Ganges, the longest river of India, running 2500 kilometers from west Himalayas through the Gangetic plain of North India empties into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. Along her holy girth, millions of inhabitants depend their livelihood each day on the water she brings for bathing, laundry, cooking and to perform rituals for blessing and burying their loved deceased. The water that is both pure and purifying.
Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world and the holiest city of seven in Hinduism and Jainism across India; resting on a crescent curved bank of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh State since the 12th century. The ancient city encircles the bathing ghats looking no older than two hundred years, the result of repeated pillage, plunder and rebuilding over the centuries. These days, painted hotel and restaurant signs, along with graffiti of Hindu gods, decorate the bathing platform running North and South along the river.
Before the sky takes hold of the warmer hue, before the thin whisper of vapor dissipates from the calm veneer of Ganges, before the first morning echo of the crows, if one stands very still for the length of a held breath, Varanasi bears nothing of extraordinary. In plainness, a place without pretense, without adornment of concocted ceremonies; it simply is, and exists for those in need of her bare presence.
When the breath returns, inevitably, boat touts, children selling baskets of ceremonial offerings, and wide-eyed tourists gradually make their way onto the ghat and announce their presence.
Step by step, grandmothers carefully make their way down the ghat steps. One hand steadying on the knee and the other holding a basket of puja offerings; marigold, rose petals, clay dish, oil wick and a brass jar. The ritual is personalized, varying person to person, but the prayer the same; bless the father, mother, husband, wife, daughter, son. Bless for good fortune and carrying away the unwelcomed.
One ghat over, wedged in between the narrow space of two fisherman boats, an elderly man half submerged in the glistening reflection of eastern sun. Palms together, in a gesture to pay homage to his ancestors, a small scoop of Ganges lifted and fell to join the river. Before reemerging from the river, palms together again, two more scoops make their way into his mouth. No western person knowing the dangerous level of pollutants would even consider bathing, let alone letting a drop touch the mouth. But to the Hindus, to this grandfather, this is a holy river he grew up bathing in, learned swimming and received countless blessings through his lifetime. The river was, is and will always be part of his life.
Downstream, between city of old and new sits the narrow street of cobbled stones headed towards the Manikarnika ghat where ceremonial wood smoke has risen nonstop from the sacred flame for centuries. When the loved ones die, the bank of Ganges is where families bring their body for ceremony and cremation. Some within hours after passing away, others carefully embalmed for long distance journey to arrive after four or five days.
Carried on a stretcher over the shoulders of male family members, the body is carefully placed onto one of the ten to twelve pyre of wood in accordance to the cast he or she belonged to, each to be burned for three hours using exactly 360 kilograms of wood.
The higher burning sites are reserved for upper casts, often burn with expensive wood, costing from fifteen thousand rupees upward towards one hundred thousand rupees if using sandal wood. Commoners use regular firewood about five or six thousand rupees, and the poor who cannot afford the cost are often unburned and directly released into the river next to those already considered by Hindus to be pure – Sadhu (Holy man), pregnant women, children under the age of five and people bitten by cobra, a holy symbol associated with Lord Shiva. Together, ashes and remains are scattered into the Ganges to which the deceased is wiped of the sins of a lifetime, granted instant enlightenment, thereafter released from the endless cycle of rebirth.
From the brink of dawn until the last hint of dusk, tens and thousands of believers make way down the ghat steps into the holy river that runs 2500 kilometers of landscape, threading mountains and valleys, village and towns, animals and people, death and birth. Blessing for the newborn, prayer for family, and respect for the departed. The ageless Ganges connects people to their ancestors, and them to their kinder self; a reminder of where we came from, who we are, and the eventual destination that must be reached on our own.
Across the river, black shimmering dots waver on top of blistering golden river sand, slowly make way towards the river edge where two boys squat patiently, each holding a thin fishing line tipped with small balls of chapati dough. Soon the black water buffalo will join them to rest in the cooling water. Here they sit and wait, no thoughts of the past or the future; just watching the clouds drift, the tall grass waivers, and candle lit bowls of hopes and dreams flow into the horizon.
2013, Ganga, Ganges, India, River, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi