By David Korn
February 10, 2011
At dusk, my bicycle rickshaw lunged into traffic and we careened through the streets of Varanasi, dodging street children and motorcycles spewing black exhaust. I was heading to the banks of the Ganges where, every evening, pilgrims and Hindu priests gather to perform Ganga Aarti, the prayer of fire and smoke and songs of thanks and devotion beside the sacred waters of the river.
At the riverbank I descended concrete steps down to the ghat, passing an emaciated cow and a line of beggars who clutched their alms bowls over their drooped heads with withered limbs. Thousands of people were already gathered in the darkness beside the river, lighting candles and placing them along the steps down to the sacred waters. From a silver pot resting on the ground, thickening incense smoke poured silently into the black sky. Half a dozen Hindu priests in brilliant white and orange kurtas climbed onto stone platforms and in unison circulated huge pots around their bodies; thick smoke billowed in every direction, twisting and curling in the dark winds. The priests knelt and exchanged the smoldering pots for huge metallic candelabras that each kindled fifty tiny flames. They thrust the torches into the air over their heads and began to sing and chant as their arms flew and the fire danced around their bodies. Thick plumes of incense smoke still hung in the air as I descended in silence to the water’s edge. I lit a candle and placed it into the Ganges to join a thousand other flickering prayers floating down the dark river. The stream of light drifted away slowly, just beginning a six hundred mile journey to the sea.
I returned to the misty river before dawn. In a wooden skiff, I slid silently into the dark water just as the first hazy light was breathed into the eastern sky. Hindus prayed in whispers and slipped into the ablutionary waters: the chance of a lifetime for a pilgrim who had traveled a thousand miles to wash away his guilt and sins by bathing in the river. A dozen candles burned, drifting with the current, perhaps remnants of last night’s prayer further upstream. Women soaked clothing in the muddy water and whipped them in unison against concrete slabs. That morning I didn’t see any of the things I’d been warned to expect: bloated cow carcasses floating in the shallows, deceased babies, partially-cremated corpses, all on a journey downriver with the candles to the sea.
A strange smell reached my nose as I continued upriver. On the west bank, smoke rose into the air in a thick column, and the scent of fire blended with something else. A pile of wood burned down; attendants were throwing branches onto another stack beside the pyre. I saw the body shrouded in a loosely draped orange sheet. To die within the city of Varanasi and to be cremated on the banks of the Mother Ganges and then dumped into the waters: to be assured release from the cycle of rebirths.
Across the wide river, the sky flushed pink above the east bank. Scraggly trees cast jet-black shadows into the water. In the chilly morning air, already heavy with incense, silhouettes emerged from their thatched homes and moved slowly along the hazy riverbank. The first rays of sunlight began to streak upwards, piercing through residual darkness, and as the burning red orb slipped into view, it set fire to the tree tops. The entire river was tinged pink, and on the far bank the silhouettes began to enter the sacred water as the sun rose behind them. When it cleared the tree branches, it hung huge in the sky like a massive burning beacon above the sacred Ganges River, its shimmering orange reflection slicing through the waters to our boat. A smaller skiff slid between me and the sun, and halos of light blurred the silhouettes of the boatmen against the orange river. The birth of a new day in India, a new chance for salvation.
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