The thought of a morning shower is usually a refreshing ordeal and I suppose like most of us, I take the ritual for granted, that is until my recent visit to Varanasi, the holiest city in India.
For most of the three million residents the morning ritual consists of a dip in the Ganges, the most sacred river of the Hindu people. This is performed prior to breaking the night’s fast and to the best of my understanding, is meant to welcome the day and wash away sins. Many priests lead the people in prayers to the sun, asking to be blessed with wonderful weather.
The town (as it is referred to, as there are no traffic lights) is not one of India’s progressive cities. It is however, a city which draws Hindus from all over the world. To die in Varanasi is the ultimate experience. To have your body cremated on the shores of the Ganges brings you closer to your ultimate destiny.
I arrived at the Ghats (the steps along the banks of the Ganges where people bathe) around 6:30 in the morning. It was damp and cold and crowded. There was a pungent odour in the air, no doubt brought on by the burning of cow dung used to heat homes. I watched dozens of people brush their teeth with twigs from the arak tree, as they began their morning. I was in awe of the sheer volume of people and the bustle with which they started their day.
Hundreds of people were disrobing and dipping themselves into the river. It was foggy so I could only see the immediate vicinity, but it was very representative of the entire area. I walked among the crowds listening to the chants and bell ringing and found a deep respect for these people who put so much faith into their religion.
I decided the only way to fully explore the area was by boat and I soon found a young lad who offered to take me along the kilometre-wide river. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have encountered.
As the boy paddled away from shore I realized how many people there actually were. I later learned that had I been there a week earlier I would have been in the middle of 4 million people who attended a festival. I was shocked when I learned that 2000 died during the event.
As we lazily floated along the shore I was intrigued by small baskets with candles in them, floating in the river. People made offerings and this was their way of displaying them. Not unlike my grandmother taking me to church to light a candle in memory of someone departed.
People drink from the holy waters of the Ganges, but the tradition is discouraged by the authorities. The extreme pollution is responsible for many illnesses. They say bathing in the river will cure any sickness you may have and, as I had a small scrape on my finger, I decided to dip it in the water. I guess my belief was not strong enough, because all I felt was the icy temperature.
The boat lazily progressed along the water and the sights, although similar, were mesmerizing. In a country with well over a billion people one soon begins to realize there is no comparison for the crowdedness, which is not found anywhere else on earth.
India strongly believes in and practices the now outlawed, caste system. There are four levels, ranging from Holy man as the highest, business as second, soldier or warrior third and servant last. Although somewhat different from what we are used to, marriage outside of your cast is forbidden and in many cases punishable by death.
I saw hundreds of people, from the servant caste banging laundry along the rocks and steps of the Ganges, as they stood knee deep in the icy water. These people, employees of local cleaning businesses spend their entire day slaving for only a few rupees a day (the equivalent of $40 or $50 a month).
As the row boat cruised along the calm water I spotted several fires in the distance. The oarsman looked at me and my camera and asked me not to tale any photos out of reverence for the families. I quickly realized I was watching funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. Although forbidden by law it is difficult to enforce a change to thousands of years of tradition, especially when this is the Hindu’s ultimate finale to a life of hardship and constant turmoil.
The sun was still hidden by the fog and the air temperature was only six degrees, but everywhere thousands of people were standing waist and neck deep in the frigid water. A mere 17 flight from Port Perry and you too can enjoy this unique tradition.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com