7 mins

A night on the Ganges

Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers a gentler side of Varanasi – after the sun sets

Varanassi at night (Marie Javins)

My rucksack had been soaked by rain on top of a bus yesterday on the way to India from Nepal. I took everything out now, piece-by-piece, and hand-washed it in the Varanasi Radisson hotel, then hung the clothing all over my room to dry. Anything paper I spread out on the hotel room desk.

I napped and ate, and wandered down the road to stumble onto a cooking contest in a shopping mall. The contestants all wore tall, whitepaper chef’s hats along with their saris, and waited nervously for the judges to taste their dishes. And I stopped by the post office to send off my souvenirs that I’d been carrying around, but the building was closed for a public holiday. I’d have to carry my souvenirs to Darjeeling.

Later in the afternoon, I headed over to a budget hotel down the street from the Radisson, looking for someone to share the cost of a guide to show me around Varanasi’s famous ghats. Otherwise, I’d just hail a rickshaw or a taxi, but I was hoping for a guide who could explain the activities on the ghats, which are a series of steps that lead into the Ganges. Pilgrims use them for bathing in the holy river, and some of the ghats are used for cremations, as the holy site is also used for disposal of human remains.

I found another tourist to share the cost with, and a driver took us to the outskirts of the old part of town. He parked the car in a shopping mall parking structure.

Shopping mall in the old town? Varanasi had changed. So had all of India, of course, as it had been 13 years since I’d last been through here.

India,or at least the north, was and still is a sensory challenge in spite of the new found wealth of many across the country. The colorful chaos, the cows wandering through traffic, the centuries of civilisation, and the vast numbers of people – it's still confusing and overwhelming. An Indian friend of mine back in Kuwait had smirked about this part of my trip and said, "You won't need to go looking for adventure in India. It will find you."

Tonight's adventure was to go to Ganga Aarti. That's a ceremony that happens nightly at Dashashwamedha Ghat, but unfortunately, the river was running so high at the moment that the event could not take place on the ghat, facing the river. The chants and movements instead took place on the roof of a nearby shop.

The floods and high water levels had hurt the entire area, as relatively few pilgrims had made the trek to Varanasi. Normally, the ghats would be teeming with pilgrims – and there was still a crowd now, but not the masses usually seen in Varanasi.

The guide led me and the other traveller out of the shopping mall and into the streets. Wow. There sure were a lot of people in the streets. He led us along the median strip, sometimes a flat area, other times essentially a balance beam. Motorbikes, cars, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, and cows competed for every inch of space on the street below.

I ignored the mayhem nearby, trying to just focus on not falling off the median.

Blah blah blah. The other tourist was talking non-stop. Fortunately, I couldn't hear him over the horns and traffic.

The guide led us across the madness of a traffic circle and turned down a lane, finally arriving at some steps at the edge of the river.

The ghat was packed, because in spite of the smaller numbers of pilgrims, there was a correspondingly small amount of ghat steps to stand on. So many stairs were underwater. We all competed for space and tried to see up to the roof where the ceremony was taking place.

People kept trying to sell me postcards. One young woman tried, and I told her that people were sending fewer postcards and she should think of something else to sell.

"But this is what I have," she explained. "I need to raise money for my son's school fees."

I felt bad then. How exactly did I expect this impoverished woman to be an entrepreneur when she had so few resources? I gave her money for her son's school fees in exchange for not selling me postcards. She understood – I doubt she needed me to tell her that postcards are losing popularity.

Blah blah blah. The other tourist was still chattering away.

When the ceremony started and he still wouldn't shut up, I became embarrassed. Pilgrims around us were clasping their hands, enraptured by the ceremony that I couldn't see so well, but they knew exactly what was going on above the ghat on the roof.

Our neighbours were glaring at the other tourist now. This wasn't a good time to be chatting about where he was from.

"Why don't we leave?" I suggested. "We can't see anything."I’d be back again at the crack of dawn to watch pilgrims bathe in the Ganges, when the streets would be empty, but again, the water was so high that we’d only be allowed to see half the usual route, and we’d speed along to Assi Ghat at the pace of the fast-racing river.

"Sure! I'm so ready to go."

Our guide led us up the steps and out of the crowd. He led us to the next ghat over, to a new set of stairs with fewer people and a better view.

I walked away from the tourist now. Enough.

Upon the roof, dancers slowly went through their evening ritual, lit by fire and spotlights.

While down on the Ganges, a single pilgrim lit a lamp, then set it down into the river, to watch it float away.

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