View of the burning ghats from a rowboat.
Varanasi, the place where people come to die. In the narrow streets bodies covered with colorful silk, lined with carnations and roses are carried past on the shoulders of their male relatives. I stopped walking outside the break in the wall, where men weigh the massive pieces of scented wood they use to build funeral pyres. Just past the gates, where photography is prohibited, are the cremation ghats, steps to the river laden with burning bodies. Varanasi is the Hindu capital of India. It is said that if you die on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, you are absolved of sin, and your soul is released from Maya, the painful cycle of death and rebirth. It was a very intense city, the air weighs down on your body in a different way. I avoid the subject of death. In Varanasi, death confronts you. It is natural, not something to be overlooked or dressed up, just the end of maya, the end of pain.
Around half past five, people walk to the sandy bends of the Ganga, India’s sacred river, to pray, and to offer a blessing to the water. I have watched Aarti a few times, but this time I participated and bought my own 10 rupee leaf-woven basket of flowers from a young girl. She lit the small candle for me and I stepped into the cool water and silently said a prayer and expressed my gratitude for recent experiences. The young girl stood with me, protecting the flame from the wind till it was out of reach, part of the river. Another experience to be grateful for.
Another Sunday, I went to the very public weekly Aarti at an Ashram in Ram Jhula, with ghats to the Ganges. There were speakers from Organic India talking about the new laws protecting the riverside from development and the plans to plant organic fruit trees and other sustainable plants that will help prevent erosion and provide sustenance for those living nearby. A group of young boys, were enthusiastically chanting mantras and Hindi songs as the candles were lit and passed around the glowing crowd. After the speeches and songs people knelt and said their pujas at the waters edge, splashing themselves with the holly water and offering flowers and candles to carry their prayers downstream. An older woman showed me how to swing the candle properly and dripped the cool water on my forehead. It was an engaging ritual, very heartfelt.
Just beyond the city of Rishikesh there is a river town split in half by two bridges, Ram Jhula to the West and Laxman Jhula to the East. I am living on the third floor of an apartment in Ram Jhula that resemples the color of key lime pie. Between the two parts of town, a footpath winds along the Ganges, or the Ganga as people call it here. In those two kilometers I have come across gangs of boys romping in the Ganga, artists painting quietly, schoolchildren walking home holding hands, women singing and dancing in Puja, and many others that I hope to never forget. These images will be my safeguard for remembrance.
Today marked the end of my first week in India. On the first morning I barely made the train to Haridwar, sat in the wrong AC, and ended up sharing a compartment with five older Indian men who quickly behaved like my band of Uncles, sharing their chapati with me and trying to talk despite my inability to speak Hindi and their inability to speak English. One of them bought me a small Masala Chai, my first in India, and it was delicious. In Haridwar I went to Har Ki Pairi Ghat around 7am to watch thousands of people bathe in the Ganges and offer puja with more fervor than usual in honor of the new moon. The Ashram I stayed at was like a small haven from the craziness, right along a quiet part of the river where there were no people, just cows. I spent two days there then taxi’d to Rishikesh where I have been practicing yoga four hours a day. I’ve met amazing people thus far, on our first day together we bushwhacked our way to Neer Ghar Waterfall, were blessed in Mahadev Temple, and indulged in mango lassies. This is a taste of my beginning here. Enjoy.