After a few days of craziness and unforeseen difficulties on our trip, we were finally in Varanasi and after a rough nights sleep, were scheduled to take a boat ride on the Ganges during sunrise.
For the entire planning and traveling on the trip thus far, Jennie told me she was going to swim in the Ganges. I totally understand! It is said to be healing and purifying. It is the most holy water in Hindu culture. Pilgrims travel from far off distances to bathe themselves, swim and especially to die in Varanasi to have their body cremated at the waters edge and ashes left in the Ganges. I would be right with her- EXCEPT like her, I watched numerous documentaries, read many books and saw the pollution and muck that was also in that water. Every time she said, “I’m going to swim in the Ganges.” I would say, “No, you’re not.” She would argue with me a little and I’d finally say, “Ok, if you say so…”
The morning of our trip to this holy river was finally here. We woke up at 4 am and waited in the lobby of our hotel for our guide to meet us. We followed him through the small streets and alleyways in the dark of morning to the famous ghats of Varanasi. When we arrived at the water, we both look down into it and saw what looked like sewage floating on top. Jennie looks at me and says, “I’m not swimming in the Ganges.”
It was just as we had seen in the photos in all those books we read. Pilgrims who had traveled near and far covered the ghats waiting for their turn to enter the water, mourners were lighting candles in little floating holders, locals were washing laundry and bathing themselves and others were setting up their ceremonial wares to sell.
This was the first place we encountered other tourists on our trip. Many other tour groups were waiting to get on large boats for their sunrise ride as our guide searched out a boater who was asleep in his small boat on the water. He was a young man, perhaps late teens- early twenties. He got himself up and situated his boat and the blankets inside it and helped us into our seats in order to balance the boat.
The boat driver guided the boat down the waterway as our guide pointed out temples, different ghats, old architecture and the crematoriums. He told us there were between 150-200 bodies cremated each day here and pointed out a service taking place at that moment.
He also explained there are more than 80 ghats in about 4 miles in Varanasi. Each of them has its own importance and pilgrims that flock to them.
The cities laundry was also washed here by slapping them on the rocks and dunking them in the water. (That explained the crustiness and grayness of our hotel towels…)
As the sun rose over the water, prayers and chants could be heard from the morning rituals and the day began calmly and with a new found excitement to see more of this wonderfully complicated country and its culture.
Our driver took the boat back to the ghats and our guide took us on a tour of the old city that we had walked through in the dark. The colors were marvelous, the architecture astounding, but the condition of the streets, animals and living spaces was tough to see.
This is India to me: A contradiction in every way. Beautiful gardens that are well maintained right in front of a pile of trash the size of a building, huge corporate and government gated communities sitting across from a slum of hundreds of shanties covered in tarps and cardboard, or the honor and worship of male and female gods and goddesses, yet a second class citizen view of its own women. It is this contradicted culture that presses deep in your mind as you visit and learn.
“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”
– Keith Bellows (Editor-in-chief, National Geographic Society)