The heart of the holy city of Varanasi is the Ganges and the many Ghats that line its riverbanks. The Ganges and Ghats are where Hindu pilgrims 'come to wash away a lifetime of sins'. The Ghats are basically stairs that line the riverbanks and lead right into the water. They are a place for people to bathe and swim, do laundry, practice yoga, socialize, worship and pray.
The burning Ghats are famous for their public cremations, a ritual that is said to bring an end to the continuous cycle of life and bring one closer to Nirvana. The Ganges plays a major role in Hinduism and is viewed as a place of salvation and liberation. We were very fortunate to visit this enchanting and spiritual pat of India.
Walking along the Ganges was a fascinating and peaceful experience that opened our eyes to the true Indian culture. At one moment you pass dozens of water buffalos bathing beside laughing children in the murky brown waters. Then you pass a colourful Hindu temple with several men chanting and worshiping in harmony. You walk beside ancient forts and buildings that are hundreds of years old, careful not to interrupt the teenagers playing a makeshift game of cricket. You try not to step in cow dung or trickling streams of toxic street slime that flows from the streets above.
As you continue, you notice women beating their colorful laundry against giant stones while their children splash and play. Beggars and street vendors peddle for cash as tired fisherman sleep on their small wooden rowboats. The walk has you pass through a cloud of smoke from wood and burning bodies waiting to have their ashes pushed into the holy waters of the Ganges. The grieving male family members are dressed in white and sit along the Ghats, sorrowfully gazing into the fire. The feeling was indescribable.
We were told that the 'must do' in Varanasi is to see the Ghats from a boat at either dusk or dawn. We met a Japanese-Canadian at our hotel that had done both options and gave them both positive reviews. We chose the sunset option, but looking back we probably would have done the sunrise option. Our row boat 'captain' was a short, elderly man who couldn't have weighed more than 80lbs. He was a very nice man but with his age, size and lack of strength he should consider a career change. It took him a while to get going; at one point Cameron wanted to take over the rowing duties and put him out of his misery. Luckily we were in no hurry.
It was very peaceful on the river. We had a sense of calm and comfort in us, we're not really spiritual people but there's something about Varanasi. Nobody really even spoke while on the river. We just slowly floated and watched the different Ghats, ancient forts and various people pass us by. The only problem with the sunset option is that the photo opportunities get fewer and fewer as night approaches. The burning Ghats have cremations 24 hours a day, which illuminates the dark riverbanks giving us quite a unique view of the ceremonies.
The boat stopped at Dasaswamedh Ghat where the nightly Ganga Aarti ceremony was taking place (see the attached video clip). We, along with many other onlookers in rowboats, watched the performance from the rocking boat. Live soothing Hindu music blasted from giant speakers as the musicians played behind five young men who waved smoky incense in choreographed unity.
What a way to end a day on the sacred waters of the Ganges!
August 26, 2009