Posted on April 2nd, 2009 No comments
SUNRISE ON THE GANGES
India. The name itself evokes images of ancient civilizations, swarming cities, colourful markets and a host of eclectic religions. Mix in sprawling ghettoes, a booming economy and a land stretching from the highest mountains in the world to steaming jungles to parched desert dunes and let it all bring a simmer to the imagination. It is frequently written in travel magazines and articles that India is a land of contrasts. I say, whoever is bored of India is bored with life.
Of all the destinations in India, one of the most vivid is that of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state in the north of the country. Considered one of the holiest cities of India, Varanasi (or Benares) is a pilgrimage destination for Hindus, Buddhist and Jains. The River Ganga, or Ganges, flows from the Himalaya, through Varanasi, and onto the Bay of Bengal. It is mandatory in any Varanasi itinerary to experience the mystique of the city from the water. Why? As one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi’s citizens always made use of the waters of the Ganga. It was the lifeblood of the population and it continues to be so. Ghats, or steps, have traditionally been the means of access to the river’s edge for purposes ranging from laundry to bathing to cremation.
Our North India tour features a visit to Varanasi and one of the most consistently rated highlights in all our clients’ feedback is that of our boat trip onto the Ganga for sunrise. A visit at any time of year is always a mystical experience: floating out onto the water in our expansive rowboat, mist rising around us, the quiet solitude of pre-dawn giving way to the first sounds of a new day’s activities.
The incredible thing about Varanasi is that there always seems to be some celebration or festival whenever you visit. Combine the fact that it is one of the holiest cities and that there are so many gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon and then factor in that there are only 365 days in a year. Chances are good that you’ll see something awe-inspiring every day and night of the year.
It was on one such occasion that my group and I chanced upon something wondrous. Our North India trip was featuring Pushkar, yet another very important religious festival in the desert state of Rajasthan, that November. However, as luck would have it, we arrived in Varanasi just in time for the Chhat Puja. The Chhat what? The Chhat Puja is the celebration of the sun, or “Lord Sun”. Pilgrims from all around India had gathered on the ghats of the Ganga to welcome the arrival of a new day.
Waking very early that morning, we made our way through the winding alleys of the city toward the banks of the river where we boarded our boat in the pre-dawn darkness. Our rower and his 11-year old son and helper navigated our vessel toward the site of the main ghats and the bulk of the festival-goers. The near silence of the pre-dawn slowly gave way to the growing hubbub of voices and the view of the ghats that were literally heaving with humanity. Occasional fireworks shot over the heads of the crowds and exploded in loud reports amongst the waterside buildings, briefly illuminating the river and the sheer depth of the multitude present.
We were alternately propelled against the current by our captain and then left to float amongst the gentle current, all the while soaking in the otherworldly atmosphere we had happened upon. Other boats of tourists, Indian and foreigners both, glided past us as we cruised parallel to the banks of the Ganga. Occasional boats piloted by would-be salesmen sidled up to ours in an effort to tout the value of their postcards, playing cards, Shiva figurines and other rupee-a-dozen wares.
All of this was taking place as the sky unveiled the first hints of dawn. With each passing minute you could sense the swelling anticipation of the gathered masses as the time to sunrise grew near. A collective mumble gave way to a louder and louder clamour as the initial pinks and reds of first light approached. Many of us found ourselves holding our breaths as the voice of the crowd escalated to a high pitch of celebration and the sun emerged from the haze that obscured the horizon. The delight of thousands of voices broke over us as we all, tourist and pilgrim alike, turned to the sunrise.
Our guide and captain allowed a few more moments of contemplation and then, as our collective spell slowly dissolved, we eased back down the river to our docking point. Another day had begun. Locals bathed in the waters of the river, women laundered their colourful saris, Rhesus monkeys clambered along balconies, and we disembarked to make our way through more of the maze-like alleys of Varanasi, heading for our hotel and a breakfast well deserved.