I thought I’d be ending my life when I took a 45 minute rick shaw ride from somewhere in the middle of Varanasi, also known as the City of Light, to the Ganges River. What appeared to me to be certain death is an every day occurrence to the residents of this thriving and most holy of cities in India that traces its spiritual history 2,500 years.
The driver wove, jerked, swerved, sped up, slowed down while keeping us constantly on the move in the midsts of other rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, carts and other moving vehicles coming at us or alongside.
The near misses and I mean, misses of collisions with in an inch or so kept my adrenaline at a very high level. I think the most seasoned of travelers would be clinging to the side of our tipsy vehicle.
There seemed to be no rules except honk like crazy and keep your wits about you, watching every minute. Occasionally I saw our driver reach his hand out and make small wrist flick, when moving from side of the packed street to other. I was never really sure who he was communicating with, there were so many vehicles, people and animals around us.
Obstacles included cows, goats, dogs and various animals who seemed oblivious to the chaos. I see photo opportunities every which direction–challenging because of the lurching of the vehicle. Any photo in focus is a miracle.
Once we got to the Ganges River, more chaos and confusion greeted us but the scene was one to forever be remembered. Every night on the ghats of the Ganges, the faithful gather to participate in a religious ceremony (Aarti) and to cremate their dead. Huge bonfires are built where the loved one is committed to the next life and then the ashes are strewn in the Ganges.
We boarded a small row boat to watch this all from the water. I was fascinated with it all. The chanting, the pageantry of the ceremonies and the colors. Nothing like you can imagine.
We returned early the next morning for another rickshaw ride, this time through the city just waking up. Our mission was to observe the ritual of the faithful Hindu who come to the Ganges to bathe, believing that the river is a living goddess with ability to wash away their sins. They also wash clothes and offer flowers and incense to the river.
Again we boarded the boats, taking a ride up and down to see the ritual on the many ghats (steps) of the river. It felt a little weird to be watching and taking photos of people performing a religious rite.
We also saw priests under umbrellas, ready and waiting to perform ceremonies for one’s ancestors and even a yoga class on the edge of the river facing the rising sun.
On the way back to the hotel, I loved seeing the children boarding their “school buses” to be carted off to school. The children are beautiful, waved at us enthusiastically and seemed very happy.
Later in the day we saw another religious ritual at the Bhuddhist Stupa, a stop on what is called the Buddha circuit. The faithful come here to pay homage at this spot where Buddha gave his first sermon. Calm and peaceful.