One of the most valuable time of my travels in India was during a visit to the holiest of the cities – Varanasi, the city of spiritual light. The “holy” status is conferred upon this city, along with Benares, Kashi and Rishikesh, due to the fact that the mystical Ganges flows through them.
Many tales are associated with the Ganges (or Mother Ganga) and the exalted position she holds in Hindu and Buddhist ethos. According to one legend, Goddess Ganga descended from heaven in response to the prayers of King Bhagiratha, whose ancestors were reduced to ashes by the curse of Sage Kapila. Lord Shiva agreed to break Ganga’s fall to earth by taking her on his head and safely knotting her in his matted hair. This is the presumed site of the present-day temple at Gangotri. Bhagiratha then led the way on horse back and the river followed. Ganga reached the spot where the ashes lay, liberating Bhagiratha’s ancestors with her magical waters. This is the Sagar Island of today, where the Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Millions of devout Hindus throng to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges, an act believed to wash away one’s sins and ensure a smooth journey heavenward towards moksha or nirvana, the attainment of a state of eternal existence beyond the cosmos.
The riverbank, or Ghats, are a sight to behold, with saffron robed swamis (holy men), Chillum smoking sadhus, devotees, flower sellers, half naked children and herds of cows wearing haughty expressions, I assume due to their “sacred mother” status. There are many ghats along the river, the most famous being Dashashwamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat.
Along with a handful of tourists, I embarked on an early morning boat ride across the river to watch the life around the ghats stir to life at 3:00 am. Hundreds of devotees took the early morning dip and offered ablutions to Surya (Sun), sweet chants floated through the air, and we all fell silent, engrossed in our own thoughts as we soaked up the peace, devotion and sanctity of the scenery. Early morning is the best time to see the Pandits preparing the puja, the sacred offering to the river, the chandals, lowest in the caste system, preparing the funeral pyre later to be consigned to the holy river. Children splash in the almost ashy water and women gossip while washing their load of clothes, oblivious to the ghoulish preparations nearby.
As night fell, the famous Vishwanth temple reverberated with the sacred hymns and the inky waters of Ganges, illuminated with little oil lamps set afloat and sounds of the temples bells and the arti, the sacred chant, echoed through the still night. The crowd, dust, polluted river, pesky beggars, bloated bodies, half burnt funeral pyres that had clawed on my western sensibilities were now a distant memory as I stared hypnotically at the little oil lamps balanced precariously on wide lotus leaves, floating merrily heavenwards. I felt alive!