The dead body, so carefully wrapped in white muslin like an Egyptian mummy, slid out of the bearer’s hands and made a gentle splash as it broke the surface of the water. Hardly anyone noticed. The boat that had delivered the body into the river turned around back to the shore where the palace steps were filled with people. It was like a festival; kids were selling garlands of marigolds and floating candles, grown men were jumping off pontoons and women were splashing the cool sacred water on their faces. Every day at sunrise and sunset it’s like this on the Ghats of the Ganges and life comes and goes just as effortlessly.
This is what people travel to see the Ganges for. Its vivid imagery of Hinduism in action is alive in every sight, sound and smell. Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India since Lord Shiva is said to have settled it 5,000 years ago. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi will bring the soul salvation, giving it the catch-cry of India’s most spiritual city. As most people get their first glimpse of the river at sunrise or sunset, it’s in the milky grey light of the passing sun and it seems to blend in with the unkept surrounds. And yet, the Ganges sparkles. Her age-old calling is as spellbinding as it is relentless.
Despite its promise of nirvana, Varanasi as a city is jumbled, overcrowded and disorderly. With the outside world so confronting, staying in decent accommodation and all the quiet charms of a clean room is a necessary breath of fresh air. There are plenty of options; smaller guesthouses and international hotels such as the Radisson, Gateway and of course the Taj does what it always does so well, whisks you away into the arms of cool comfort as soon as you step through the grand doors. While there are plenty of sights to see in Varanasi, it’s for the Ganges that most tourists make the journey. Organising your itinerary to see and be a part of the river as it brims with life is best left in the hands of the hotel tour service; they’re adept at coordinating the drivers, guides and boats required to imbibe the experience and you’ll be able to float above some of the chaos that’s going on around you.
For many years, I’d pictured the energy and life of the Ganges at the very heart of Indian culture. I’d seen the Ghat’s (steps or platforms) of the riverside palaces in movies and books and always wondered what it would feel like to be there. Our first glimpse was at dawn, the sandstone steps alive with wanderers, some come to seek blessings from the river, others to say farewell and those like us to observe the ritual. As we stepped gingerly onto the wide hulled boat and pulled back from the shore, the industrious Ghat’s come into a single view. There are Rajasthani Palaces, South Indian Temples and Hindu Temples all tightly packed side by side, each with their own steps leading down to the holy water. Beneath the morning silhouettes of the temple spires, a dozen cremation fires were burning. As the bundles of sticks were lit and the fire starting crackling, soft pale plumes of smoke drifted upwards and ashes started floating down. I’d braced myself for tears because I really thought when I saw the body wrapped in white cotton atop a pile of wood that would be it for me. But actually the ceremony was not melancholy at all, so I let every moment sink in; the brevity of life, the unnecessary burden of worry and the graceful departure of the soul. Simple and dignified.
When we saw the body slip easily into the water, as informed by our guides that some bodies cannot be cremated, our guide commented that this is as much a part of Hindu culture as is life and that even if a body unfurls from its covering underwater and rises to the surface, still, that is natural and accepted. Such is the ethereal quality of the Ganges, so much so that every Hindu stores a little water from the Ganges for the passing of a loved one. For Hindu’s, anywhere around the world, when someone has attended a cremation, they can only return home after being sprinkled with the water from the Ganges and saying their prayers. But on the Burning Ghat’s of the Ganges, the ceremonies are as continual as the cremations that burn through the night. It is the only city where they can take place after sunset and where the Hindu’s desire for the soul to return home, is just as endless. And yet with this eternal cycle of life and death, the water of the Ganges is relatively clear and there is no smell at all. It’s almost fragrant with the breeze whispering down this holiest of rivers.
To see the evening Aarti’s (Hindu prayers) is equally exquisite. Since most of the hotels are only about 10km from the Ganges, you’ll be able to leave early evening and still be in time for the prayers. Though your driver will take you as far as he can go, they’ll still be a 20-minute walk, navigated by a tour guide walk through the throngs of people, animals and bikes. Everyone is jostling for a little space to walk past the beggars, holy men, pilgrims and shoppers, because in amongst this walk to the holy river, people are still shopping for jeans and kitchen utensils. It’s a thriving melting pot of ambition, religion and survival, even by Indian standards. Just like the morning ride, your boatsman will cut away from the crowded shoreline and take you along the river. One by one the lights flicker on, the cremation fires still burn and floating candles are sent softly onto the ripples. By about 7.15pm, the river has silently become stacked with boats and people lined up to watch the peaceful prayer ceremonies. There are two taking place simultaneously, oily diyas are swirling in unison and the chanting of the priests, like music, glides into the evening sky. It’s enchanting and magical and for those moments sitting on the Ganges, well worth the journey.
Tips to know before you go
Varanasi is only an hour’s flight from Delhi and all domestic airlines fly daily. Just two or three days in Varanasi is really all you need to see India’s holy city, particularly if it’s for the Ganges that you’re making the trip. The best times to travel is between October to March, where you’ll escape the heat of India’s summer. Because it is one of India’s tourist hotspots, book your accommodation well in advance and allow the hotel to manage your drivers, guides and tours.