Experiencing the Ganges River

Travel Destinations — By on May 16, 2007 at 7:50 am

There was a five-part series on NPR recently in which a reporter delved into Indian life by traveling the length of the Ganges River. The waterway, which is considered holy by Hindus, extends more than 1,500 miles from the Himalaya Mountains to the edge of Bangladesh and cuts across a long swath of northern India.

The river passes through India’s most populous state, its most lawless state, its holiest city and its cultural capital, Calcutta.

Our journey provides the opportunity to learn how Indians feel about the changes taking place in their country as it moves toward world power status: how they feel about its rapid economic growth, the co-mingling of ancient and modern, materialism and spirituality and the widening gap between rich and poor.

One of the more interesting stops on NPR’s tour was in the city of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in this spiritual country.

Nowhere in India do you feel more surrounded by – and immersed in – Hinduism than Varanasi. India’s holiest city, Varanasi is one of the oldest in the world, said to be as ancient as Babylon and Thebes…

Here the river is the centerpiece. She is wide and brown. Despite general grubbiness caused by slogging across north India’s heavily populated plains, she is also surprisingly majestic. This is Mother Ganga at her most sacred: Every day in Varanasi, about 60,000 Hindus bathe in her waters in search of spiritual regeneration.

As a secular agnostic, and an outsider to boot, I’ve never really expected to fully comprehend Hinduism, or its fascinating multitude of gods and complex mythology. Yet there are times you can lift the veil and glimpse just a little of what lies within.

There is no better place to try than on the stone steps, or ghats, that lead down to the Ganges at Varanasi. We arrived at dawn to watch the faithful gather for their morning rituals. It was a clear morning; the river’s muddy surface radiated with a wide shaft of golden light cast by the rising sun.

The scene was inspiring and transfixing, and yet also curiously casual. Men in the lotus position sat motionless, deep in meditation. Half-naked sadhus, or Hindu ascetics, prayed and sang earnestly as they dunked themselves in the holy waters. But only a few feet away, people were scrubbing pots, washing clothes and brushing their teeth. Some of them were just having fun, cavorting in the water and splashing one another joyfully.

Varanasi is certainly an interesting destination, one that is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, as Lisa and I discovered during our own visit there in 2005.

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