Sunrise and sunset are when the Ganges is most magical and most alive, with activity and with ceremony. Varanasi’s intense heat hasn’t yet descended on the city; neither have the people who rely on the river’s draw to make a living. Sunrise and sunset are characterised by Hindus flocking to the river’s edge to undergo ritual washing, to make offerings, and to worship in an endless variety of ways. I doubt I will tire of sunrise on the Ganges any time soon; this was my third visit to Varanasi and, as I soaked up the sights and sounds, scribbling into my notebook, I knew that it would only be so long before I returned. These are the notes I took from the time the first light of day arrived, until around 10 o’clock later that morning. Some of the photos that Iain took during our visits are slotted in between my notes, with an only vague sense of order. I hope the notes and photos capture enough of the atmosphere to entice you into making the pilgrimage yourself.
We’re on a wooden boat being rowed down the Ganges, to the low hum of chanting through a distant speaker. The soft dawn light falls on a row of bathers who have descended down the ghat steps to stand waist high in the holy water. The river is dotted with boats coming to and fro – some large and many filled with tourists – but I only hear the rustle and splash of bathers as we go past. One boat is sailing by with a TV balanced on its bow, transmitting Hindu chants through the still morning air. They float gently past my ears: Ganga Shivai-ya, Ganga Shivai-ya…
We just floated past a boat filled to the brim with Hindu trinkets and puja paraphernalia: little brass bells, bowls for holding tilak powder, spoons for sprinkling water, copper cut-outs of Vishnu’s feet. Strangely though, in this other-worldly place, someone sees exoticism in us. A Thai monk who just went past in a boat turned his video camera towards us, bringing us into his film’s frame. He was joined by a group of Thai tourists, all listening to their guide point out the different ghats along the way – an echo of Thai behind the boatman’s Hindi.
I’ve already counted four Maharaja’s palaces along the river bank, belonging to the Maharaja of Pune, Udaipur, Jaipur and Bihar, our boatman says; the former three sturdy and plain, the latter grand and imposing with crenulated columns announcing it.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is packed thick with Hindu devotees, standing in the river scooping water over their heads from cupped hands. This is the river’s main ghat, where large scale pujas are being performed; three bells take turns to ring out over stone platforms and flames hover above people’s heads. Little banana leaf boats float past carrying flowers of orange and crimson with an oil lamp in the centre – offerings to Mother Ganga.
There are two pink towers on the river bank, painted with two enormous images: Shiva and Parvati. This river and its rituals are constant sources of my wonder and curiosity. “What are those towers for?” I asked the boatman. “Sewage,” he replied.
The boat has turned around and we are passing Babua Pandey Ghat, where the morning’s laundry has been started. Bright, wet strips of red and blue sari silk have been spread over the steps to dry.
A long-haired Brit is sitting on some steps with his sadhu friend. We saw them outside a chai stall before getting on our boat at 6am, smoking a dawn spliff with a smile.
The river’s edge is alive but my body feels weary; my stomach has rejected everything I’ve put in it for four days now. We’re sitting reviving ourselves with a cup of black tea on the ghats, where I found a chai wallah lighting his fire for the day’s trade. After waiting for the water to boil – Ganges water, I fear – we paid ten rupees for the tea and sat down on a stone ledge. There is a Brahmin priest just in front of us, with two younger men sitting cross-legged before him, seeking an elaborate blessing. The two men, I notice, are dressed as devotees traditionally would, shirtless, in lungis, with a piece of cloth tied across their torsos. The priest is wearing a white t-shirt and has the telltale symbol of belonging to the Brahmin caste: a string slung around his body from shoulder to waist, just visible beneath his clothes. The two men are sitting respectfully at the priest’s feet as the ritual is performed; the priest is muttering memorised Sanskrit while looking from side to side. No! I can barely believe my eyes: he just started sending a text on his phone, but is still going through the motions, forming the holy words, and will be compensated handsomely for this riverside display.
A bead seller is doing a brisk trade as a group of about ten yatris – all women – pick through the strings, squinting as the sun comes up. It is cheap plastic junk – no match for their gold chains and bracelets – but everything that comes from Benares is “very powerful”, and they will wear the beads. A woman with crazed eyes, selling tiny banana leaf baskets with a few flowers inside, intended as offerings, is hovering around the group of women. Silently, she holds the flowers out to them; silently she is ignored. One long minute has gone by and a chubby lady has waggled her head ‘No’ at the flower seller. Her crazy eyes opened wider – she looked annoyed – and then turned directly to the chubby lady and, with her hand opening and closing, made the motions of quack quack quack, then walked away.
We have left the relative serenity of the river’s edge and entered a manic marketplace beside the Ganges, on Dasaswamedth Ghat. It is full of things that only yatris want to buy: tinsel-edged bundles of puja supplies, garlands, coconuts, and the other stuff of Hindu ceremony. The travellers wandering through here have no interest in acquiring these things.
“You want boat?” a man just asked me, keeping up with my stride.
“We’ve just taken a boat.”
“How much did you pay?”
“Leave us alone.”
“Boat! Very cheap!”
A sadhu, dressed from head to toe in red, with dangling gold tinsel, a staff, a lunch pail and a small red sack stopped dead in front of Iain a second ago. “Photo? Ten rupees.” We kept walking.
A man is selling tilak powder on a table under a tarp; I’m sure he knows I don’t want any tilak powder, but as I walked past he called out, “Yes, Hindu culture very good! Mother Ganga…” But I didn’t stay to hear the rest.
I am sitting on the steps in the middle of the Dasaswamedth Ghat market, which has proven a very silly place to stop. The first person to approach me was a man. Our ‘conversation’ went like this:
“Excuse me! Massage, you want massage?”
“No thank you.”
“Lady to lady massage!”
“No thank you.”
“Lady to lady, very good!”
“I said no!”
He took the hint but was followed closely by a boy and a woman. The boy was arranging his pile of postcards as he walked up to me; the woman intercepted and shooed him off. Sitting down, with nowhere to dart, I am a ridiculously easy target, and should keep moving. Before giving up, the woman showed me a tray of bottles, all containing tilak powder in bright colours. The skin on her neck, as far as her jaw line, was badly burned: dark brown and thick beside smoother, lighter skin.
I’ve left the ghats and am making my way uphill, past women selling vegetables on holey, open-weave sacking, towards the narrow, shaded lanes where residences outnumber businesses. Here, a small man in white is sitting, rattling a metal bowl with a single rupee in it. “Hello, Hello!” he calls upon seeing us.
There is a strong stench of urine as the lanes get closer. Aah – now fresh coriander.
A bindi seller has gained a modest sale from me. I could hardly contain my surprise when he asked for just five rupees for ten sparkling little bindis. Here, in these lanes, I sense contentment among the resident shop keepers and tradesmen. We are worlds apart from the riverside markets, to which opportunistic or down and out Indians from elsewhere in the country are drawn. These locals, in the lanes, live in the knowledge that when they die their families will cremate their bodies beside the Ganges, into which their ashes will be scattered. They are thus guaranteed an escape from an eternal cycle of reincarnation, and will gain moksha – a state close to the Christian idea of going to heaven. Perhaps it is this knowledge – for these beliefs are often as certain as fact – that allows them to regard this material life as relatively unimportant. And that, I suspect – along with pride in their distinctive culture – is enough to give these people a sense of contentment and peace of mind that someone like me will never know.
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