Our 10-day trip during Diwali began in Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities on the banks of the Ganges River. The city plays host to a teeming flow of pilgrims from all over India, Asia and the world.
I wanted to come to the Ganges and Varanasi for several reasons. Firstly, Hindus consider the river the most sacred of all waters; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga herself. They believe the river is purifying and healing—to bathe in it is an act of faith and to have one’s cremated ashes put into it provides a sure ticket to heaven.
Secondly, India’s longest river is notoriously polluted, not only from the infamous cremations and dead bodies but also from gallons and gallons of untreated sewage from numerous cities along its route, medical waste from hospitals and chemicals dumped into it from tanneries. The pollution shouldn’t be a surprise; the Ganges is the most populated river basin in the world. With people comes pollution. Because of its religious significance, however, cleanup and efforts to change certain practices are touchy subjects to be sure, despite numerous attempts by the Indian government and NGOs. I’ve actually had reasonable people tell me authoritatively that the Ganges is “pure and clean.”
Lastly, I wanted to visit the Ganges because a National Geographic cover story on the river basin a few years ago left a deep impression on me, as so many of the magazine’s articles do. With a mixture of horror and fascination, I couldn’t stop thinking about people bathing in the holy (polluted) waters, fervently believing in the purity and sacredness of the river. What irony. So many devotees come to bathe in the filthy water, fervently believing in its holiness. In the back of my mind, I thought there must be something to it.
Then, there’s the practical side of me. What a shame it would be to return to Alaska after nearly a year in India and not make our own pilgrimage to the Ganges River!
As a lifelong Alaskan, I’ve always been around rivers. One river in particular—the Taku River in Southeast Alaska—is particularly special. My family had a cabin on the Taku for many years, since before I was born. I made my first trip “up the river,” as we say, when I was just 6 months old. Our weekend “pilgrimages” started in May each summer and didn’t let up until late August. So many memories as a child, young adult and later, as a mother—fishing, swimming, playing in the mud along its banks, “river running” its main channels and sloughs, getting stuck on sandbars, making runs to the Twin Glaciers to fill our ice chests with sparkling, clear ancient ice from the just-calved bergs.
Only a handful of families are lucky enough to own their little slice of paradise up the Taku, and we were one of them. More salmon than people, more mosquitos than salmon, more bears than boats—the Taku is isolated, beautiful and pristine.
But the idea of a holy river, one that is central to an entire religion? Well, that is a different kind of river altogether.
Varanasi itself is in Utter Pradesh, about 750 miles north of Pune. For such an ancient city I was surprised at its sleek, modern airport. I wasn’t surprised by the layer of smoke and air pollution that blanketed it. Guidebooks describe Varanasi with terms like “squalid” and “fetid.” A visit to Varanasi is not for the feint of heart, they say.
Our driver and guide met us at the airport and took us to our hotel, a modest but clean establishment called Hotel India. We made a short trip that afternoon to Bharat Mata (Mother India) temple, famous for its large, three-dimensional relief map of India.
That night we went down to the river for the evening aarti, or worship. We encountered a few beggars along the way, but not as many as I’d expected. Mostly people wanted to sell us trinkets—a gimmick, we’d been warned, for pickpockets. “Nahi chahiye,” we kept repeating–“No, I don’t want” in Hindi.
We walked through the crowd single file, keeping a hand on the person’s shoulder in front of us and most certainly keeping a tight grip on Rachel, our 8-year-old daughter. The smell coming from the open sewers, which you see everywhere in Varanasi, is somewhat sickening but we all tried to ignore it.
Stairway to Heaven
Soon we came to the stairs, or ghat, leading down to the river. Our first glimpse of the famous Ganges felt surreal, and we all immediately stopped to snap photos. We stood out as easy targets for con artists. “Let’s keep moving,” Brian said.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the evening aarti. I thought, to the extent I’d given it much thought, that people would come down and do their own prayers and pujas. But soon we came to an area obviously set up for some kind of ceremony, with a half-dozen platforms and bamboo poles that held numerous brass bells. People were settling down on the stairs and ground. Suddenly, there were no more beggars or hawkers.
From an elderly lady we bought several small candles set on leaves and marigolds. These, I had read, are to be lit and set into the river as you say prayers. We each took turns doing this, and I scooped up some of the river water and splashed it on the feet of each one of my children. What can it hurt?
A group of a half-dozen or so young Hindu priests, resplendent in orange and gold satin, eventually took their places at the small temples and began performing what was to be a two-hour service that included blowing on conch shells, burning of incense, throwing marigold petals into the air and elaborate movements with large, multi-layered brass candles. All through this, a group of seated musicians—one playing a shenhai (woodwind instrument), one playing a tabla (drum) and one singer—performed what I surmised to be traditional songs of worship and praise. One man stood to the side and constantly hit an iron gong with a hammer. The sound, along with the music, the drumming and all the bells, was constant.
We didn’t understand the specifics of what was going on, but were transfixed nonetheless. Even our two teen-age boys kept saying, “This is soooo cool.”
Take me to the River
At dawn the next day, we came down to the river again and met a boatman who rowed us up and down the river for two hours. While I could definitely take a pass at the touristy “Ganga Supermarket,” a boat that would sidle up to ours every now and then and try to sell us cheap trinkets, every other part of this boat ride was well worth it.
We rowed past many different ghats, including Dasaswamedh Ghat, where we had witnessed the elaborate aarti the night before.
From the vantage of the river, we could see there are ghats specifically for bathing and for doing laundry, too. We saw washer women and men beating their laundry against big flat rocks just for this purpose. While at other ghats, some separated by gender, we saw men and women soaping up and actually bathing, or just dunking their bodies up and down into the river.
We also saw holy men, called sadhus, sitting cross-legged on platforms and praying as the sun came up.
Our boatman took us to two different cremation areas, separate from the places people worship, bathe or do laundry. At one, two cremations were in progress, the bodies wrapped in shrouds but visible nonetheless. We respected the request to not take close-up photos.
One man in another boat, who had been on our plane from Mumbai the morning before and who looked like a professional photographer on assignment (he was the boat’s sole passenger too), got very close and snapped away with a long lens. Two little boys started throwing rocks and yelling at him. Our boatman yelled at the other boatman too, exchanging words I suppose, but the professional photographer got his shots while we kept our cameras down.
People will pay thousands of dollars to have their departed loved ones cremated on pyres of sandalwood and their ashes then put into the river. Only Hindu men tend to the fires while the women stay inside and mourn, we were told, and it appeared to be true from the two cremations we saw.
Poor families who can’t pay for the wood will sometimes weight the dead bodies with stones and put them out into the river without being cremated (this is also the tradition for pregnant women, children, lepers and others), but this being discouraged these days due to health and sanitation concerns.
I worried, when planning the trip, about how the cremations might affect our daughter. But we talked about it in advance. She understood that to be cremated and put into the Ganges is, for Hindus, very special. Rachel showed no fear or squeamishness as we watched the pyres. We were quiet and somber as we watched–I hope we were somewhat respectful, even. But honestly, I felt like an voyer or intruder, and was glad when we rowed on.
Varanasi’s waterfront is picturesque. A few years ago, we were told, the city leaders banned construction of any new hotels alongside the river’s banks to preserve the historic character. The garbage and trash are frankly off-putting, but it will take a major change of mindset in India for this issue to be addressed properly, in Varanasi and everywhere else.
Of Jains and Buddhists
That afternoon we went to Sarnath, about six or so miles from Varanasi, to visit the spot where Buddha delivered his first sermon some 2,500 years ago. The monument later erected, but still about 2,000 years old, is called the Dhamekh Stupa, standing some 128 feet tall. We explored the excavations of what is believed to be the remains of a large Buddhist monastery back from those times.
The grounds of this area, called Deer Park, are nice and clean. Just outside the fence, a beggar lady followed me down one sidewalk, haunting me with her thin, keening cry. This is one of the hardest parts about living in India. So many people, and so many of them desperately poor.
At a modern Buddhist temple nearby (called Mulagandhakuti Vihara, built in the 1930s), we sat down inside and listened to the chanting and prayers of a group of pilgrims who had gathered there. We saw many people in orange robes—Buddhist monks. I put money into the donation box. Perhaps it may help the beggar lady or someone like her, I thought. Many temples dedicate a large part of their donations to help poor people.
We visited a Jain temple on the grounds as well, and listened as an enthusiastic man described to us the various differences between Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. He showed us pictures of a Jain priest–his priest–completely naked. “Jain holy man, natural,” he said proudly.
In relatively good English he explained how Jains believe they must not harm a single speck of bacteria, not to mention larger critters. As such, it’s not surprising to know Jains are vegetarians. They don’t eat any vegetables grown under the ground either, like potatoes. Materialism and physical comforts are largely avoided. Even sex between husband and wife is restricted to only once every three months.
Our kids will never forget the visit to the Jain temple. The man’s sincerity and obvious love for his religion was unexpectedly touching. (A few days later, in Agra, we saw a gathering that included some naked men dusting the sidewalk in front of them with a peacock duster, in order to dust away any flies or insects so they wouldn’t harm them while walking. “Look!” the kids cried. “Jains!”)
An Ancient Art
On the way home from the afternoon at Sarnath, our driver took us to a weaving plant subsidized by the Indian government to keep the art and craft of traditional weaving alive. Here, the famous Varanasi silk and golden threads are hand woven to make beautiful sarees, tapestries and wall hangings and covers for tables, beds and pillows. We met several old men, diligently working away at their looms.
In the upstairs showroom, we were seated on cushions while workers pulled out numerous samples for us to look at while another man fetched us ice-cold Cokes, 7Ups and Fantas. This is the way Indians do business—give you a snack or a drink and show you all of their wares. “No problem, you don’t have to buy, just look,” the man said.
Right. We bought a beautiful hand woven purple and gold bed cover with matching pillowcases. What sold me was the zipper in the back where you can slip a down comforter inside, to make it a duvet. Perfect for those chilly Fairbanks winters, and a bargain when you consider it’s hand loomed. I’ve paid more for cheap linens at Fred Meyer!
Processing and decompressing
That night, our last in Varanasi, Brian and Robin discovered our little hotel had a quaint rooftop restaurant. There was a section outside with real grass planted underfoot. But the air pollution and smoke were thick so we opted to go inside to the lounge area, which was decorated with beautiful teakwood, reminding us of the inside of a boat.
We played games (including the alphabet game, “Hi, my name is Alice, I come from Alabama and I sell apples….) and had a flavorful Indian meal that we all shared, soaking up juices of curries and gravies with garlic naan. Our waiter even managed to find a bottle of California chardonnay.
We had a good discussion with the kids. Is the Ganga really holy? How can something so sacred then be treated as if it were a sewage dump?
We agreed that the pollution issue is complicated but that the river is, indeed, holy–if for no other reason that so many people truly believe it is.
We talked about these weighty matters with our three children in between bites of butter chicken and rice, silly games, rounds of fresh lime sodas and lots of laughter. A couple of power outages added to our general merry mood.
It was the perfect end to a magical two days in Varanasi.