We walked towards the ghats while it was still dark, making do with only moonlight and the dim beams of lanterns swinging from vendors’ carts to illuminate patches of the rutted roads here and there. The city was surprisingly quiet at that early hour, with just the odd cowbell clanging, the muted buzz of a distant motorcycle, and the shuffling of feet – ours and the other pilgrims’.
As we neared the ghats, I started to notice what registered initially as a low hum – I felt it more than heard it at first. Gradually but steadily, it grew louder as we walked, until suddenly we were there, at the top of the broad, steep concrete steps descending down to the mighty Ganges.
Pilgrims of all ages were bathing in the river, many of them fully clothed, bouncing as they submerged themselves repeatedly in the sacred murky waters. Others were washing clothes or performing sun salutations on platforms perched high on the banks. Colourful rowboats bobbed here and there. Holy men were clanging bells and chanting to greet the first faint pink glow of the rising sun. It was a glorious clamour. I couldn’t help feeling spiritual, even though I didn’t fully understand the true significance of the rituals. This was Varanasi, the holiest city in all of India for Hindus.
I was part of a small group of 14 travellers on an adventure tour of India’s golden triangle and the princely state of Rajasthan, and this was my first glimpse of the Ganges. Our guide Sam led us down the steps to a small dock. We stepped into a creaky but solidly built long rowboat, and our boatman pushed off with gigantic oars to row us along the shoreline, steering confidently with an impressive combination of strength and dexterity.
On the way down, Sam had purchased some candle offerings from one of the sellers. Each was made of a small wick surrounded by a ring of marigold blossoms nestled into a circle of paper. He offered them to us now, telling us we may choose to set one afloat in the river in memory of someone special to us. A few of us took one and leaned over the sides of the boat to release them into the water. They bounced in the waves, the reflections of their tiny flames twinkling as they floated away to unite with the wishes of so many others.
The oarsman rowed steadily, and since we were traveling with the current, it didn’t take long before the boisterous symphony of the main ghats faded away and we were gliding past more tranquil shores. The sun was up by this time, bathing the riverside in golden light. Eventually we came to a cremation ghat, where we could see smoke rising from four or five large fires on the beach, each some distance from the other. Around each burning pyre stood a group of people dressed in white, and one or two sweaty, soot-covered men raking the coals with long poles.
“The men tending the fires are called Doms,” explained Sam. “And the mourners in white are the families of the dead.”
We could see other bodies on stretchers, wrapped in white and saffron sheets in preparation for burning. A man in one of the groups started to walk in a slow circle around a pile of branches that was yet to be lit. A wisp of smoke curled up from something in his hand.
“That would be the eldest son,” Sam said. He then shared a personal story about his own father's recent death and cremation on the banks of this very river. As the oldest son, it fell to him to make the arrangements, light the funeral pyre and perform other parts of the ceremony. It was difficult to imagine how it would feel to participate so intimately in the cremation process for a loved one. The scenes were emotionally challenging to take in, and being a spectator to the families' grieving felt intrusive. But that’s India – the gritty reality of life and death are so often visible right out in the open for all to witness.
For those seeking rich, memorable experiences that deepen their understanding of spirituality in other parts of the world, Varanasi is a must-see. I, for one, will never forget it.
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