“It is not an easy city to comprehend for those of us who stand outside the Hindu tradition. As we survey the riverfront at dawn, we are challenged to comprehend the whole of India in one sweeping glance.” Diana Eck, Banaras, City of Light
Every morning I could hear the soft chanting from my hotel room at Assi Ghat (a ghat is literally a stairway down to the river; there are thirty in Varanasi). It was my alarm clock; the signal to put on my clothes and, in the dark of early morning, walk past the wandering bulls and waking streetside vendors to the Ganges River to join in the waking of Ganga, the Hindu river goddess. It became my daily ritual; my way of making sense of Varanasi, an ancient city that many say is the oldest in the world. Carbon dating of artifacts dates it back to at least the 9th century BC.
The ceremony to wake Ganga up begins before dawn. Seven designated Hindu priests line the river bank on a platform and perform a ritual of Sanskrit mantras using drums, cymbals and elaborate cobra shaped camphor lamps. As they call out to Ganga, the sun begins to rise over the river and another day begins in Varanasi.
Immediately after the ceremony there’s a free community yoga session. Locals quickly fill up the chairs and floor surrounding the stage with women seated seperately from men. On my first day I wondered if I could participate since I could see no obvious tourists but the friendly women in the women’s section, noticing my hesitation, smiled and patted a space indicating that I should join them. Each day I sat with them as they demonstrated the yoga breathing exercises for me and checked on my progress.
My final morning turned out to be Varanasi International Tourism Day. When I showed up for the waking of Ganga, I was escorted to the VIP chairs, given a necklace of marigolds and my photo was taken with my yoga companions and local officials by the media.
I found Varanasi the most difficult place to comprehend during my month of travelling around India. It was bigger than I’d anticipated; most of the city spreads back from the river. The poverty seemed more bleak and the sky had a constant brownish hue from pollution. The Varanasi City Guide I bought while there said, “Outwardly its just an old city, crowded, chaotic and rather dirty. The ancient buildings seem on the verge of collapse; the traffic is a maddening din of cars, buses and rickshaws; there is squalor and poverty on the streets and beggars crowd the door of every temple. Death is a constant palpable presence in this city. The vivid fires of the cremation ghats burn by the riverside, bodies are constantly carried through the streets, the hospices for the dying echo to the chants of mantras.”
In the Hindu tradition, bathing in and drinking from the Ganges River is a sacred practice. Having your ashes spread in the Ganges guarantees that your soul will go to heaven. The river is the focal point for Varanasi and so I tried to not let the city overwhelm me and tried to comprehend it in some small way from the river.
Every evening at sunset, Ganga is put to sleep in a much more elaborate ceremony than the waking ceremony. Called Aarti, this one takes place at Dasashwamedh Ghat. While the ceremony can be viewed on the ghat, many people hire a boatman to take them to view the expanse of the ceremony from the river. The crush of boats allows vendors to walk from boat to boat selling food and souvenirs.
There were three sets of seven priests spread along the ghat and as with the waking ceremony, putting Ganga to sleep involved drums, cymbals, Sanskrit chants and elaborate camphor lamps called aarti lamps that were raised high in choreographed movements by the priests and then arched back into the water.
The timing of both ceremonies depends on the season as they coincide with sunrise and sunset. I attended the waking ceremony and yoga session daily. Somehow the routine of that was both meditative and became familiar and l was able to contend with the chaos of Varanasi easier. It also helped me understand how the Hindu tradition thinks of the river as a living goddess where waking her, bathing and drinking her, dying by her, putting your ashes in her and putting her to sleep each night are all central to the religion.