The smell of chai, samosas, incense and marigolds intermingled and assaulted my nostrils, endless car horns rang in my ears, shouting vendors vied for my attention and brightly coloured saris weaved calmly through the chaotic traffic. All of this activity culminated to create the ultimate introduction to the ‘Mother Ganges’.
Starting high in the Himalayas, the Ganges weaves its way to Varanasi, India’s holiest site and one of the world’s oldest cities. As the sun began to set, we boarded a boat to venture out onto the Ganges. From the river we observed the holy Hindu ‘Aarthi’ ceremony which represents Earth’s five elements; ether, wind, fire, water, Earth. The ceremony is conducted by holy priests and wishes ‘Mother Ganga’ goodnight. Candles flickered in the dimming light as the sound of bells, music and chanting rang out along the ghats. Our tour leader, Matt, bought floating candles from a local vendor for our group. Cradling our candles, wishes were made and released into the darkness to hopefully be granted by the Ganges.
With the sounds of the ‘Aarthi’ ceremony still in our ears, night soon turned to day and we once again returned to the Ganges. The smell of incense lingered in the cool morning air as we set sail. As the colours of dawn changed from dusky pinks to vibrant oranges, the ghats came alive. Pilgrims bathed in the holy water, sadhus prayed to the gods and women washed colourful saris while their children splashed in the shallows.
Floating with the currents of the river we passed so much life and activity before arriving at the ‘burning ghats’. The cremation ghats are covered in soot and surrounded by endless piles of wood as smoke continually drifts into the sky. To pass away in Varanasi offers a chance to attain liberation from the cycle of birth to death for Hindus. The deceased are covered in marigolds and bathed in the Ganges by the men of the family before being cremated. An eternal flame and a staggering 300 to 500 kilograms of wood are used for each cremation.
Life truly does begin and end on the Ganges every day. Varanasi is an alluring and intriguing city that offered me a glimpse into spiritual India. I experienced all this within 12 hours of arriving in Varanasi, yet I left with a lifetime of unforgettable memories.
Story Courtesy of Lorin Wilson.