Today we woke up very early and met our guide and driver to go back to the Ganges. Many people including Varanasi residents, pilgrims and tourists are up early moving towards the river. The pilgrims are chanting and someone is beating a small drum and ringing a bell as they walk in their white clothing and shoes. The sun is not up yet. We arrived in time to walk along the bank before getting in our boat. Some people have actually slept here. The city is coming to life. I buy a small bowl made of leaves with brightly colored flowers surrounding a small lump of white wax with a wick and a box of matches, an offering to Mother Ganges. I am supposed to light the candle and make wish as I watch it float down the river.
The man rowing our boat reminds me of Gandhi. He has the same glasses and kind eyes. The difference is that he has hair. We move along the bank upstream. We can see people on the banks meditating others are already in the river bathing. Bathing in the Ganges is said to wash away sins and give you a fresh start. A Hindu strives to make a pilgrimage to the river to bathe sometime during their life. Our guide tells us that the river is terribly polluted. He has bathed in it, but returned home quickly and bathed again to get the pollution off.
When we reach the electrical cremation ghat we turn to go back down river. This crematorium is rarely used because Hinduism directs cremation to be done with wood. On the bank we see a man with shaved head, dressed in white circling a fire. He is the chief mourner and will stay until the cremation is finished. Women are not allowed at cremations because they are too emotional and the deceased’s spirit will be reluctant to leave if one of their loved ones is crying. Hindus believe that the way to nirvana is to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges and to have your ashes spread in the river.
As we head down river the sun starts to rise and the city is alive with more people coming to bathe. A few priests perform ceremonies of gratitude to Mother Ganges. We reach the main cremation ghat. There are neat stacks of wood and to one side a huge mound of debris that includes flowers, gold cloths used to wrap the bodies in and bamboo stretchers that carry the dead through the streets to the crematorium. We see two cows on the bank munching on the flowers. There are no cremations going on here, but two bodies wrapped in red are on the stairs waiting. We get out of the boat here and walk through the narrow streets of the old city. On the way back to the hotel we drive around the university. It is the largest residential university in Asia and our tour guide attended there. It is the only place where we were actually allowed inside a Hindu temple.
After a quick stop at the hotel for breakfast we head to Sarnath. The place where Buddha attained enlightenment. We visit a Buddhist temple that has paintings on the walls depicting Buddha’s life followed by a visit to the ruins nearby and the museum.
We often see monks who are visiting important sites. Some are leading groups of pilgrims.