Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lost In The Wonder Of The Ganges

*This article was published in Venture Magazine, 1st Issue on September 2010

Similar to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Varanasi or as locals say, “Banares” became one of the most famous cities in India as a major Hindu religious destination. With the Ganges River as the icon, Varanasi is known as "The holiest Hindu City." According to a recent count, more than 60,000 Hindus every year come to the Ganges River at this location to perform religious rites. Actually, often “into” the Ganges might be more accurate. Varanasi is also known as the “City of Light” because of the multitude of people seeking enlightenment and answers to their life questions at the many temples and “ashram”, many over 3,000 years old, which are scattered around in the city.

I got up at the break of dawn and standing at the “ghat” – an area of steps on the banks of Ganges River, and I stared at the majestic magenta of the sky. The whole city was still asleep. I felt that everyone was still curled up asleep under their blanket against the cold morning of winter season in India. There was no activity to be seen around the river. The boats were still tied neatly to the river side. The calm morning waters of the Ganges reflected into my eyes unique shadows from the buildings near the river. This was a brief serene and peaceful moment before the start of another hectic day of worship.

I sat comfortably in a small boat that took me cruising along Ganges River with other travelers also looking to enjoy the beauty of the old Maharaja buildings along the ghat while waiting for the sunrise to come. From a distance, a girl with a small basket on her arm jumped gracefully from one boat to other, finally landing on ours, selling her flower candles. “Have your flower candle, make a wish and float it on the river. It will bring good karma for your life”, she said. I bought one and floated my flower candle on the river, content with the hope of good karma and good life.

Not too long, from the east, slightly shrouded in fog, the perfectly round orange disc of the sun began to shyly reveal itself. Everyone in the boat was changing positions, showering the sun with photo snaps from different angles. I could not deny the stunning sunrise that morning on Ganges River. All eyes were hypnotized by this beautiful creation of God.

The boat continued our peaceful cruise down the Ganges when a frantic scream from one of the passengers surprised us all. She pointed toward the river and as I followed the direction of her finger my jaw dropped. A rotten corpse was floating right next to our boat! Crows were having the time of their lives feasting on maggots over the surface of the body. Oh God, what was I dreaming last night to deserve seeing such a grotesque site floating on the Ganges River today?

As it turns out, the Ganges River is a place where the drama of life and death collides each day. Hindus believe that performing cremation rituals and placing the bodies in these sacred waters will smooth the progress of transmigration of the spirit from the physical life to Nirvana. A shocking sight to me is actually a common yet important ritual to those that live, and die, here. What would I see next?

My attention soon shifted when I heard the sound of bells repeating loudly from Dashshwamedh, one of the most famous ghat for the bathing ritual. By now Dashshwamedh ghat is already packed with hundreds of people who were ready to bathe with the sacred water of the Ganges as a symbol of purification.

Some made preparation at the ghat by offering solemn prayers. While praying, each person filled a small metal bowl with the river water. Once it is full, they would raise the bowl above their heads and as they closed their eyes and prayed, poured the water back slowly into the river. When the bowl is empty, they repeat the same ritual over and over again.

After these prayers, the supplicants would slowly enter the Ganges. Once in the river, they had the freedom to express themselves in the self purification process. Some of the people would just dip their bodies up to their neck and continued meditating, while some repeatedly soaked themselves in and out the Ganges facing the four different directions of the compass while reciting a personal mantra loudly. These various different expressions of self purification held my attention as I tried to bring myself closer to this Hindu practice of giving a token of deep appreciation to their Gods.

Also, some people were seen performing “Ganga Jal”, a tradition of “purifying,” in a small brass pot, the sacred water of the Ganges for drinking. This is a Hindu tradition that unfortunately needs to be avoided by travelers if they want to continue the journey without a tummy ache!

Our boat moved away slowly from Dashshwamedh ghat and continued to cruise down the Ganges. There were a quite number of activities along the ghat. Groups of people sitting in circle listen to the message of a preacher and people scattered randomly on the ghat meditating. Unforgettable were the “Saddhu”, the holy men, as they can be seen holding up palm-sized mirrors and applying the holy makeup of their trade. Seeing these activities made me realize the central importance of worship to Hindu India.

Further along on the river’s fringe, not too far from sewage and a garbage dump, a line of the “laundry army” was chirping away while busy at their work washing clothes, bed linens, blankets and sari. I was just wondering how on Earth these fabrics could possibly be even remotely cleaned considering how polluted Ganges water seems to be. But the beauty of this river is that once these fabrics are stretched out for the sun to dry they seem magically clean, and the exhibition of color swatches along the sidewalk gives a splendid touch of another side of the Ganges’ morning charm.

As the boat moved back toward the place where we started, I pondered. No matter how dirty my initial sense first told me the Ganges is, it is and will continue to be the only source of water for the people who live around the area, and a thousand years of being sacred for Hindus, somehow seems to “purify” the river, as well as those that meditate. The view of a decomposing body, of the bathing ritual, of Ganga Jal, and laundry troops enticed me to relate to one of the values in life that people tend to forget – obedience.

I take off my proverbial hat to give respect to the people who perform the purification ritual fervently despite the fact that the condition of the Ganges River may leave something to be desired. I realized that I originally failed to comprehend the beauty of this unique practice that I saw and felt this morning. Something that was beyond the capacity of the values I believed in now seemed very clear to me.

As I enjoyed the last part of the morning’s boat trip I really knew how wonderful it was to be lost in the wonder of the Ganges…

Lanjut yuukk...