a lifetime of sins.
Rowing boats plied the river breaking up the sun’s golden reflection in the water. As we rowed along all of life’s rituals played out in front of me on the banks of the holy river.
Devotees visited temples and small shrines and performed the religious Hindu puja ceremony; making offerings to the pantheon of deities to receive blessings in return, filling the air with smoke and incense.
The Ghats on the Ganges
The ghats were a frenzy of colour and chatter as people splashed around taking a holy dip by dunking 3 times in the water to cleanse their sins. The women dipped fully dressed in bright sarees whilst filling up little silver jugs with Ganga water.
Laundry wallahs washed clothes and bedsheets from nearby hotels. They banged them on rocks in the river and spreading them out to dry across the ghats and on makeshift washing lines.
Buffaloes were herded down to drink and wash in the river while cows and dogs lounged around. People collected up cow poo and shaped it into patties to dry in the sun to sell as fuel. Goats trotted around, monkeys jumped across the rooftops while children played cricket and flew kites.
Watching Traditional Life
People washed in the river, saffron clad holy sadhus sat on the ghats talking, meditating, smoking or doing yoga. Boatmen touted for business, people hawked postcards, snacks, souvenirs, massages, candles and holy flower garlands. Tourists strolled along the ghats, snapping photos whilst boats floated by, bursting at the seams with pilgrims.
Varanasi is also an auspicious place to die. To get cremated by the river here releases you from the cycle of rebirth (moksha). Stacks of wood, the height of the buildings, line the cremation ghats. Huge metal scales weigh out the wood to price up the cremation next to stalls selling beautiful shiny orange, golden tassled cloths to wrap the bodies in.
It was not Depressing
About 20 saffron and gold clad corpses sat on burning on piles of wood amongst the many onlookers. Despite the unbearable heat and smoke from the pyres, far from being somber and depressing the cremation area was a hubbub of activity, like all the ghats.
Whilst Varanasi is a holy city, it is also an indiscreet, unapologetic crazy place. A ride on the Ganges is a surprising, unforgettable and unique experience. This felt especially true at dawn in the midst of the morning rituals while the sunrise bathes the ghats in an ethereal, magical, spiritual glow.
Written by Anna Phipps