A subdued red glow breaks over the distant horizon on the chilly January winter morning. It is the time when life slows down to a gentle crawl. Men huddle around makeshift bonfires sipping sweetened tea till late in the morning. Women serve hot snacks and make more tea for the men as they mind their chores and the children. This is also the season when pilgrims from far and wide offer prayers with devotion to the river Goddess Ganga (Ganges) in Varanasi city in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
Our boat winds its way down the Ganges River past the Ghats or bathing places. People stand knee deep in water, the men with a towel around their waist or just a loin cloth, the women weighed down by fully soaked sarees, holding each other’s hands, trying to cover their bodies as they attempt take a dip in the river. Many others gather water in metal vessels, meditate, pray or just simply stare into space as life carries on. Temple bells clang in the distance along with a faint background hum of chants
Young men and boys dive into the swirling waters of a river much gentler than in the summer months when the melted water hurtles down with force from the upper reaches of the foothills of the Himalayas. The swimmers get ready standing a dozen steps up the Ghat, keeping their bodies inert in readiness to hit the biting cold waters. They enter with a loud splash, disappear into the currents and after what seems an eternity, surface near our boat with their heads bobbing, eyes balls widened by adrenaline. Girls are busy helping their mothers, doing household chores, or peddling stuff. They are not to be seen half-clad in public or have fun in front of strangers.
Little girls walk around on the shore shivering in the cold, barefoot, clad in rags, urging pilgrims to buy small containers made from dried leaves and filled with flower petals, and a mud lamp. This offering to the river merely costs Rs.5 (7 US Cents). But almost all pilgrims bargain with the little ones to get a “better” price before making the offering to the river to get rid of their sins.
This is the way Goddess Ganga is to be worshipped declares our boatman. The water from the river is pure and can be given to a dying man in his last moments to ensure he journeys straight to the heavens, he says.
How about a woman I ask? He looks at me strangely. He then urges us to fill up the plastic bottles we have and take the water back home to our families. It is safe. Sprinkle some on yourself. Straight to the heavens you go in your death, released from the shackles of life, he stresses. The river Goddess Ganga is a crucial character in the Indian epic Mahabharata – she is the mother of Bheeshma, a strong and central character in the epic that has shaped the destiny and faith of countless Indians.
We cross Manikarnika Ghat where bodies are being cremated. Many Hindus believe that if they come here in their last years and die or if they are cremated here after their death, they will never be reborn. Manikarnika is where the dead are cremated, and the ashes dispersed in the river. The boatman urges us to have a holy dip in the water near the Manikarnika Ghat. It will make you immortal even if you do not come back in your dying days, he says. We make do with sprinkling some water hesitantly on our heads. A drop of water falls on my lips and I hurriedly wipe it away.
With me in the boat are two local women who work with children in difficult circumstances. They have recently unearthed a case of abuse by a man who molested his two daughters for years. Their mother remained a mute spectator until he started making advances towards the third, the youngest who had just turned four. She reported him to the two women. Together they confronted the man and stood up to face his community’s wrath alongside an unfriendly, hostile law enforcement and judicial system. The man’s family accused the mother of wrongly ‘framing’ charges against him and chased her out. The women received death threats and their houses were vandalized. The mother and the daughters are now in a safe house, away danger and from the hypocrisy of caste, class, and culture. The man still roams free!
This journey on the river is a necessary pause for all of us before we go back into our own lives. They have borne the brunt of the conflict and fury in the community. They were accused of trespassing and imprisoned. Now out on bail, the two women carry on pushing for reform in the way the cases are handled. I offer my salute to their courage and determination.
The gentle rocking of the boat, the slow unveiling of the morning sun, the release of the little flotilla of flowers and lamps, all this contributes to a calm and thoughtful suspension of time around us.
We move on to the end of the Ghats, pay the boatman the price agreed and tip our much obliging guide a sum which must have been fine since he staggers away with a happy grin on his face.
Walking gingerly through the slush, retreating from the river, we meet more children waiting to dive into the eddying current. I spot a single bright eyed, young girl, as half naked as the rest of the boys diving as deftly as the rest. She is like a mermaid rising out of the water, gleaming and shiny against the sun, giggling and encouraging the boys to beat her.
I keep looking back at her as I climb the steps of the ghats. I can see her poised and ready to take another dive like a bird ready for flight, defying traditions that threaten to shackle her.
The little girl leaps high towards the sky. The river patiently receives her. I look on.