3/16/09

Varanasi, India

Frozen in prayer

They carefully descended down the ghats, into these ancient steps that has been a witness to a fever pitch of faith. Men, women and children pose, reflect, pray and offer floating candles, garlands of marigold or a handful of grain. Some are busy washing their clothes, some washing water containers. Sadhus - or holy men - meditate deeply looking towards a rising sun. One by one, they slowly dip themselves into the holy waters of the Ganges, performing their ablutions. These ancient rituals have stood for millennia, practiced every day in the hope of achieving moksha - the liberation of one's self from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Praying & giving offerings
Bathing & washing clothes

We boarded a wooden boat at 6:30 AM, slowly sailing past many of the ghats lining the Ganges. It is a very touching tableau - even weird - as we see the faithful taking a dip in the waters of the holy river. I felt like an intruder but the boatman reassures me "no problem, you guest here". Together with me in the boat are a young couple from England and a family (with 2 young kids!) from Germany. We all stay at Hotel Surya, in the cantonment area of Varanasi. A young boy sells us candles decked on a bed of petals. I lit one as an offering and see it float away, its light flickering in the early morning haze.

In a way, I was also praying I won't be sick again, or else I wouldn't have made it to this river today. In my stupidity yesterday morning, I bought food in the train (since I never thought of buying one before boarding) and ended up in my hotel room later last night with the most horrible abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever - a trinity of evil that really possessed me. Thanks to Paracetamol and Ciprofloxacin, the miraculous power of science combined with the mystic powers of Varanasi healed me as I dragged myself out of bed very early this morning.

My offering

The Ganges river is 1557 miles long, starting from the southern slopes of the Himalayas and drains to a huge delta down into the Bay of Bengal. India's national river is revered by the Hindus as the goddess Ganga, mentioned several times in the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata and considered by them as amrita - the elixir of life, the nectar of immortality, the cleanser of sin.



Besides the spiritual nature of the Ganges, the river also happens to be one of the world's most polluted. Even the boatman acknowledges this. Varanasi's sewers and the factories upriver contribute to this problem along with many uncremated corpses dumped into the river. According to a report by the Economist, there's at least 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 1000 millilitres, or 120 times more than what is considered safe for bathing. Amazingly, I haven't heard of anyone among the faithful that take a bath in these waters getting seriously sick. Is this a miracle?


At both Manikarnika and Harish Chandra ghats, cremation of the dead is a 24/7 operation, done by the "untouchables" - or those belonging to the lowest caste. The pyres are off-limits to foreigners and the closest we could get to them is just by being on the boat. The boatman confides that anyones less than 9 years old is not cremated but instead, the body is tied with stones and thrown into the river. Sadly, this sounds like the river is bound to continue being polluted as it is.


After drifting idly on the river, we all walk back past the twisting filthy alleys, dodging cows and rickshaws and into a traffic-snarled street where our car is waiting. At the hotel, I try to recollect my thoughts while having breakfast with the English couple. The Ganges, the devotees, the cremation - it's a scene quite like no other I've ever seen.

14 comments:

  1. Ang galing galing naman. Fascinating read!

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  2. Thanks for sharing this story. The photos are incredible.I'd love to visit India someday.

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  3. It's so sad but beautiful at the same time! I'd love to visit Varanasi and the Ganges someday!

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  4. lechuaphotography1:49:00 PM

    a terrific insight to India. thanks for sharing.... been reading throught your posts on India... love the photos and this post is one of my favs...

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  5. ^ aha, interested si Lee.
    me too. yan next kong gusto ibackpack. ayain ko kaya yung babaeng yun.. hihi

    very interesting. the photos are so inviting. kainis! haha

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  6. great pictures!!! my fave place in the world for some weird magical reasons (lol)...

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  7. can't wait to go to India this April. hope plan pushes through. this place is actually one of the reasons why i'm going to India! I am so fascinated, i wanna go there real soon!

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  8. Chyng,
    I can well imagine you visiting India - kayang kaya mo 'to Chyng!

    flipnomad,
    could it be spirituality? hehehe.

    Pinoy Boy Journals,
    with visa on arrival for Pinoys now, entering India is much easier! Hope your trip pushes through indeed.

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  9. => Your posts makes me want to strive harder to go India even though my monthly income as of now is less than 10K pesos as a nurse in the Philippines. Now, I won't spend anything just to earn for this Magical tour. I know, it is worth the effort. India is really distinct! Thanks for this blog I just followed it!

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  10. Ed Mar,
    I feel so bad about how nurses in the Philippines earn so less for the amount of work they do - hopefully, you'll get a chance to find your own greener pasture wherever it may be! Thanks for visiting my site.

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  11. India and the Philippines have a new visa upon arrival now as of Jan 2011. My wife flew to New Delhi with AirAsia for P18,500 Return. State Transport buses are cheaper than in the Philippines around P25 / hour of travel time. Will be following you travels often now.

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  12. I always wanted to go to India. Awesome post, sir!

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  13. im so ready for varanasi! sana wag akong magkasakit dahil sa food at water nila (but i doubt!) haha magbabaon nalang din ako ng madaming gamotsss! =)

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    Replies
    1. If you're taking the train to Varanasi, magdala ka ng sarili mong pagkain, hwag yung binibenta sa loob. Ciprofloxacin, Loperamide at Paracetamol hwag kalimutan.

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