TRAVEL | ADVENTURE | INDIA

Wash Away My Sins

at the Waters of the River

Varanasi India

The fusion of colour is fascinating, the smoke intoxicating; I find myself following close behind the long grey-bearded man as we weave through thousands of able-limbed people moving in a fluid motion towards the same destination we seek. 

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Throngs of people, old, young, large, small, dark, fair-skinned, frail, strong, dressed in gaily coloured sarees, sarongs, shirts and kurtas, press bodies side by side in a never-ending flow to the river. This river is like no other river found in other parts of the world. The waters here are Holy. Sacred and worshipped in prayer to their gods, the people who throng in the tens of thousands to the River Ganges at Varanasi come in the hope of attaining forgiveness for all sins. Not just one sin but all sins – past and present. I am told by my friend and guide of today that the River Ganges is holiness in an ever-flowing sea. Attaining moksha is a liberation from Samsara - the eternal circle of life and rebirth, better known as reincarnation.

 

This river draws millions of pilgrims from all over India to visit the city and give an opportunity to their deceased a chance to attain the forgiveness of eternal sins. 

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Men, women and children adorn the steps and the surrounding areas. The waters are filled with people; bathing, chanting, worshipping, and praying for a better life. I have decided not to bathe in the water; my sins to keep, yet I touch the river once

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Shades to Rebirth, the thousands of pilgrims at the Ganges

Originating from a Hindu belief, Moksha is a tradition that considers life and death to be no different, where the ashes of the dead must be returned to what is believed as the origins of life in the Ganges. Varanasi, a place of extraordinary authenticity and purity, is considered one of seven sacred cities holding a bridge to reach the other side. Beliefs are that the avataras (descendants) align to form a path that permits the faithful to get different dimensions.

Some come here, I am told, to heal from illness, others believe it a blessing to bath their heads and body in its waters, but for the most part, the people who make it to this river are here to bury their dead in a water ceremony of cremation on these sacred waters and help their loved ones to receive forgiveness for all their sins.

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The thick white smoke that creates a continuous screen on certain parts of the river

The River Ganges (Ganga) is a sacred body of water to all Hindus. It begins high in the glaciers of the Himalayas Mountains, and the melting waters from the Himalayas, rainfall, and water from tributaries that originate from the nearby countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, and China - in an autonomous region known as Tibet all feed the sacred river. The five headstreams are the Bhagirathi, the Alaknanda, the Mandakini, the Dhauliganga, and the Pindar. At Devprayag, where Alaknanda joins Bhagirathi, is the point at which this river is known as the Ganges. Measuring a length of 2,525 km, it winds its way through thousands of miles of countryside in Northern India and finally flows into the Bay of Bengal to form the Ganges River Delta, the largest river delta in the world.
 
A lifeline for millions, this river is the third largest in the world. All the rivers that lead to this point are venerated and considered holy amongst the Hindus, and it is a place where religious rituals coexist amidst fishing boats and river cruisers. Fertile soil along the river’s shores has afforded people the chance to thrive and develop along the waterways for centuries past. The river flows through well-populated regions of India, providing water and the means to survival to millions of people through irrigation, bathing and fishing. 

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Pyres 

 

Varanasi is the only city in India where pyres burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Boats with chunks of wood piled high arrive constantly at the ghats of Varanasi for the 200 or more cremations daily on these banks of India's holy Ganges.

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Thousands of logs are brought in daily for the 200 cremations that take place every day on the banks of India's holy Ganges

Normalcy seems a million miles away as I pause at the top of the narrow and slightly steep steps that lead down to the river. Beautiful colourful long little boats capture my attention. A man lying across his boat, asleep amidst the chanting, constant noise and the hustle and bustle of movement around him, amazes me, as does the thick white smoke screen that almost wholly obscures a large procession of people in boats that ride the river waters in a sequence of formation, to bid goodbye to their loved ones. The white sheath of smoke is so thick and dense that it looks like I have added a white film to my capture.

These waters have earned the reputation of bringing purification to the body and soul upon contact with the sacred river, which evokes deep emotion in me. As I view the world in my favourite way, through the lens of my trusted camera, I can see little children and families all dressed up to partake in the process of setting alight, the fires at dusk and hundreds of boats on the water. Adorned with beautiful flowers, their loved ones will soon be cleansed of these earthly pleasures and move on to rebirth. Tears of joy mingled with aches of pain are written on their faces, yet; something else evokes my attention to capture these faces in the crowd. Triumphant smiles cross their faces every now and then.

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The River Ganges is not just helping these people bid farewell, but it is cleansing souls for their life beyond. It is wiping slates clean. Erasing sin. And in so doing, the ones left behind mourn not a loss but rejoice in the triumphant success of having brought their dead to the river to be reborn. A river of greenish-blue, murky with the remnants of thousands of water burials – washes one’s soul, a pure unadulterated snow-white.

A dead body floats by the River Ganges

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My camera clicks many memories I will take back with me. Beautiful canoe-like boats in artistic colour combinations of fuchsia pinks, turquoise blues and bright yellows paint the horizon. Smoke arises at different intervals along the river, and women seated at the pyres chant.

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Souls Crossing Paths & Unsettling hopes

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Souls crossing paths

Unsettling hopes,

running free

Life; present living, walking on

In flight, searching rebirth

Not just them...but, one day

you and me,

 

Old feathers lost wings spreading free

Oceans lit by sunrise, sunsets…that,

marry dawns and dusks

In an ever-flowing eternity,

 

Lives lived and lost, still journeying on

And yet, we pause to contemplate

the mysteries of life yet, unborn,

 

A meeting on the Ganges

The rich man, poor man forlorn

Lie in beds of flowers

On boats of cherished lovelorn,

Goodbye is just a hello

When holiness and faith of fate lives on.

-  Lisa Wydeman  -

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   As Dusk Descends

As dusk descends, turning everything a beautiful pink-gold, and the old man leaves me to tend to preparations for the evening, I, too, descend the steps to touch the waters with my fingertips. Fire dancers and unusual structures with spectacular living fires begin to light up the inky black sky. 

It is at dusk that more fire rituals begin. A somewhat heart-wrenching sight for me, who belongs to a different race that does not rejoice in death - to see these people embrace life and death as ‘one’ is a truly uplifting and spiritually moving feeling. 

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As night creeps in just behind smoky dusk, I settle in a small stone alcove to witness the rituals. Soon the old man greets me again, ready to answer my questions about the Ganges. The waters, once pure, are now highly polluted by the burden of the disease. Even if contamination stares one in the face, washing of sins precedes all other concerns, and where there is 'blind faith, ' belief prevails.

Varanasi was beautiful at sunrise as I entered this strange and mysterious place on earth, but the River Ganges takes on an entirely different aspect at sunset. Illuminated by lights of fire, the Ganga Aarti is performed. Several priests perform this ritual daily at dusk, praying to the Ganges river by carrying deepam and moving it up and down in a rhythmic tune of bhajans. 

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The spectacular night rituals at Varanasi and the River Ganges

The ceremony of the fire offering to the Goddess Ganga is spectacular and as incredible a sight to witness as it is beautiful and meaningful. Varanasi, known as the spiritual capital of India, is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh that dates back to the 11th century B.C. The streets boast over 2,000 temples, with the ‘Golden Temple”, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, being its main attraction. 

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The rituals of death and the paths to rebirth.

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When the evening blues cover all our sins and the fires bright burn from within.

Night closes in, and people still wade into the now-dark waters to pray and be absolved of sin. Around the world, cities sleep and dream of a better tomorrow, but I am at a place where reality is faith. God is present, and a path to him opens through, at these waters down by the river where you and he meet, your own faith to renew.

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