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The Ganges Before Dawn

On the banks of the sacred Ganges River before dawn, pilgrims quietly shuffle about. Small circles of women drip oil and flower petals over images of gods they have just made out of the clay. Shoulder to shoulder they alternately laugh and pray, chat and sit in silence. So free and yet so choreographed, they must repeat this ritual often. Do they live near here? Is this how they start every day?

Most of us are in smaller groups; couples, families, looser groups of men and individuals. I have come down to the banks with another American, Martha, who now lives in Nepal. The rest of our group is still sleeping. We felt drawn to bath in this sacred river at first light, before dawn.

As we approach the steps leading into the river, we slow. This moment cannot be rushed. It has its own pace-slower than normal, more deliberate. 

I brought my camera, so we take turns going in so that one of us can watch our things on the banks. I lament this intrusion of worry and technology on this sacred moment, but such are the ways of traveling.

I walk into the water. It is surprisingly warm. The pink glow of dawn beyond the far bank draws me further into the water, reflecting off the placid surface. I plunge below the surface, my lungi floating there, freeing me. I am shrouded by the river, surrounded by the water that flows from Shiva's hair. By instinct, three times I go under. Father, Son and Spirit I wonder? Or Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva?

I stand in the water, looking at the dawn, praising the new day and the chance to come to this place. I know this ritual, it is so familiar. The water bath that washes away not dirt but sin, cleansing the soul as it washes the body. Powerful it is. Primal? "Universal?," I wonder, and then wonder why I feel the need to even ask. It is a blessing, accepted by those of us here on the banks this morning, and that is enough.

The Banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi is the most Sacred Spot in the world for Hindus. It is said that the water flows from Shiva's head. Krishna purifyed it by defeating a sea serpent that tried to eat him as a boy. Bathing in the river here cleanses one's bad karma, and dying here ensures rebirth in a heavenly realm.

The third photograph is of me coming out of the water. You can probably guess which one I am.


India text