A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Holy Ganga of Varanasi

Varanasi, the holiest of holy cities, has as many visually-charged epithets as one would expect. It is the city of death and pilgrims; the city of learning and burning. All life (and inevitably death) revolves around the Ganges River, also known, simply, as Ganga. There is more folklore flora and religious fauna to fill up five blogs, so please excuse me if I heavily abbreviate.

One morning we got up before dawn to take a boat trip up and down the river. We met Aso, a bearded boatman with a checkerboard boat, who expounded trivia and colorful tidbits as he rowed. He recalled the great monsoon of 1978 that flooded the Ganges to its highest recorded levels, where water surged past the highest ghat steps and flowed freely into the streets of the Old City.

We meandered down the river in the early morning hours; the sky softened into a wispy dawn. Birds scattered and swarmed in play.

There were sacred cows with wild eyes...

...and endearing goats wearing shirts to stay warm...

...and sadhus, ascetics whitewashed in ash, otherworldly yet not at all out of place on the steep ghat steps.

We passed dozens of ghats, each with a different purpose, named for worship of a different god, and frequented by a different sect. We passed Jain Ghat, a Buddhist temple; Janki Ghat for Rama’s wife; Nishadraj Ghat, the Boatmens ghat; Niranjani Gghat, a sadhu ashram; Kedar Ghat, a small Shiva temple; Digpatya Ghat, dedicated to Hare Krishna; Asi Ghat, the first of the holy ghats; and Dasasanwedi, the main ghat, to name only a few.

A trip here would be for incomplete without visiting the infamous burning pyres at the rivers edge. There are two: Harish Chandra, the small burning ghat and Manikarnika, the large burning ghat. Saffron wrapped bodies are strewn with marigolds and placed respectfully on the pyre to burn for two to three hours. Some people can’t be burned on the pyres and are given up to the river directly, these include: lepers, children, pregnant women, brahmins, and those poisoned by king cobras. Apparently it not uncommon to see floating corpses in the river, although thankfully we were spared this disturbing sight.

At the large ghat, the burning goes on 24 hours a day producing up to 200 cremations. An average pyre costs 3000 rupees ($60) but can vary in price depending on the quantity and qualify of wood used and the priests services rendered. The eldest son takes a place of prominence in the funeral ritual, releasing the final bits of bone and ash into the river where they sometimes scavenge the remains and pick out pieces of jewelry and gold fillings.

It is an honor to be burned on the pyres by the Ganges river and many travel vast distances to await their final liberation, what Hindu’s call the attainment of moksha. Death is not a quiet, somber event but a necessary, if not celebrated, evolution. One leaves the particular to join the universal; and rejoin the river of history like a drop of rain.

The local people bathe, brush their teeth, and wash their clothes in the holy waters. As we pass men and women beating their laundry vigorously on the ghat steps, Aso astutely called it the “Ganga Washing Machine”.

It might be a shocking enough use of the foul brown river water - with all the dead bodies, ashes, and human waste flowing in it - but even more disturbing is when the locals scoop up in their hands and drink it!! Although they purport these to be holy waters with true medicinal value, it is filthy beyond imagination. Do they know that the amount of ecoli bacteria and fecal coliform are 3,000 times worse than the safe level determined by the World Health Organization? Yuck.

We hired Aso another night for a boat trip to see the Ganga puja or Brahmin ceremony. Every evening at 6pm at the Prayag ghat, five Brahmin offer aarti or prayer, through circling lamps and incense, singing, drumming and chanting.

We were accompanied by Aso’s three daughters who were eager to sell us their handmade wares and fledgling services. The oldest was so persistent, I relented and had my first henna, a loopy twisting design on the back of my hand, painted on by the faintest candlelight. Admittedly, a rocking, dark boat may not have been the wisest choice for semi-permanent body art; it was sloppy and amateurish, but the girl was proud and so was I.

Hundreds of diyas floated on the river like twinkling stars in the inky sky. A prayer in each one, and in each heart.


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