VARANASI, India — Waking in the early-morning darkness, I found my way from my hotel room with a view of the Ganga down to the ghats, or landings, along the river’s western banks.
In the dim, orange glow of sodium streetlights I found a boat operator who would take me aboard to witness the daybreak rituals along Hinduism’s holiest river. We negotiated a fare in rupees, and I prepared to climb aboard the weathered wooden vessel.
A nearby peddler swooped in to suggest an offering, which I purchased: A dollop of candle wax and a handful of marigolds in a pressed banana-leaf bowl. The biodegradable materials were a nice touch.
I had considered partaking of the purification ascribed to bathing in the Ganga, but the chill of the predawn air made me hesitate. Later might be warm enough.
The boat captain pushed off the stone steps of Meer Ghat and put oars to water to take us into the current.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who wished to have his ashes strewn across the Ganga’s waters, wrote in his will:
The Ganga is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.
Beneath our boat flowed the spiritual lifeblood of India — and more. And there was I.