The Holy Ganges

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

The River Ganges flows from the holy Himalayan peaks near Nanda Devi to the Mouths of the Ganges, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal. A single molecule of water high in the icy glaciers eventually flows into the ocean, where it becomes salty and intermixed with all other water molecules flowing from all the mighty rivers of the world. These molecules then evaporate and, once again, fall on earth, repeated millions and millions of times.

To the people of India, the River Ganges is a metaphor for life in its cyclic existence. An entire lifetime can be contemplated watching the river as it grows from a water drop, waterfalls, raging rapids, to a mature serene river, to the ocean, the great equalizer and storehouse.

Where two rivers meet is most auspicious, similar to nerve channels and their synapses meeting or two veins meeting to flow to the heart or the brain. Similar to two roads meeting and becoming a highway.

At the confluence of Varuna and Asi Rivers with the Ganges lies the sacred city of Kashi, the Luminous, known as the City of 1,000 Temples, the Holy City of India, and known as Varanasi.

The focal point in Varanasi is water as a sacred force in the processes of the world. Bathers wash away their sins and the dead are ritually cremated on its banks, their ashes strewn into the river.

With Lu and Lee, I went on a sunrise Ganges boat trip with Baba Boatman, as he called himself in an old scruffy voice: "Baba Boat man eighty five." For a man of eighty-five years ago, he was strong and full of vitality as he paddled us along the river. The city and its bathing ghats reflected swirling and undulating colors in the slow-moving holy water. Trash, raw sewage, marigold offerings, and cremated ashes mixed with the water, one of the most accepting of elements. Bathers washed with soap in colorful feminine saris and simple masculine cotton shorts or thongs, cleansing their mind in the process. Boats filled the river, with people paddling in all directions.

I met Lu and Lee at the Old Yogi Guest House, where we were all staying. Lu was from southern Brazil, where her family immigrated from Germany. Lee was from Taiwan. Both were very friendly we enjoyed the slow boat ride together.

One of the stops along our way was the cremation ghat, where thousands of people are cremated on a 24 hour a day schedule. Baba Boatman took us right up to the ghats--no one seemed to mind: we were immersed in a culture that accepted death as a part of the process.

First, the body, covered in a shroud, was immersed in the river and bathed. As this was taking place, a funeral pyre was constructed with wood brought from across the river on boat. The body, once placed on the pyre, was further covered in wood and doused in vegetable oil. On top of the pyre, the family placed red tikka powder and marigold garlands. Next five men, including a priest who carried a smouldering bundle of grass from Shiva's flame, circled the pyre five times, representing the five elements--air, fire, earth, water, and space. The priest then alighted the pyre, which burned vigorously.

Once the body was cremated, the remains were thrown into the Ganges, who accepted them with equanimity.

Above the river, the sentinel Mosque of Aurangzeb dominated the city. Aurangzeb, ignoring the religious tolerance of his Mughal forefathers, was a ruthless Muslim who destroyed many Hindu temples three hundred years ago, building mosques in their place, often using the temple stones for constructing the mosque.

The result was hundreds of years of turbulence and strife, which continues today with periodic bombings and attacks to mosques and temples. Aurangzeb destroyed the most important temple in Varanasi, city of Temples, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, replacing it with a mosque. Today, dozens of armed police and metal detectors guard the temple, keeping a relative peace.

Nevertheless, I met a couple of young men on the banks of the Ganges. They were enjoying a walk together. One was Hindu. After talking for a while, he asked me: "Do you like Muslims?"


His friend beamed as I looked at him. His friend was Muslim.

Varanasi is also the home of silk factories. On a mission for my mother and Winterthur Museum to find out how silk saris, necklaces, brocades, and scarves are made, I took a cycle rickshaw through the meandering streets to the Muslim Quarter, where 15,000 people work in small silk loom factories.

We dodged holy cows, other rickshaws, large trucks, dogs, pedestrians, and heaps of trash along the way. In the Muslim Quarter, the holy cows were noticeable absent, as I reached the silk factory at dusk.

Abdul, a young silk merchant greeted me with kind eyes, not trying any pressure sales tactics as I'd met in other places. He showed me how to tell real silk from fake silk, by burning the threads. If they smell like polyester and continue to burn, they're polyester. If they smell like human hair and stop burning, it's silk. He showed me how the gold thread was made. In various sizes, a cotton thread is wrapped in fine copper, which is then gilded.

He showed me a factory, a small room with three looms. Young men, almost boys, worked under incandescent light. The looms had patterns codified like old IBM computers, which ultimately created beautiful floral or geometric shapes with the fabric.

On the banks of the Ganges, I met sadhus, who were resting from their weary journeys around India. Grish, a sadhu from Tamil Nadu, had traveled for twenty-one years, walking all of India. He looked pensively at the Holy Ganges as he told me stories of his travels and the holy mark that magically appeared to grace his third eye.

Varanasi was full of bustling activity. At dawn, the Call to Prayer issued forth from the mosques, dogs roamed the streets, vendors prepared their wares, and dawn createed a glow on all the buildings. During the day, the streets were crowded with thousands of people. At night, weddings paraded and fireworks exploded in the sky.

One day, I walked the old quarter, full of labyrinthine narrow streets. Occasionally, the holy cows and bulls would run and people would duck out of the way. Once I was hit, but just a glancing blow, and luckily the holy bull was unhurt. I followed the streets using a compass yet not worrying where I was. Eventually, I would get somewhere, wherever that may be--getting lost is just a figment of your imagination and worry when roaming these old streets because ultimately there is no destination--roaming is the goal.

For several days, I visited neighboring Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon, turning the wheel of the Dharma. There, I attended teachings of the Dalai Lama (see the next entry).

One week in Varanasi along the River Ganges was an intense feast for the senses; whether you like that intensity or not is up to you and how you relate to it.
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Where I stayed
Old Yogi Guesthouse
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