Ganges river, India

Ganges river rituals

My taxi driver Dharam weaves his battered old cab through a maze of traffic on the outskirts of the city.“To understand Varanasi you must take to the water,” He advises. “And for this you will need a boatman. But you are in luck, Sir. I know just the man for you.”

I have come to Varanasi to see for myself why this city holds such a sacred place in the lives of the 820-million-strong Hindu population of India. Situated on the River Ganges in northeast India, the city of Varanasi is awash with history, religion, mythology and tradition, and I wanted to discover all of them; but first I had more pressing issues to resolve.

The place to end life’s epic journey

I had spent the previous four days holed up in a hotel room in Delhi suffering from, let’s just say, “traveller’s sickness”, and while now on the mend I was still pale and weak. I craved some food and maybe a nap before I was ready to trawl for riches in this ancient and mystical city.

But Dharam is having none of that. “Mr Max, Varanasi will cure all of your ills and, if it doesn’t, well then you’ve come to the right place to pass on to the next life.” Without a hint of irony, Dharam, like all Hindus, understands Varanasi to be the final destination of life’s epic journey. To die upon the banks of the Ganges is to be finally set free of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. I was prepared to dig deep for a true experience of Varanasi but had not planned to go quite that far.

With the sun in the final stretch of its arc toward the horizon, Dharam insists that we forgo dropping my bags at the hotel — and my much-desired rest — and immediately make our way toward the water to find the boatman. We will take to the river before sunset, the cool and gently breezy evening providing the perfect conditions for experiencing Varanasi’s movement into the night.

The river guide

“Mr Max, this is Chandar,” says Dharam, introducing the boatman, the three of us now standing on the edge of a truly chaotic scene: traders and buyers barter over the price of fruits, vegetables and other essentials, as well as a vast array of cards and framed images depicting the great gods of the Hindu faith. While my own knowledge of Hinduism is basic, it’s not hard to recognise Lord Shiva the destroyer, Hanuman the monkey god, and the great Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.

Also for sale is a staggering range of trinkets and offerings purchased by mourners making their way toward the cremation sites on the shores of the river to farewell a dearly departed soul. Chains of flowers in vibrant reds, bright oranges, yellows and black hang from the stalls, and piles of incense sticks sit alongside mounds of candles that later will be floated on the Ganges at the conclusion of the funeral proceedings. The air is ripe with the smells from street food stalls but also with the odour of good food gone bad and the inevitable effluent that comes with a marketplace densely populated by both humans and cattle.

“All of this, Mr Max,” continues Dharam, gesturing wildly in all directions, “this is just what Varanasi looks like. But Chandar here, he will help you understand. Once you understand the Ganges you understand Varanasi. Then you understand India and understand yourself.” Dharam is clearly warming to a well-rehearsed theme and with it he casts on to the slim and aged shoulders of Chandar the boatman the responsibility of not only conveying the true sense of the river and this sacred city on her banks, but also an insight into the vagaries of my own existence.

To die upon the banks of the Ganges is to be finally set free of the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Sealing our places in this adventure, Chandar and I shake hands; the boatman flashes a quick smile, then promptly disappears into the maelstrom. Having no time to consider my options, I quickly plunge into the crush of humanity around me, desperately trying to keep sight of the salt-and-pepper-haired boatman I’d met only a moment ago and whose face and features I’ve not yet imprinted on my memory. Loaded up with cameras, sweating through a persistent fever and lugging an “unstable” belly, I fear that if I lose my boatman now I may well end my days in Varanasi after all.

A glimpse of the Ganges

Following Chandar into a labyrinth of alleys and side streets, I am immediately lost, my sole focus on the small man in the white shirt and orange scarf up ahead, whose arms are swinging intently as he leads me on toward the river. I dare not even glance sideways at the shops and faces we scuttle past for fear of losing him.

Finally, after a chaotic and perilous journey we reach an opening in the crowd that affords my first glimpse of the Ganges and I am immediately struck by the contrast. For, while this side of the river is a city bustling with life, commerce and busyness, the far bank of the Ganges, now backlit by a blood-red sun, is a place of vast wetlands and heavily farmed fields, testament to the many and varied demands this precious waterway must satisfy in her 2400km journey from the high Himalayan range to the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges feeds the city and its inhabitants, but also the plains that stretch to the far horizon, with the lives of all Indians in some way dependent upon it — indeed, the rice that sustained me in my ill hours of need back in Delhi was grown on Ganges’ water.

“Mother Ganga,” whispers Chandar in quiet reverence to the great waterway below. “Come.” Descending the steps two at a time in order to keep up, I follow him to the dock where we scramble across three wooden boats tied together before reaching ours. As I balance myself in the centre of the passenger seat, Chandar unties our craft and with a great strain of the oars moves us out from the dock and into the main flow of the river.

Varanasi’s wonders

Under a quickly darkening sky, the Ganges is throbbing with activity. Boats of all sizes ferry residents and tourists alike along the watercourse and, on land, a spectacle of colour, noise and movement is underway. Above the riverbank, the ceremonial steps or ghats play host to a great sea of heads and vividly coloured shoulders that move as if they belong to one body.

“Dasaswamedh Ghat,” explains Chandar — one of the most famous ghats in all of India. The name is drawn from the Hindu tale of Lord Brahma, who sacrificed 10 horses at this spot, an offering that placated the wrath of the gods and allowed Lord Shiva to return from exile. Masses of people are packed in around an elevated stage and the throbbing of drumbeats and the shimmer of tambourines has captured a gathered throng, mesmerised by the rhythm and movement.

Chandar explains that each evening this Ganga Aarti ceremony is performed, with prayer, offerings of fire and dance, to worship the river and give thanks for the life she sustains. It is a hypnotic display of synchronised, graceful movements and the swirling of fire sticks held high above heads. The sheer devotion to ritual, religion and the river goddess draws the observer into the ceremony which, despite its size and spectacle, retains a surprising intimacy.

Behind this scene is perched the high-walled cityscape with windows aloft, affording commanding views of the river and surrounding lands. Rickety scaffolding clings to patchy concrete walls, providing ideal places for drying washing but also precarious play areas for daring children. Walls are adorned with huge painted portraits of the great Hindu deities, while other spaces carry advertising posters in English and Sanskrit with offerings of everything from guesthouse lodgings, yoga classes and silk emporiums through to the seemingly out-of-place Brown Bread German Bakery.

Narrow streets lined with over-stacked stalls and busy with foot, bicycle and motorbike traffic lead away from the river, opening up to heavily potholed thoroughfares where cars and buses engaged in a constant rush hour still defer to sacred — and therefore decidedly unhurried — cows.

Back on the river, after sitting in silence watching the timeless display of the Ganga Aarti unfold, Chandar senses it’s time to move along and we make our way toward the upper end of the river, toward the “burning ghats” where hundreds of cremation ceremonies are held each day and night. On the way, we weave between a succession of other watercraft and I witness my own sense of awe at this place reflected in the faces of hundreds of other visitors and pilgrims. There is much to see and take in, much to ponder and much shaking of heads in amazement.

The burning ghats

Approaching Manikarnika Ghat, the flames from the funeral pyre light the darkening night sky as the final ceremonies of the day are performed. “No photographs for now please,” advises Chandar as we drift closer. Photography of the preparations — the building and stoking of the fires — is permitted but decency dictates that once the fire is ready for the body then the highest respect must be shown to the departed soul and the mourners.

Above the riverbank, the ceremonial steps or ghats play host to a great sea of heads and vividly coloured shoulders that move as if they belong to one body.

As the boatman rests his oars, he explains that all six cremation pyres at Manikarnika Ghat are active throughout the day and early evening and therefore the piles of timber must be kept replenished. To illustrate this, Chandar draws my attention to a small host of boats laden with timber, tied up at a small dock just out of the way of the ghat. The timber is logged from forests further up the Ganges and brought down the river by these boats each day, fuelling the fires, the boatmen playing a small but vital role in the cycle of life, death and rebirth that is at the centre of the Hindu faith.

That such a large number of trees must also die in order to fuel the cremation fires is a complexity I don’t trouble Chandar with. I’m concerned that I will not be able to frame my question well enough to not cause offence, so I’m left to consider this one alone. Later, I’ll give it some thought and be left accepting that the connection between the Ganges and its associated wild and human life is perhaps one too complex for me to understand, and to impose a purely Western view of sustainability on top of this ancient process may be a too simplistic and ill-considered approach to take.

The dimensions of the cremation fire are dictated by the size of the deceased, with the necessary wood weighed and set aside for the ceremony, the price dependent on the volume and type of timber selected. As sandalwood produces the best aroma when burned, it’s the most in demand — and accordingly the most expensive — but considered the very best you can get for your loved one.

Bodies are wrapped with the utmost care in a white sari and placed on the fire at the exact moment it has attained the necessary heat. When the body and fuel are reduced to ashes by the fire, they are all swept into the Ganges — the river that gave and sustained this life now carries the departed into the next. Finally, with the ashes swirling in the flow, family members gather and launch small paper plates laden with coloured flowers and a central candle, purchased from the vendors high above the ghats to farewell the beloved and light their eternal journey.

The old man & his river

“This is where we Hindus come to die, of course,” continues Chandar. “I am perhaps lucky as I am already here,” says this old man of the Ganges. “But I am not waiting to die. I have 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. You see, I have much to live for — and many to pay for!”

During our time together on the river, Chandar proves to be a font of knowledge and great company. While we at times struggle to understand each other’s language, he shares with me his great love for his city and devotion to its rituals, religion and people. Despite coming from vastly different lands, we’ve shared common tales and both tried unsuccessfully to contain our laughter when one unfortunate worshipper bent too far forward while scooping water from the Ganges, toppling forward into the sacred river.

With the sun now long gone, darkness has reclaimed this city of light and we return to the dock. As we climb the stairs away from Mother Ganga, the celebrations and ceremonies continue in full swing back at Dasaswamedh Ghat. My head spins with the sights, sounds and smells I’ve experienced on this remarkable evening, on this sacred waterway in northeast India. At Chandar’s invitation, I quickly agree to join him again in the early morning, to take in more of Varanasi — this time as it wakes to the day. One night, no matter how wondrous, is simply insufficient to get a grasp of a place like this. I’ve learnt much, yet so much more awaits. And I don’t just want to watch; I want to understand.

Travel tips

How to get there

Varanasi is accessible by air from all major cities in India and flight time from New Delhi is about 80 minutes. Varanasi is also well connected to India’s major cities of New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai by rail. Train from New Delhi to Varanasi takes about 11 hours.

When to go

Summertime temperatures in Varanasi can reach a scorching 45°C with high humidity experienced from April through to October. Torrential rains that accompany the monsoon season normally arrive from late June until late August. Winter in Varanasi is a more moderate 15ºC and it’s in this period (October to April) that most tourists visit the city.

More information

To find out more, visit varanasicity.com.

 

Cameron Fergus

Cameron Fergus

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