“Want to see a video?” the hotel manager asked me as I waited for Steve to check the room. We were in Varanasi. I was hot and bothered after 14 hours on a crowded Indian train, but what the heck. “Sure,” I said.
Next thing I knew, I was watching a ghastly YouTube video he had taken three months before, showing an entire family screaming as they were washed away by immense sheets of churning water during the recent flooding of the Ganges River.
“They be die,” he said. “Ha ha.” I wasn’t sure whether to be more appalled that he had stood by recording four people’s watery demise or that he was laughing about it now as he showed me, but I desperately hoped that something was being lost in translation.
That was my introduction to the incredible might and power of the Ganges–Mother Ganga giveth but she clearly also taketh away.
The Ganges River has long been revered in Hinduism as the great cleanser of sins. Supposedly, to immerse oneself in the murky depths ensures liberation from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation. Personified as a goddess, Mother Ganga ebbs and flows, washing 1,569 miles from the western Himalayas through India to Bangladesh. Thousands of Indians make a pilgrimage to this holy river each year, many bringing the bodies of dead relatives to release into the river for burial.
As I tried to get the macabre video out of my head, I pondered all this holiness as I gazed at at the Ganges in Varanasi. The sun reflected dimly over the trash strewn, mud colored water. Cattle splashed on the shallow banks, women dressed as brightly as Christmas crackers squatted and scrubbed piles of laundry, and scrawny children dived amidst plastic bottles and the bobbing remains of old shoes. A dirtier river I had never seen and I struggled to make sense of how a country that reveres a body of water so much could continue to pollute it so terribly–but that is a blog for another day.
The city of Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills is famous for yoga, but it has a huge adventure sports scene and rafting the Ganges is all the rage. Having never rafted before, I was apprehensive, but Steve shamed me into action by saying “If my 60 year old mother can do it...” So, I hung my head abashedly and put on my life jacket.
We boarded our little craft with two guides and another couple, and set off down the Ganges. Waterfalls splashed and monkeys jumped from tree to tree in an exceedingly quixotic kind of way, but I was too busy clinging for dear life through rapids called Initiation, Cross Fire and Roller Coaster to notice. Being closer to the river’s alpine source, the water was a clear, cold green and there was nary a piece of trash or bloated body part to be seen. Steve and the guides took advantage by jumping in for a cool dip, but I still had visions of the Burning Ghat in Varanasi dancing gruesomely in my head and I simply couldn’t bring myself to swim amidst the potential ashes.
Rafting was so fun and fabulous that it helped me make peace with my OCD fear of the amoebas and other Ganges-dwelling microscopic organisms. Thus I decided I too wanted to experience the holy river on a deeper level. This I did by participating in two holy rituals.
First, for 10 rupees (16 cents), small children sell paper boats containing a candle and a wreath of flowers that is meant to be offered to Mother Ganga in exchange for her blessing. As I watched my little offering flicker and bob its way downstream, I said a little prayer for my soon-to-be-born niece, Violet.
Second, during my stay at the Phool Chatti Ashram, we participated in a ritual cleansing ceremony, chanting to the river goddess and bestowing an offering of flowers before immersing in the icy water. Sorry Mother, I still couldn’t bring myself to dunk all the way. Instead I respectfully splashed water on my head.
Experiencing the Ganges from the vantage points of holy-yet-filthy Varanasi and the pristine rapids flowing through Rishikesh helped me understand the river’s holy role and haunting beauty, its flowing tide carrying the blessings and bodies, sins and souls of millions. I still don’t quite understand the reverence Hindus pay to the Ganges, but I respect it more than ever.