It was a chilly November pre-dawn in Varanasi when we made our way back to the Ganges River to witness the morning rituals in this holiest city of India.
We found the evening rituals very spiritual, poignant and fascinating and looked forward to witnessing the morning observance. It turned out even more fascinating.
Our morning boat ride on the Ganges River started out as very tranquil. It became festive as the colorful flow of pilgrims started to descend into the water of the holy river, then it turned out to be mind boggling as we tried to comprehend the ironies of this most sacred waterway of India.
We found the Ganges River and its ghats (“steps”) very peaceful and serene in the dawn, a huge contrast from the scenes of the night before.
The Ghats, the stone steps that lead down to the Ganges River, are the center of activities in Varanasi.
Most ghats are painted with vivid colors. It was nice to see them quiet and empty early in the morning; we got to appreciate their beautiful geometry and vibrancy. In a little while, the colorful steps would be overwhelmed by throngs of equally colorful pilgrims.
BATHING IN THE GANGES
Throngs of local Hindu devotees and pilgrims from afar flock to the ghats of Ganges each day to bath in its sacred river. They believe that the purifying water of the river would absolve them of their sins.
PRAYING IN THE GANGES
Most importantly, devotees come to the Ganges to perform “puja” (ritual prayer). Hindus consider the Ganges River, the Mother Ganga as they call it, as a goddess. They pray to her and make offerings for her.
WASHING CLOTHES IN THE GANGES
The Ganges River is one big washing machine! Apparently, doing laundry in the holy rive is also an age old tradition. It was fascinating to watch people doing the washing by rhythmically hitting the clothes on the slabs.
THE SAD REALITY…
Read the sign “Ganga is the lifeline of Indian Culture.” As sacred and as important the Ganga is to Hindus, it is sadly one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Factory chemical wastes, human wastes and all kinds of waste – including human remains -are dumped into this poor sacred river.
If the water is so toxic, why don’t the pilgrims get sick? Many even swore to have been healed by it. Must it be that they have developed exremely strong immunity? Or…is it that they’re protected by the power of their strong faith – like a sort of miracle?
DYING IN VARANASI
Hindus believe that Varanasi is the most sacred place to die. (Thus, Varanasi is a home to numerous hospice and nursing homes.) They believe that if they die and be cremated in this city and have their ashes thrown in the Ganges River, their souls willl be released from the cycle of reincarnation and they will attain “moksha” (spiritual liberation).
That said, cremation is one of the oldest rituals in Varanasi. Two of its ghats are designated as burning or cremation ghats, where about 200 bodes are cremated each day.
We learned that it takes about 150 lbs.(68 kilos) of wood to completely cremate a body. There are many cases where poor families cannot afford to pay for that much wood, so any body parts that are not completely cremated are… thrown into the river.
Floating body parts are said to be common sights in the Ganges. Fortunately, we didn’t see any. We wondered if our boatman went to a great length of maneuvering us away from them?
- We recommend hiring a local guide when you visit the Ganges River, more for security than informational purposes. There are a lot of con men and persistent hawkers along the Ganges who prey on travelers. They didn’t bother us when we were accompanied by a guide. If they see you without a guide, they swarm on you like flies. Negotiating for the boat ride can also be tricky for travelers. Letting your guide hire the boat will be hassle-free. If you arrive in Varanasi without a pre-arrange guide, ask your hotel to recommend a licensed one for you.