Holy rivers

Trip Start Sep 06, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Waking up this morning sans fever was a welcome surprise. I was glad to know that the disease had not progressed as I was already considering the possibility of malaria, cholera, or perhaps pneumonia. I had slept most of the day yesterday with my body sore, bones aching, head pounding, and waves of cold and hot washing over me, and I had developed quite an appetite After eating a north Indian breakfast of idly and dosa from one of the street vendors and washing it down with piping hot chai, I decided to take some time watching the world idle by at the ghats by the Ganges. I made my way down through the cow shit laden allies to Manikarnika ghat where I could watch some cremations.

After finding a comfortable vantage point above the burning grounds in a turret above the sacred fire, I watched several ceremonies. As cows scavenged marigold garlands from the funeral offerings, dogs milled around looking for scraps, and goats bleated and sparred. The corpses were brought down the main steps to loud discordant chanting before being doused in the river and awaited their turn. Stacks of wood were pilled high before the body was lifted onto them. After the body was covered in butter and incense, dried reeds were lit from the sacred flame. A member of the family would circle the body 5 times before stuffing the burning reeds underneath the funeral pyre setting it aflame.

During the various ceremonies occurring all around, a tumult of activity abounded. Men waste deep in the Ganga panned for gold amongst the ashes of the cremated as the deceased are burned with their jewelry. Babas smoked chillums of marijuana as a devotion to Shiva, the patron god of Varanasi. Congregations of men played cards on mats at the corners of the temples and touts snatched up curious tourists to explain to them the rituals of cremation before asking for a donation. Water buffalo milled around in small herds while cows tended to their calves. A small puppy that looked like a half naked cross between a rat and dog yelped and cried from the intense fungal infection adorning its several week old body eyes half shut and watering. The toll of bells resounded as men smoked and talked and stared.

Varanasi is the holy epicenter of the Hindu religious world. It is the most fortuitous final resting place for those dead or dying to be cremated as it brings them to moksha (reaching nirvana and freed from reincarnation). The holy river, the Ganges, choked with plastic and disease is the nexus of the devotional activity that occurs in this sacred city. Hindus come to bathe in its holy waters to cleanse their karma while the ashes of the dead blacken the waters around the cremation ghats. Men and women do laundry spreading it along the steps of the ghats to dry. People soap themselves into a rich lather before washing in the river while men get massages on the steps. Small row boats pick up tourists and devotees alike to take them up and down the river to enjoy a different vantage point. In the morning bathers line the ghats to have their holy karma cleansing dip and at night Brahmins perform the evening puja to the sound of harmonium and drums with vast crowds swelling the banks of the Ganges. The city is brimming with activity and that is just by the ghats.

Beyond the ghats the small alleys (or galis) wind amongst the buildings, choked with people and shops. Vendors spill into the narrow galis selling milk sweets, bangles, saris, framed Shiva pictures, thalis, fried snacks, and terracotta jugs. Motorcycles and bicycles weave among the pedestrians and cows keeping their hands firmly on the horn. The sound of chants and Bollywood hits echoes through the galis as only a sparingly amount of light manages to spill between the crumbling buildings above. During the evening above the roofs kites soar and dip as children tug at the strings. The blazing sun dips beyond the horizon as monkeys sit on the roofs huddled and picking each others fur for fleas.

Eventually the galis give way to the streets choked with exhaust and the sound of horns. Rickshaws steer through thick crowds and cows lounging in the middle oblivious to the chaos around them. The streets brim with noise and excitement both frustrating and thrilling. Marigold vendors sit selling devotees their garlands and chai wallahs serve patrons swarming like flies. A dead monkey swathed in orange cloth lies as though sleeping surrounded by flowers in the middle of the street. The streets are charged under the thick haze of smoke and smog allowing the sun to only filter down to the masses below.

The Ganges River is a place where the sacred and mundane meet in a swirl of color, sound, and smell. However, Allahabad is the greatest draw for Hindu devotees and pilgrims right now as it is the sight of the Kumbh Mela. They all congregate on the Sangam grounds where the Yamuna and Ganges River meet along with the mythic Saraswati. Every 6 years Allahabad, one of the 4 holy cities for this festival, hosts the millions of pilgrims that come to bathe at the most auspicious time designated by astrologers. This year the date fell on January 19th the night of the new moon and the perfect alignment of the sun, moon, Venus and Mercury in the zodiac of Capricorn. Once I find this out I knew I had to attend no matter how difficult the journey since it was also the day of my birthday.

My departure from Nepal on the way to the Kumbh Mela began with me waking up 15 minutes before my scheduled bus departure from Pokhara. I stuffed my things into my bag in a panic. No time for brushing teeth or even splashing my face with water as the bus stop was at least a 30 minute walk from my lodge. Apparently I am incapable of working an alarm clock. I bolted out of my room and waved goodbye to the lodge owners as I raced to the main street to catch a cab.

However, I had changed all of my Nepali rupees for Indian rupees the night before and I didn't have a Nepali rupee to my name. I spotted a cab and negotiated briefly as I didn't have the luxury of time or the national currency to get a good deal. We arrived at the bus station as the driver was herding the last remaining Korean passengers onto the unreliable tin can painted brightly with various gods and ornate designs. Sometimes I feel as though these are the only things through divine intervention keep the bus from hurling off the side of a mountain.

Many hours on the bus later we reached the border to India. After a several kilometer walk I went through the normal border formalities and found the next bus leaving for Gorakpur. The state of Indian buses is no better than Nepal's with the one I took being a particularly sorry sight. Several chairs were tied together with rope and the stuffing in several chairs was blooming like bog cotton.

I arrived in Gorakpur after sunset with the streets buzzing with the usual evening activity. The smell of diesel and cow dung permeated my nostrils as I wove through the pandemonium in the streets. I found a cheap hotel across the street from the train station so that I would have an easy short walk tomorrow morning for my scheduled departure. However, there would be no sleep for me in my decrepit room due to an overzealous chanter with a megaphone on full volume just outside my room. I passed the night awake only falling asleep for short bouts when the electricity went out cutting off the power to the chanters megaphone.

The next morning I got up before dawn to catch the train to Allahabad. The train, however, had a late 2 hour departure and took several hours longer than scheduled. The train cars became so packed that I had to share my one person seat with other passengers as standing crowds packed together amongst the bags, sacks, and heavy metal chests. Several language limiting conversations later consisting of asking where I am from, my name, and how long I have been in India followed by staring, I arrived in Allahabad.

Exhausted from the journey I dropped my bags at a hotel with a surprisingly clean dorm and went to scavenge dinner with the only other dormitory inhabitant. Then around midnight I was back ready for a long nights rest in preparation for my first day at the Mela. Despite my worn out state from days lacking in sleep I lay awake and had to succumb to reading. I managed in several restless hours before waking up to check out the city and run some important errands.

Upon returning to the dormitory I found it filled with people. I packed my things for a potential overnight by the river with the rest of the pilgrims and stepped outside to flag down a rickshaw. As I was negotiating I ran into a group of students from Delhi headed the same way. We got two rickshaws and headed through the streets into the thick of the crowds swarming the rivers. As we walked the rest of the way through the tent cities with humanity all around in every imaginable state, the students told me they were shooting a documentary about the Kumbh Mela. We talked to babas clad in orange, gray ash covered naked sadhus, Jain gurus, faithful pilgrims, machine gun totting bodyguards, and children getting their heads shaved for the ritual bath.

After hours of walking around we returned to our hotel to grab a bite to eat and change our clothes before heading back. It was already evening and we decided we would go back to the Mela and spend the night to secure a good vantage point for the sacred bathing on the morning of the 19th.

The night passed slowly as I watched millions of people bathe throughout the night. Even in the dead of night the area was alive with noise and swirling masses of people dressing and undressing. A great energy swelled at the confluence of the rivers as each faithful bather caught up in their devotional fervor dipped under the waters reborn and purified. I watched cold (nights are quite cold) and mesmerized filled with a heavy lack of sleep but brimming with the joy and peace of the gathering of millions. Thoughts rose and dipped as I focused on meaning before finally settling on the sensations from within. As the sun rose I watched the sadhus and gurus enter the waters amongst the sea of Hindu masses parted by barriers and enforced by police. After their procession I stepped towards the water and slowly took off my clothes. In just my underwear I stepped through the crowds with just enough self assured pushiness. At the banks I thought of all the disease brimming in these waters and then a glint of the red dawn flashed across the waters before me. I suspended all logic and stepped into the cold water and waded out till I was waste deep. I looked around at the bathers to each side entrenched in their personal faith and salvation going under and coming up repeatedly. Drawing in breathe I submerged fully into the murky waters. My mind without thought and my body defying logic. Far beyond the safe confines of my own personal understanding, I succumbed humbly to the greater consciousness of the faithful millions.
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