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A spiritual dawn on the Ganges

In the gloom before dawn we threaded our way through the almost-empty streets of Varanasi, crowds thickening till we were weaving our way between bicycle rickshaws, pedestrians and cows all part of the steady stream of people making their way to the banks of the Ganges. There was a thrill of anticipation in the air that lifted spirits and enthusiasm: a rush hour with purpose as hundreds of people made their way to the river for a ritual wash before going to work.

At a line of boats moored in the river we embarked and took seats around the edge.  Nobody seemed to notice the young boy with his basket full of small terracotta saucers containing a candle stub surrounded by flowers who had quietly attached himself to the group and slipped onto the boat with us. Quietly he went round selling his wares: a few rupees were handed over and candles lit.

It was a wonderful sight, a crescent of expectant faces glowing in the soft flames devouring the sights around us and drinking in the words of our guide as he explained the rituals we were about to witness. As one we lent over the boat to float our candles on the sacred water. Our journey had begun and everyone settled back to watch the Ganges waking up. Drifting downstream we watched people cleansing themselves in the brown, sluggish water. At first it felt rather intrusive but soon we realised that those concerned were oblivious to our stares, intent on what they were doing – privacy a precious commodity few of them have every experienced. 

Groups of people were doing the early morning washing for the hotels, wringing out the sheets, whacking the towels on the ground. Men stood waist deep in the water, soaping and rinsing themselves, some deep in conversation and others deep in contemplation. Further downstream the women were engaged in the same activities but fully clothed with their saris floating in the water around them. Each individual seemed enviably at peace with themselves and the world.  

We slowly sailed past palaces and temples on the shore. The sun was trying to struggle through the haze resulting in an ethereal landscape around us. The water drifted by languidly, a flat expanse that merged into the banks on the far side. I was spellbound, and then a river dolphin rose majestically through the shimmering river surface and in an instant had gone. Yes, murmured the guide in my ear, it was a dolphin. Transfixed I kept my eyes on the water and was soon rewarded with a second appearance, as brief and magnificent as the first. 

Now we could see the smoke rising from a funeral pyre and the flames licking round the wood that covered the body. I sensed a tension in the air. So alien from the European formality of burial where inviting the right people, wearing the right clothes and saying the right words seem to take priority over everything else. Here we watched in silence as a body was brought down to the water’s edge by male relatives, and carefully and lovingly washed before being burnt after which the ashes would be scattered on the water. Death here is so much a part of life, not separated and shrouded in formality – celebrated as a beginning not an end.

We continue our journey, a healing peace pervades us, hushed voices marvel at the sights we are seeing the experience we are having as the light brightens around us.  We alight and walk back down the bank, stopping to gaze back at the water, glimpsing once again the baskets hanging on poles that will carry lights to show the spirits of the dead the way home.  The dark shapes of the baskets against the reflection of the rising sun on the river make a memorable picture.

All too soon we were plunging back through the narrow streets, part of the hustle and bustle of morning. People strode purposefully to their workplace, children in clean smart uniforms chattered and laughed on their way to school. Varanasi was waking up and getting on with its day.

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