Our wooden boat slowly maneuvered through the masses of worshippers. There were those that floated, those that lathered, those that splashed, and those that prayed. It was 5:30 AM and the sun was slowly making its ascent over the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world and certainly one of the holiest. Indians from across the country make their pilgrimage to the ghats that line 7km of the river. These ghats consist of stairs descending into the cleansing waters of the Ganges. They are a continuous carnival of tourists, touts and spiritual rituals. On these steps, at any given moment, you can find people washing their cows, washing their clothes, cutting their hair, selling flowers, cremating family members, playing cricket, meditating, roller skating, sleeping, eating, having a shave, dancing, or just sitting back and enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds. It is the absolute epitome of the chaotic Indian culture, all conveniently occurring simultaneously on the miles of steps, platforms, and temples that lines the shoreline in Varanasi.As our driver continued to row, narrowly avoiding the heads of those cleansing their souls, Amanda and I watched in awe. Of course, all of this activity gives the city a magical air. It is a place of life and death. It is a place where one can witness the entire cycle of life while floating in a boat rowed by a teenager. Parents wash their newborns. The elderly rinse their pains away. The mourning say their prayers. The truly religious ring their bells and wave their flames in a nightly service thanking the Ganges for its devine power. The crematory sits on the banks as well. We passed through it often. At any hour in the day and night you will find families ritualistically burning the bodies of those they love. As their ashes join the floating candles in the river, the Hindu cycle of life and death is broken, sending their souls to a final resting place. My fingers nervously flip through my phrase book as our boat approaches a group of men squatting on the rocks drinking down the holy water from their cup-shaped hands. I want to explain to them that this holiest of holy waters is also the dirtiest. Unfortunately I am unable to find the words I want. The phrase was conveniently excluded from the pages of my guide. The Ganges River here contains over 3000 times the safe amount of faecal coliform bacteria. It is literally septic, meaning it contains no dissolved oxygen. Over 30 sewage pipes deposit directly into this nearly still river. These facts only add (considerably) to the spectacle that occurs here daily. Over 60,000 people, whether ignoring these facts or ignorant to them, happily let the filthy water surround their bodies and cleanse their souls.
We spent our three days wandering through the mazes of streets and chaos. It is hardcore India culture to the max.