Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ganges at Dawn

October 20th, 2009 - Varanasi Day 2

Our morning began at 5 a.m. so we could reach the Ganges for a sunrise boat ride. We went to the same place as the night before, but the shops that had been so busy at dusk - with people buying bottles to hold the holy river water, and stalls hung with sandalwood prayer beads, scarves and shirts with blessings written in Hindi script – were now only just opening up. The big business this morning was selling “Indian toothbrushes”: thin twigs of Neem wood that they use to clean their teeth. Neem tree oil is supposed to have many health properties for teeth and skin.

The kids were up early and were on the hunt for daft tourists who would buy decades old postcards. They were more persistent than horseflies. If a tourist speaks to one of these kids, the child will follow that tourist for miles, or until the tourist is rescued by her bus. A stern “No” is the only way to handle them.

Veena met us at the boat. The gray and hazy morning fog had not yet lifted, but in the soft light I could see that the opaque Ganges water is muddy brown. As we were rowed in the opposite direction of the previous night, Veena tells us that the locals come for morning and evening prayers (aarti) every day. Aarti are lead by priests, holymen, or religious students. The sunset Aarti is elaborate with seven holy men in orange robes lifting candles, tossing flower petals, chanting and clapping, and waving fans. Every motion has a meaning and purpose. Pilgrims, tourists and locals come at both dawn and dusk to watch.

I saw the sun rise over the far bank of the Ganges. There are no buildings on that side of the river since the ground is silt instead of rock. The mist burned off quickly, bathing the 18th century pilgrim houses in warm light. Men and women bathed side by side, and launderers slapped twisted clothes against the lowest steps.

Daylight robbed the Gangs of the mysticism it had at night, but gave a world of color in return. The air was rose-colored from the cremation fires and the buildings were peach and yellow. Women’s saris stood out like jewels. Vendors in boats filled with stuff to sell rowed out to the boats of tourists – we weren’t the only white people floating out there.

After our boat brought us back to the steps we walked through the Old City, a series of alleyways that were about as wide as three people standing shoulder to shoulder. The kids were on us in seconds and some of the women had unfortunately not yet learned to tune them out.

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