The magic of the Ganges River

Wow, it feels like life is speeding up recently. I think I am finally getting the hang of this long-term travel thing– just in time to stop doing it and return to the US next month.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been on the road for more than eight months now, but at the same time it’s hard to believe that it has only been eight months.

In some ways it feels so much longer; I’ve been so many places and had so many experiences. And life in the U.S. feels so far away and kind of like a dream at this point.

After my last post, I spent eight days at a yoga/meditation retreat at an ashram in Rishikesh, an Indian city known as “the yoga capital of the world,” at the base of the Himalayas and on the banks of the Ganges River, which is holy in Hinduism. Rishikesh itself was not a pleasant place for me; it is not at all the serene town you might imagine a yoga center in the mountains to be. It is dusty, chaotic, clogged with traffic and big tourist jeeps going up and down the mountains, and the air is filled with the sounds of honking vehicles.

But the ashram where I stayed is huge and has a beautiful campus with sprawling lawns, huge trees, and an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. It is like a bubble within the chaos of the town, and I spent most of my time within the calmness of its gates.

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An ashram is a place of spiritual retreat, and the people you meet there are all on some sort of spiritual journey. It’s a beautiful energy to be around and I met some lovely people there.

At the ashram, my days started with yoga at 6am. The first few days of this felt like torture. I am usually NOT a morning person.

I have very rarely gone to 6am classes of anything in my life.

IMG_0481This is my “WHY 6AM??? face”

But by the end of my time there, I so enjoyed starting my day in this way. Of course I vowed when I left the ashram that I would continue with the practice, but unsurprisingly, I quickly reverted back to my non-morning person ways after the structure was gone.

There was a second yoga class at 4pm every day (talk about hot yoga – in 95 degree weather, in a room with no fans sometimes), and then immediately afterwards, there was a beautiful Hindu ceremony, called aarti, on the banks of the Ganges River. The holy Ganges is extremely important to Hinduism and Indian people. The aarti ceremony is a collection of devotional songs and prayers and rituals, and it’s open to everyone who wants to attend.

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I really appreciated this about Hinduism – it is very inclusive.

It didn’t matter to them if I was Christian or Muslim or not practicing any religion; I was still invited to participate in the ceremony in whatever way I wanted to.

IMG_0599At the end of the ceremony, a holy flame is passed around in various forms and people have the opportunity to pray with it and bless themselves with the heat.

It was a very spiritual eight days with so much time to do yoga and meditate and reflect on what is important in life. I did feel a transformation, however small, in my body and spirit during my time there.

After leaving Rishikesh, my next stop was the beautiful and ancient city of Varanasi, which also lies alongside the Ganges River. (The two cities were not close together, however – it took me 24 hours by train to get between them!)

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I remembered learning about Varanasi in high school, when Mr. Ross, our well-traveled geography teacher, told us about the Hindu tradition of cremating loved ones’ bodies on the banks of the Ganges. In my memory, the image he painted of this city was a dark, sad, muddy, scary place where bodies were burning everywhere and people were drowning in the water alongside and the water was swirling black with ashes from the cremations.

In reality, Varanasi was completely different from how I imagined it all these years.

(Of course, the city has likely also changed in the 15+ years since Mr. Ross visited and described it – I would love to talk to him about that some time if I ever see him again.)

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The Varanasi that I experienced was a beautiful place, full of joy and life and color.

Though an important part of its identity (and economy) does relate to death and the cremation of bodies, it is not a depressing place. Instead, it’s a hopeful place. When people are able to cremate their relatives’ bodies here, they believe that they are helping that soul to move on from this life in the best possible way.

We spent some hours throughout the week at the Burning Ghat, where the cremation ceremonies take place. Though seeing the first human body being engulfed by flames was jarring, overall there was a quiet grace surrounding all these people sending their loved ones out of this world in the best way they could.

IMG_0895Boatloads of wood waiting to be used for cremation ceremonies

Many people also come to Varanasi on a pilgrimage totally unrelated to death simply because it is a holy city and it hosts a very important temple in Hinduism. They come to bathe in the holy water of the Ganges in a holy city and to offer prayers that they believe will be magnified in such a holy place.

fce7d977-fa8d-4442-8f77-825e5eb29821People bathing in the Ganges around 6am on a Saturday

It was an absolutely incredible place to experience. I spent a week here with a friend from Germany whom I had met at a hostel earlier in my India experience. We each went our own way for a few weeks and then met back up here.

We took a break from staying in hostels and split a room in a guesthouse, which was simply a room in a local family’s large house. The house was in the old part of town, where the alleyways are too narrow for cars or even rickshaws to drive, and the door opened directly onto one of the main footpaths (on which motorcycles also drive). It was a fun experience to live closer to local people and to tumble out of our door each morning directly into the chaos of the city.

54d56179-9804-4d06-9792-6768a927aed1Eating delicious street food in an alley

We spent our days wandering around the alleys, which are narrow and dark and stay relatively cool even in the 100+ degree heat at this time of the year, and our evenings walking along the river. We made no plans for our time there and just stayed open to whatever crossed our path on a particular day. One day we stumbled upon two men who were working with an old-fashioned printing press. They invited us into their tiny shop to watch how they used the press to print a bunch of neon-colored bags for a local store.

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Another day, we encountered three men lounging with a very docile cow along the river bank and we spent several hours talking with them about Hinduism, cows, and the meaning of life. Another morning, we met a young man who took us on an impromptu walking tour of some of the most beautiful (and well-hidden) temples in the city. At the end, we invited him to share a meal with us and then we parted ways, wishing each other well in life.

Beautiful small moments.

It’s so interesting to me that often the most memorable and magical parts of traveling are the things that are not planned, that don’t cost much money, that aren’t on “the list” of things to do in a place, but are simply found along the way if you’re open to them.

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The city wakes up very early and a lot of its life is centered around the river.

A lot of people sleep outside in Varanasi, sometimes on the concrete by the shore or sometimes in the boats that line the bank. Some local people say they just prefer to be near the river, even though they do have homes in the city. I suspect that some of the pilgrims who visit want to be as close as possible to the river so they can bathe first thing in the morning, before sunrise, which is the holiest time. And I suspect that some also may not have funds to pay for another place to stay, but it’s warm enough to easily sleep outside at this time of year.

Boat taxis are available to go out onto the holy river in the mornings or the evenings – we woke up super early on two mornings to catch the sunrise over the river, and it was absolutely incredible. We met some very nice boat-rowers, too.

In the evenings, a lot of people board boats to get a good view of the nightly aarti ceremony (very different from the aarti in Rishikesh – this one is much larger and flashier).

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After spending so much time in these two cities, I do have a new appreciation for the Ganges River, a name that I always heard in geography class. It means so much to so many people, and it does feel like its presence is something special.

I love this about traveling – it is like getting to color in all the details on a picture I have sketched from information in books or school or TV. The concepts are abstract when I learn about them, but they’re all filed away somewhere, waiting to become real. Then when I get to see something in person, the sketch gets filled in with the rich details and everything comes to life.

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Such a beautiful experience…

One thought on “The magic of the Ganges River

  1. Thank you again, CMK, for taking us with you. I always read your posts to my mom, who — like me — finds them so insightful and engaging. Safe travels home, my dear!

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