Evening is falling, and I am in a boat on the Ganges. We are at the Varanasi ghats, the broad promenade leading down to the river, and have made our way downtown by cycle rickshaw, pedalled through slums and down busy city streets to the water’s edge. It’s late March and the air is warm; the lights on the river bank are bright and the sounds of India are floating across the water.
We are here for the evening aarti, the Hindu ceremony or puja which is performed every evening here on the ghats along the river. Our boat is one of dozens, maybe a hundred, which makes its way slowly to the spot where the priests are already in action on the steps leading up to the town. We cram together, most of us tourists, some Indian but many westerners, like me understanding very little but soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of this moment. It feels like a festival, and it’s hard to believe this takes place every evening here in Varanasi.
The city is the epicentre of the Hindu faith, the destination of a lifetime for many Indians, and I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be here. At the same time, the city can be overwhelming, especially here down by the river. Much of Varanasi is a typical Indian city, with middle-class districts sitting side-by-side with extreme poverty, but as you enter the old town the wide streets give way to winding alleyways lined with cycle rickshaws, traders and cows – the stereotypical image of India. Arriving on the ghats above the river itself, the swirl of colour is infused with the incense and bustle of religious devotion. Men and women alike bathe – separately – in the great river, the men stripping down to shorts and knee-length dhotis, the women submerging fully-clothed in brightly-coloured saris. Holy men lounge on the steps down to the river, bearded and hennaed but still happy to smile at visitors and pose for photos. And behind us, many-storeyed buildings in various colours and stages of disrepair rise up in a colourful backdrop to the river below.
Before I visited India for the first time, I expected the whole country to be like this – noisy, crowded and intimidating in its strangeness. The friendliness and gently unthreatening bustle of India was a surprise, and I fell in love with the unapologetic openness of life here. But now, standing in Varanasi, I can see where the image of overwhelming, chaotic India has come from. But I know the country better now; I take a deep breath and let the confusion wash over me until it starts to make a little more sense.
Everyone here is in their own world, worshipping in their own way. I see young monks in training lining the ghats to pray, washermen laying out the sheets and towels of the fancy hotels to dry in the sun, and families come to enjoy the joyful chaos of Hindu devotions. Varanasi is built along the northern bank of the Ganges; in the distance are the low plains of the opposite shore, and in between them, wooden boats make their way up and down the river. In the distance, we can see the smoke rising from the cremation ghats, a practice which I expected to scare me, but it makes sense here. Every facet of life is played out along the river.
And so the light falls, and we board our boat to watch the evening puja, striking out into the river for a better view of the priests chanting on the ghats in front of us, lit by lamps that glow orange in the darkness. We buy offerings from passing salesmen, burning tealights in straw boats beautifully decorated with flowers including the marigolds which are omnipresent in India. I buy one as a prayer to whichever gods we are praying to (to be honest, I’m not sure, but anything is worth a try). With a silent entreaty to protect family and friends who need the help, I carefully float the offering down the river.
We are packed close together in our boats, but this is a friendly gathering in the wide open spaces of the river. However, I don’t escape completely unscathed, as the oar of a neighbouring boat, in a wonderfully inexpert move, splashes Ganges water right over me and my camera. Thankfully the camera survives, and despite being warned that the river water is filthy and bathing is not recommended, I am able to say that I have been blessed by Mother Ganga regardless. But I wash my hands thoroughly before dinner.
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