Enchantment on the Ganges

It is late March. I am at one of the ghats by the river Ganges in the city of Varanasi. Sitting on a bench in the blazing heat, my travel companions and I observe the beginning of a cremation ceremony being carried out by a family and brahmin priest. This is but one of the hundreds of such ceremonies that take place by the river each year. As I watch the people performing this rite of passage, I notice their faces convey resignation and emotional detachment. Life and death are one and the same here, for in death, it is believed by Hindus that one’s spirit will be reborn. After an hour or so, the cremation of the body begins. The smoke and flame signal us to move on.

When I was a small child living in Hong Kong, I often stayed at my grandparent’s apartment which married two ancient civilizations. My great-grandmother was Indian and my great-grandfather was Chinese. In Calcutta, India, they united. Generations later, we can still feel the pulse of our Indic roots. The aroma of India often suffused my grandparent’s home. At night, my grandmother, mother and aunt would sit in front of the television watching old Hindi movies, speaking to each other in the same tongue as the actors on screen. A strong affinity for the Indian spirit soon grew within me. From the sensuous flute and vibrant spices to the promise of enlightenment – I was spellbound. As I now embark on my trip to India as a 31-year-old man, my heart hopes to gain a first-hand experience of the India that existed in my fantasies.

Childhood is a time of unbridled imagination. Sometimes, when we try to revisit our childhood impressions in adulthood, we are met with disappointment. We discover that the magic is absent in the real place. Will I find in India the spell my mind conjures?

Shortly after landing on Indian soil, I plunge into disorder. Like trying to swim down rapids, the torrent of people, cars, and noise throws me off the driver’s seat. There is something liberating about losing control, which demands a certain level of trust in something higher to bring you to the right destination. You may say it forces you to release your grip on yourself. Surprisingly it all feels perfectly natural. Perhaps it is a remnant of a primal instinct that still lurks within me. I wonder how many of us are still attuned to the guiding force of our environment as we walk through city streets staring at our phones, always elsewhere but never fully present.

In the commotion of Delhi, I am reminded of the hectic life of New Yorkers. While the old city is fascinating, I have not found enchantment here. My eyes set out for my next destination: Varanasi.

On the banks of the Ganges river, the incessant honking of traffic finally subside. A long train ride followed by a tour on a tuk-tuk through busy streets full of vehicles, locals and cows finally bring us to the Assi ghat at the southernmost region of the city. I look out at the river outstretched before me. It feels like stepping into a vast clearing after making my way through the thickets of a jungle. A feeling of peace arises. I study the several ghats that rest along the river’s edge, like pups drawing sustenance from the underbelly of their mother. Everything appears as still as a painting. The old structures left unchanged through the years give me a sense of having stepped back in ancient time.

Our guide, a modest Indian man with a soft-spoken voice, starts leading us northward from one ghat to the next. Moments of silence intersperse with history lessons on the sacredness of the river and the significance of each ghat. The river, although believed to be holy, is noticeably polluted. Garbage float along the river’s edge, a short distance from people performing their ablutions. A hint of stench permeate the air, but I soon grow accustomed to it. As I make my way pass the Chausatti ghat with a fellow traveler, a strong voice calls out from behind us. “Hey you!” I turn around. It is a sadhu, an emaciated holy man lying on the ground about 20 feet away from us. “Hey you!” he calls again. “Come here.” For a moment we stall, unsure of whether to obey his command. Since neither of us knows to whom he is addressing, we leave him alone. I wonder if he had been actually addressing me and if so, what he had to reveal about my destiny.

In the evening, we will take a boat to the Dashashwamedh ghat to witness the river worship ceremony, ganga aarti, that is performed each night at 7 pm. At dusk, we board a small boat managed by two young Indian men. Together with my eight travel companions from various parts of the world, we watch the mauve sky fade to black. The view now looks identical to Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone. As we make our way up the river, we notice the pandits, Hindu priests, setting up their stations at every ghat as locals and tourists gather around them before the show. Lights fill the banks of the Ganges as if a grand festival is about to take place – it is hard to believe something so splendid is held every night. About mid-way, our boat stops in a quiet spot on the river. Mosquitos buzz all around us. Our guides proceed to hand out many small candles for us to light as an offering to the Ganges. Slowly, we place each lit candle cradled by a small dish onto the river. A few minutes later, we contemplate the result of our labor: a constellation of our desires, dreams, and affections floating away into the darkness of space.

The motor of our boat starts again, and we begin making our way towards Varanasi’s most spectacular ghat. From a distance, I can see countless boats moving toward the lights, all teeming with people eager to witness the spectacle that will soon take place. As we get closer to the bank of the river, boats surround us – and more come from other directions. Before long, we are caught in a matrix of what seems like a hundred boats, pressing so close to each other you can step from one boat to another. With a large paddle, our guide expertly maneuvers our boat in tight areas to get us closer to the edge of the river for a better view. I look up onto the platform of the ghat. The lights, ornaments, and atmosphere produce a majesty that is dazzling to behold. Five young pandits take the stage as they stand before the river on high platforms with lighted arcs high above their heads, making final preparations. Then the bells begin to sound.

Incense and music fill the stage as the five pandits raise their golden dias to the Ganges. Elevating before us as gods bathed in light, they animate their elaborate lamps of fire in unison, to and fro and around like pendulums to an ethereal voice against the backdrop of crimson and gold. Smoke trails behind the lamps as they sway, casting a haze over the scene. Over and over, the bells continue to ring, beckoning us to pass into a realm between this one and the next. Did the five cosmic flames dance at the beginning of time as they do before us now? Whether we are awake or dreaming we cannot tell. Nothing else matters. Conjoined with the hundreds of spectators, we immerse into the ritual as a single entity. To the beats of the tablas our collective heart replies. This may last for eternity. But all things are impermanent. The spell wanes eventually. The boats around us start to disperse; our own boat drifts farther away from the bells. I watch us draw away in silence. My moment of enchantment had come and gone.

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