Views of Varanasi, the Ganga and the Ghats

VARANASI, IndiaMy early-morning boat ride pushed off before daybreak and traveled downstream beside the many ghats that lined the western banks of the Ganga.

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Tourists watch the sunrise over the Ganga. At top, boats carry visitors along the ghats. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

A kaleidoscope of human activity, sounds and smells unfolded before us in our view of Varanasi, one of the most important cities in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

Ghats, or landings, rose from the western banks of the Ganga and served as access points to the river’s water that is believed to bring purification and redemption for the faithful.

As the day brightened, local residents descended the ghat steps and entered the water, to bathe, to wash clothes, to brush their teeth and to perform puja, or rituals.

As life takes place on the river, so too does death.

The most auspicious place to be posthumously cremated, according to Hinduism, is in Varanasi, followed by having one’s ashes scattered into the Ganga. (Babies, children and saints are not cremated, nor are young, unmarried girls.) The purifying waters are said to release the soul from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Cremation in Varanasi takes place at one of two main “burning ghats.” The one we saw was Manikarnika Ghat with smoke billowing from funeral pyres skyward in long, drifting columns along the riverbank. Stacks of varying grades of firewood dotted the ghat steps, with a nearby tripod to which a scale was affixed that helped calculate the weight and cost of the wood for cremation.

A faint, acrid odor wafted over the water toward our boat, but it was far less potent than I had feared. Yet at the same time, I had come to expect the unexpected, taking in the sights, sounds and smells as the came.

The entire boat ride wasn’t more than 90 minutes, yet it provided dazzling examples of life in Varanasi and the all-encompassing nature of Hinduism, which I had thought of as a religion when it’s really so much bigger than that.

 

Wikipedia offers a brief overview of Hinduism:

Hinduism includes a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but has no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet, nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist. Because of the wide range of traditions and ideas covered by the term Hinduism, arriving at a comprehensive definition is difficult. The religion “defies our desire to define and categorize it.” Hinduism has been variously defined as a religion, a religious tradition, a set of religious beliefs, and “a way of life.” From a Western lexical standpoint, Hinduism like other faiths is appropriately referred to as a religion. In India the term dharma is preferred, which is broader than the western term “religion”. Hindu traditionalists prefer to call it Sanatana Dharma (the eternal or ancient dharma).

The concepts bring to mind the idea I probably first heard in my high-school music theory class in junior year: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

Answers lead to more questions, and the cycle of curiosity grows.

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Local residents begin their day by bathing and washing clothes in the Ganga.
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Early-morning bathers make their way down Abharavi Ghat into the Ganga.
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Tourists and locals begin to converge on Chousatti Ghat in Varanasi, India.
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Smoke rises from Manikarnika Ghat, or the “burning ghat,” where cremations take place.
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Tourist boats pass Manmandir Ghat, one of the largest, along the Ganga.

 

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