Another early morning and we find ourselves approaching the holy Ganges River in Varanassi before dawn. There is a buzz in the air as people gather to await the Shivaratri Festival celebrating the anniversary of Siva's marriage to Parvati. Before we know it we are coming down the steps or ghats that run between some of the oldest temples in India, some built near 1700. The city of Varanassi is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world and the morning rituals of bathing and cremation have taken place here for thousands of years.
Sunrise is a special time on the Ganges, filled with magic and purpose. We purchase aluminum tins filled with flowers and a candle as remembrances that will be lit and released into the water as the sun rises. We disembark and are slowly taken among other boats of tourists, hawkers and locals. We have the privilege of listening to devotional ragas played by a group of college students on our boat. As we see the red orb of the sun low against the horizon, we light our candles and float them into the water. There are many traditions surrounding death here, one such is that a full immersion into the holy water will absolve you of all sin, another is that a drink of this holy, although polluted, water will release you from the cycle of death and rebirth. I did gather a small bottle to bring home with me and the water is not as dirty as you might think but I will retrain from imbibing.
We make our way to the crematory area where photos are not allowed. Huge piles of wood are gathered and holy fires burn that have been burning for many years. It is said anyone who dies in Varanassi is blessed and thousands of cremations occur on this ghat every year. We watch a family waiting by their departed loved one for the chief mourner to join them so that the cremation can begin. Death is so close to life here, such a different way to look at it compared to our sterile version of burial in the West. We walk up the ghats through narrow slippery alleyways, past niches in the walls housing pujas to various gods and goddesses. We intend to visit a temple but the line is too long for our large group due to tomorrow's festival so we head back to the hotel.
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