Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taking a dip in Mother Ganga ;)

It is 5am and the city is still, but stirring slightly into life. The sun has not yet awoken from its slumber, and almost immediately I get lost in the giant labyrinth that is the old city. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with the holy men.

He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals. He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their tired mama. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy amidst long lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, do doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief. I think I'll stick to the shallow end. With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into oblivion. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of the sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims too. They have all brought soap, complete with little soap dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing. Step by slippery step, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, the colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

Bathing on the ghat is an out of body experience. You just feel so disconnected with the world you know, at least I did. The feeling was akin to being lost in an alien land, left behind as the spaceship takes off. Taking part in this ritual, something that has been going strong each day (60,000+ pilgrims) for thousands of years is something I had to experience. I couldn't leave India without doing it, regardless of any hazardous health aspects.

I may have got conjunctivitis the very next day, but who's to say they were connected at all? Even if they were, it was still worth it =P

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