BY ANNA KRAMER
The Ganges River is cold and sweet, at least where I swam in and tasted it. There, in theHindu holy city of Hardwar at the foot of the Himalaya, I walked amid thousands of pilgrims and spiritual seekers along the crowded streets, skirting beggars and pesky priests demanding donations.
If one rises early enough, the ghat (the steps descending into the river) is quiet, occupied by sleeping pilgrims, stray dogs, and the occasional yogi in meditation.
As the hours pass and the people begin their day, the ghat grows crowded with bathers, holy men and vendors selling flowers, coconuts, sweets and idols.
The bathers brace themselves against the chill of the water, and hold chains, firmly anchored to the ghat or to the riverbed, to prevent the swiftriver from carrying them off downstream.
Men swim in their underwear, women in their sarees and small children are often naked.
In the midst of this sacred cleansing, the people wash their clothes, and spread the wet fabrics out to dry across the steps.
In the thick of the day, the push and throb on the ghat, especially near the temples, is hot and wearisome. I sought relief by climbing to the nearby mountaintop temples, but there too, pilgrims crowd the paths. I was uncomfortable enough in pants and decent footwear as I hiked up the steep switchbacks, roasting in the Indian afternoon sun: if I were to do these pilgrimages properly, however, I would follow the lead of the women around me, and wear a saree and gold jewelry, no shoes, and carry a toddler on my hip.
When the sun begins to set, the pilgrims descend upon the ghat. They purchase little boats made out of leaves, filled with flowers and a candle, from the endless salesmen, and line the Ganges in enormous numbers. Priests dot the ghat, holding candelabras and performing ritual offerings to the river for a fee.
From a loudspeaker, a prayer begins to sound across the town, and the aarti ceremony begins.
All of the candles, from the enormous candelabra hoisted by the head priest, to the little candle boat in the hands of a little boy up to his knees in the river, are lit. The worshippers draw circles in the air with their offerings of fire, and the surface of the Ganges flickers.
The candles are proffered in the direction of the temple in the middle of the channel, and the rhythmic swinging of the flames through the air is accompanies by sung verses in Sanskrit over the loudspeaker and the chanting of the thousands on the ghat. As the aarti ends, the worshippers place their candle boats in the river, with a firm push and a prayer. Some candles disappear swiftly, extinguished by the churning river, but others float safely on, bobbing out of sight. With the river carrying away the flames of wishes, prayers, and hopes, the ghat grows dark and the pilgrims depart.
A few people remain, to bathe and play in the water, to pray, to talk by the river’s edge. The candles have vanished, lost in the embrace of the Ganges, and her turbulent, sacred waters keep rushing on past the ghat, past slumbering pilgrims, and past a young woman searching for humanity’s heart, as well as her own.
I will be returning home lat er this month. For more on my journeys in India, visit sojourninsurat. wordpress.com.
ANNA KRAMER is a Cooperstown Rotary Youth Exchange student in India.
BY ANNA KRAMER
- Local News
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- Thursday, May 16, 2013
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