India – Day 9 – The Holy City of Varanasi and the Ganga River

Gangaji! Tonight we took tuktuks through the streets of Varanasi to the most famous holy river on the planet. The Ganges. Coming upon the Ganges for the first time was, for me, comparable to coming upon the spires of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela for the first time. Only, slightly more spectacular. The cathedral I walked toward for days and days. The Ganges? I feel as though I have always been walking towards it.

 

Ranny arranged for a boat to take us out on the river and we cruised the shoreline to view the cremations taking place outside the crematorium on the riverbank. Hindus believe cremation on the banks of the Ganges releases the soul from the cycle of death and birth.

 

This reminds me so much of the Heart Sutra from Buddhism. There’s a place in the sutra that states, “no birth, no death, no being, no non-being, no defilement no purity, no increasing no decreasing.”

Buddha, who was originally from Lumbini (which was once a part of India but now resides in Nepal), also considered the Ganges sacred. He made pilgrimage to its sacred shores.

“Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

After stopping at the fires of the crematorium, we made our way back up the river to the Dasawamedh Ghat to see the nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony… which involved chanting, incense, fire, singing. It was quite beautiful. We all released little bowls with flowers and lit candles into the Ganges while we were there. The banks of the river quickly filled up with boats, so many that people could walk from one to another. Many came through from boat to boat selling masala chai, flowers, candles, and bowls. The sunset and the darkness that followed were filled with pomp and ceremony.

 

Overall it was not a very busy day, as we had travelled overnight from Orchha to Varanasi on the train and we were pretty wiped out. After the sunset ceremony we went out for supper—tuktuks barreling through the darkened city streets protected from utter destruction by some unseen miracle of happenstance—at a local restaurant. The food was delicious, as usual. The blackouts/brownouts throughout our meal reminded me fondly of my time in Nairobi. All calmness and chill awaiting the return from darkness to light.

We then reached our limit for the day. Varanasi is glorious! And we were knackered. Only by knowing the city would still be there in the morning, waiting to entice us back into its swarm of colour and light and mayhem, were we able to return to our hotel and fall soundly into our beds.

We have seen the Ganges! We have dipped our feet in its sacred waters.

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