We walked towards the river while it was still dark, making do with only moonlight and the dim beams of lanterns swinging from vendors' carts to illuminate patches of the rutted roads here and there. Varanasi was surprisingly quiet at that early hour, with just the odd cowbell clanging, the muted buzz of a distant motorcycle, and the shuffling of feet -- ours and the other pilgrims'.
It registered initially as a low hum -- something I first felt in my chest rather than heard. Gradually but steadily, it grew louder as we walked, until suddenly we were there, at the top of the broad, steep concrete steps descending down to the mighty Ganges.
Banks of the holy river
Pilgrims of all ages bathed in the river, many of them fully clothed, bouncing as they submerged themselves repeatedly in the sacred murky waters. A group of women scrubbed laundry at the water's edge while a pair of yogis performed sun salutations on a platform above. Rowboats small and large jockeyed for position as they arrived and departed from the docks.
Holy men were clanging bells and chanting to greet the first faint pink glow of the rising sun. It was an overwhelming, all-consuming glorious clamour. I couldn't help feeling spiritual, even though I didn't fully understand the rituals. This was the holiest city in all of India for Hindus, and my first glimpse of the Ganges.
Our guide Sam led us down the steps to a small dock. We stepped into a creaky but solidly built long rowboat, and our boatman pushed off with gigantic oars to row us along the shoreline. He steered confidently with an impressive combination of strength and dexterity.
On the way down, Sam had purchased some candle offerings from one of the girl sellers. Their small wicks were each surrounded by marigold blossoms nestled into a circle of paper. He offered them to us now, suggesting we might choose to set one afloat in the river in memory of someone special to us.
I took one and leaned over the side of the boat to set it into the river. Visions of both of my departed parents came to me, along with a wave of emotion. It had been almost 15 years since Mom's passing, but only a month since Dad's. On this morning, the sting of both losses came back with equal strength. My offering bounced in the waves, the reflection of its' tiny flame twinkling as it floated away to unite with the memories of so many others.
Rites of passage
The oarsman rowed steadily. It didn't take long before the boisterous symphony of the main ghats faded away and we were gliding past more tranquil shores. The sun was up by this time, bathing the riverside in shades of gold and pink.
Eventually we came to a cremation ghat where smoke was rising from four or five large fires onshore, each some distance from the other. Around each burning pyre stood a group of mourners dressed in white and one or two men raking the coals with long poles. We could see more bodies lined up along the bank on stretchers, wrapped in white and saffron sheets in preparation for burning.
The scenes were emotionally challenging to take in. It was unsettling to be a spectator to the grief of strangers, and to learn how intimately the families take part in the ceremonies. It was so raw, so un-sanitized compared to the glossy sealed urn I had recently carried out of the church at my father's service. The process of his actual cremation -- the burning of his earthly form -- was not something I had been forced to think about.
These families were witnessing the physical destruction of their loved ones there in the open, in painfully real, unpolished form. It came to me that maybe such stalwart acceptance of the physical truth might help those living to more easily accept the passing. That they might be better equipped for the eventual 'moving on' that would be necessary.
I felt a sense of kinship and connection to the mourners even though they couldn't have been more unlike me in so many ways. No matter our differences in culture, religion or nationality, we all experience love, loss, sorrow and joy. We all have to say goodbye.
Streets of Varanasi
Walking back, we took a different route through some of the small winding alleys leading away from the river. In the daylight, the grim reality of the slum was impossible to miss. Frail elderly men draped in worn blankets peered out from makeshift shelters with barely enough space to stretch out. Women and children in threadbare garments stretched out hands with pleading eyes.
Sam kept up a brisk pace, perhaps an attempt to minimize our exposure to the realities he knew might be upsetting to us, or as a way to deter beggars from latching onto us. Probably both. Not for us to turn a blind eye, but rather to keep us from getting consumed with anguish if we dwelled too long.
Back in the van, all I could do was sit in silence as my eyes welled up with tears. I thought I might never get the painful sights of the morning out of my head. Even though I hadn't had time to properly process what I'd seen, I felt a sense of despair. I had expected to see some difficult scenes in India, but what I hadn't anticipated was having such a visceral emotional reaction. It was my first encounter with such devastating poverty.
In the space of a morning I had seen, and indeed experienced myself, reverence, wonder, sorrow and heartbreak. Varanasi won't allow a visitor to leave unchanged. It's an intensely spiritual place; one that I will never forget.
To end on a more hopeful note, I found a charitable organization to support before I left the country. My contribution was a tiny drop in an enormous bucket, but if all travelers to India could contribute a drop or two, we might at least collectively quench the thirst of a few.