For devout Hindus a ritualistic dip in the holy waters of Varanasi is said to purify the soul, but as pollution levels of the River Ganges rise, spiritual renewal may come at a price.
I arrived in Varanasi at dawn and made my way to the Ganges as the sun began to cast its glow over the waking city. The sound of music, ringing bells and chanting filled the air as the city came alive in a mad frenzy of devotion. A man walked slowly into the river, arms outstretched, a look of ecstasty on his face as he called out “Ganga Ma ki jai” (Long live Mother Ganga.) Clearly this was no ordinary river.
Known in ancient times as Kashi or ‘site of spiritual luminance,’ Varanasi is India’s holiest city. For thousands of years people have come to worship and offer their prayers to the river Goddess –‘Mother Ganga.’ A dip in the holy waters of Varanasi is said to wash away all sins.
The old city is formed by a maze of alley ways, thick with the sweet, heady smell of incense. Crumbling palaces and temples give way to the ghats – the steps that lead down to the river and provide the focal point for locals and pilgrims alike. Children play, grown men play like children, laundry wallahs beat the dirt out of their clothes, buffaloes wallow, sadhus (holy men) chant and pray. There are more than 80 ghats along the river, some dedicated to worship, others to cremation. This is the city of Shiva and for Indian Hindus, burning on the funeral pyres by the Ganges means bypassing the cycle of rebirth and going direct to heaven.
I stayed in a tower room in a faded pink palace on the riverfront and would sit on my balcony for hours, mesmerised by the ever-evolving scene below. In the soft light of dawn the riverbanks gleamed a shimmering gold. In the twilight people would make offerings of floating candles and flowers and the Ganges would twinkle with flickering light. One hot sticky afternoon a small twister whipped along the ghats picking up all the saris that had been laid out to dry, then blew to the middle of the river in a swirl of vibrant colour before suddenly dissipating and dropping all the saris in the water.
Watching pilgrims arrive from all over India I wondered about the power of this hypnotic river which started high in the Himalayas and wound its way for 2500 km across the northern plains.Was the river itself the source of power, or did its power come from the fervent energy that was channeled into it by countless devotees? There are some things that my western mind struggles to comprehend, but one thing was sure, I loved this mighty river. I had never been anywhere so deeply spiritual, and with so much intense devotion around me it seemed impossible not to get caught up in it all.
My rational mind pointed out that the river looked pretty murky. For sure it was contaminated from human and toxic waste. Yet many people bathed in it and even drank the water, and I started to think that if you had enough faith and did something with a pure heart maybe you could transend the filth. And so I went down to the bathing ghats and waded in. It was a little slimy underfoot, and the water felt heavy, but I focused on my spiritual intention – to purify myself, while making sure not to get water anywhere near my mouth. Back on the ghats, drying in the sun, my newly discovered spiritual self was indeed feeling renewed. I had achieved the dream of millions of Indians, I had bathed in the Ganges, and I ignored the niggly voice of my rational mind that kept piping in, “You fool, that water is so polluted.”
My love affair with Varanasi continued and I studied yoga at an ashram by the river, which set me on a whole new life path. I became the cliché – India really did change my life.
As for my foray into the river – well, I would like to say that my faith in the spirit of Mother Ganga conquered the microorgansims, but the truth is I became violently ill. Tests revealed giardias, amoebas and a liver infection. Perhaps the Indian devotees have stronger faith, or at least stronger stomachs? Maybe they get sick too? The manager of my hotel sagely suggested I had been blessed by Sitala, the Goddess of disease and would emmerge from my illness stronger than ever.
My heart and spirit had been captured by the ‘city of light’ but as I sat on my balcony dizzy with fever, clutching my cramped up stomach, I watched the children laughing and playing in the water, just meters from a rotting corpse and I was reminded that there is a dark side to everything.