The River Ganges
October 20, 2011 | By: Andrew Centofante | Tags: travel
My wake up call was at 4am. I rolled out of bed trying to get excited for our trip to the river Ganges. Normally I would have been up in an instant, but the last few days had worn on me. Besides all of the travel and historical sites, my friend Paula and I had been having little adventures out in India at night. One night we stumbled upon the birthday party of an ancient sage and then crashed a wedding. The next night we stayed up until 3am dancing in a disco. That night we had taken a tuk-tuk to get a sneak peek at the Ganges.
It was already dark when we were told by our driver that he couldn’t drop us off right at the Ganges. We didn’t mind a little walk and we wanted to soak in the bustling city night. We walked down street after busy street. Looking at the different shops and the different people, trying to avoid traffic and cows. It was nice to be able to walk without be followed or hassled by hawkers and beggars, as was the case whenever we got off of our tour bus. We were just two people cruising around town. We began asking people how to get to the Ganges. They would point one direction and say “5 minutes”. The next person would do the same. We stopped in a music shop and a man played the sitar for us. We stopped to look at fabric in the market. We passed people in orange tunics with black rimmed glasses and painted foreheads. We passed flower weavers making fragrant necklace. We passed herds of cattle and stepped over cow dung. “5 minutes” another person said as he pointed down the road. Two hours later we were exhausted and ready to give up. We stopped at a small necklace stand that a woman had set up on the side of the road. Paula haggled down the price on a few necklaces and I got one for myself. The lady was so happy that she started to give Paula free necklaces, to which Paula then picked out and bought few more. This happened a couple more times before we were finished. Paula bought literally 30 necklaces. As we left we asked one more time for the Ganges. She pointed and said “5 mins”. Disheartened, we walked about 15 feet when I looked up and we both broke out laughing hysterically. In front of us stood the sacred river. We had finally made it.
We walked down the steps, past sleeping people and sleeping cows, to the edge of the river and sat down. Small empty boats were tied to the bank. The water was brown and filthy. It was cool, quiet and the full moon lit up the sky. We watched a family say a prayer and push a plastic bag full of what looked like clothes down the river. They washed their hands and faces. We sat for a little while, resting our feet and just absorbing the enormity of it all.
After some time, our bellies told us it was time to go. By the time we reached the street most places had closed up. We found a couple of street vendors still selling some food. We bought a bag of roasted peanuts, 4 Samosas and these little honey pastries for around 30 rupees, about 60 cents. We jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed back to the hotel. We gobbled down our street food and recounted the night. We felt the cool night air as we watched all the people and activity in the streets rush past. When we got back to the hotel we found a few students still up at the bar, their faces agape as we told them about our adventure.
So you can see why 4am was not a welcome wake up alarm. We got on a bus and headed to the Ganges. The peaceful spot where we sat was now full of people preparing for their morning rituals. Music playing, incense burning, chanting and praying. We walked a few feet, right onto a small boat and pushed out into the river. The sun was rising to our the right while the city moved to our left. The light was beautiful, the scenery was spectacular, the students were in awe. My camera battery died. Luckily I had a fully charged back up. It was some how dead too. I was devastated. I sat trying to hold back the disappointment I felt. Here I was, a videographer in the middle of the Ganges unable to shoot a single shot. I sat for a while watching what was happening, trying to be zen about the whole thing, trying to just enjoy it for what it was. I guess my face said it all because a professor was nice enough to lend me his video camera. It was so kind of him. I wondered what the lesson might be.
In the distance families burned their dead. Men and women walked down the stairs into the river. They prayed and dipped their heads. Others lathered up with soap and were giving themselves a good scrub down. Others were drinking the water. We saw temple after temple standing over the Ganges. People meditating on the rivers edge. We lit candles on small flowers and pushed them off into the water. Each representing a persons prayers. The Ganges represents purity and is believed to have purifying capabilities. They put the ashes of their dead into the water so that they will be purified and ascend to heaven.
We came back to shore and got off at another set of stairs. Close by was another fire. An ash landed on my shoulder and I wondered who it was. Students later said they saw a pregnant woman, dead, floating in the water. Apparently certain people, holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy/chicken pox, people who had been bitten by snakes, people who had committed suicide, the poor, and children under 5 are not burned but put into the water to just float away.
We started walking back towards the bus through a maze of alleyways. I thought about all the people who make the pilgrimage here and the people who are putting their loved ones to rest. The hope of purification and the renewal of life. The water was unsanitary but that didn’t matter. This was a holy place for them and you could feel it. We made it back out to the chaotic streets and were immediately barraged by hawkers and beggars again. Back on the bus and back to our trip. The Ganges is still there though, flowing as it has been for thousands of years. The people will still show up every morning, as they have for thousands of years. Bathing, drinking, mourning and being renewed. Celebrating the cycle of life.