The Ganges: Life in the Raw
Trip Start Feb 09, 2012
11Trip End Feb 26, 2012
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We stepped into a creaky long rowboat, and our boatman pushed off with gigantic oars to row us along the shoreline. People were bathing in the river, washing clothes, and practicing yoga on platforms overlooking the water. Holy men were clanging bells and chanting to greet the rising sun. I couldn't help feeling spiritual, even though I didn't understand the rituals.
Sam bought some flower/candle offerings from one of the girls selling them, telling us we may choose to set one afloat in the river in memory of someone special to us. I thought of both Mom and Dad as I released mine into the water, wishing they would be waiting for me at home to hear all about my India experience.
We soon passed a cremation ghat where there were 4 or 5 ceremonies in progress. Women are not traditonally allowed at the cremation, so groups of mostly male relatives of each of the deceased were preparing and tending the fires. We could see other bodies on stretchers, wrapped in white and saffron sheets in preparation for burning. Sam shared a personal story about his own father's recent death and cremation on the banks of this very river. As the eldest son, it fell to him to make the arrangements, and perform certain parts of the cremation. I cannot even imagine how it would feel to participate so intimately in this process. It was difficult to see, and I felt like being a spectator to these families' grieving was intrusive. But, I think maybe in India, life and death are just exposed like that.
Walking back, we took a different route through some of the small winding alleys. In the daylight, the grim reality of the place was impossible to miss. There was garbage and animal waste everywhere. Thin, frail old men draped in dirty blankets sat in cubbyholes that serve as their homes. Maimed grey-haired women and children covered in filth held out their hands with pleading eyes. Scruffy skinny men in torn and faded khaki jackets with bandanas wrapped around their faces and ancient rifles slung over their shoulders served as security guards for a lonely Muslim temple in the middle of Hinduism's greatest pilgramage city. I had the feeling that gunfire could break out at any moment.
Back on the bus, everyone was silent, and my eyes welled up with tears. I don't know if I'll ever get these sights out of my head. I feel a heavy sadness, and also guilt that I can return to my comfortable hotel room, and later at home, my house filled with all kinds of things I don't really need, while these millions have nothing. It may be a dream for all Hindus to visit Varanasi once in their lifetime, but for me I think it will be a haunting memory.