by Jenny Jen
On Sunday, January 16th, we travelled from Delhi to Varanasi, the oldest and holiest city in India. In the evening we went on an adventurous trishaw ride through the city to the Ganges River. There we descended the steps to the banks of the Ganges. Standing on the banks, you could definitely tell that this was a popular pilgrimage site for Hindus. There were swarms of people from every socioeconomic class. There were Brahmins dressed in traditional attire, relentless hawkers and vendors selling everything you could think of, tourists from all over the world, little boys with torn t-shirts and shorts playing their own make-shift game of cricket, cows leisurely grazing on the steps, and stick-thin beggars missing limbs hoping to collect a few rupees. We stepped into a small boat powered by two young boys rowing in the back and a young man steering in front. We were finally sailing down the Ganges River! I had been anticipating this moment for quite some time and was filled with excitement as we made our way down the river to the holiest cremation site for Hindus.
Our tour guide taught us that the Ganges River is considered the holiest of all rivers and is worshipped as the goddess, Ganga. Many Hindus believe that one must take a bath in the Ganges at least once in their life and that water from the Ganges can cleanse a person’s soul of all past sins as well as cure the ill. Supposedly, more than 60,000 people come to bathe and pray in the river in Varanasi every day. They sip the water as a religious act of purification and they believe that if their ashes are placed in the river after cremation they will go to heaven. Looking around, I had to suppress my Westernized ways to appreciate the significance of what we were witnessing and experiencing. The water was brown and murky, full of sewage, dead bodies and pollution. To me, drinking this water meant a guaranteed trip to the emergency room rather than a guaranteed trip to heaven; it looked like a disease-ridden muddle rather than a healing, cleansing, purifying tonic that healed one physically and spiritually. I had to constantly remind myself to keep my mind open and view the Ganges River from a Hindu’s perspective, and when I did, the history and religious significance of the holy river was quite overwhelming. I felt deeply privileged to be able to experience life in what was considered the holiest place in the entire world!
We sailed down a bit and docked our boat on the banks of the holiest site for cremation. We could smell the burning flesh and the whole event seemed surreal. We watched as men dipped the bodies into the Ganges three times, gently rest it on the bank, pour butter on the bodies, and place them on the funeral pyres made of wood. We watched as a husband walked around his wife’s funeral pyre five times before lighting it on fire. We were amazed at how nonchalantly this funeral ceremony was taking place. In America, there would be crying and weeping and family members holding one another in comfort and consolation. We also noticed that there were no women witnessing the cremations. Our tour guide explained that you cannot cry at a cremation or the soul will not go to heaven. He half jokingly said that this may be the reason why women were not allowed to attend cremations.
After spending some time at the cremation site we sailed back up the River and witnessed Brahmins performing a ceremonial ritual known as Aarti. It was sensory overload with the sound of temple bells and the chanting of priests, the beating of drums, the blast of the conch shell, the fragrance of flowers and incense, and the colorful decorations that danced in the light from the fire-lit lamps. The priests held these lamps as they ceremoniously danced and chanted hymns in attempts to invoke the Lord Shiva. The ceremony was so foreign yet so deeply moving and it added to the surreal like quality of our experience. More than the Taj Mahal, more than seeing Gandhi’s memorial or Mother Theresa’s home, the Ganges River was where I tasted, heard, smelled, saw, and felt India to its fullest. To me, the Ganges River was where I truly experienced India.