“How much time more?” I asked.
“Just 5 minutes now!” The driver said loudly amid the noise.
I looked outside the car and was amazed at the crowd gathered on the street. It was 5 p.m. and the traffic was moving very slowly. The pedestrians were hurrying on both sides of the road and the police were directing vehicles towards the parking areas. There was tight security all over the place. I, along with my parents, came out of the car in the middle of the road and joined the crowd.
We were in the holy city of Varanasi. I wanted to visit the place ever since my grandma had talked about it in my childhood. She goes there every year to take bath in the Ganga, especially during eclipse time. It is considered to purify one’s soul of all past sins. And here I was!
After a lot of walking, I had my first ever view of the river. It was so large and magnificent. People were offering worship on the ghat and bathing in the river. Kids were laughing and swimming. Priests were standing everywhere, surrounded by devotees. The air was filled with the smell of burning incense sticks. There were many boats lined up for rides. We selected a boat after much bargaining with the boatman. I stepped inside and voila! The wooden part under my left foot slid and I nearly fell behind. But my father caught me in time.
The boatman apologised and said that it was a regular thing. And that I had put my foot on the wrong side of the boat! So he helped me walk on the ‘right’ part. After we were settled into our allotted places, the boat took us along the ghats. It is said there are nearly 100 ghats here but we could finish seeing only a few.
An excellent guide, the boatman, explained the history behind the formation of each ghat that we passed. Some of them are the Prayag ghat, the Munshi ghat, the Ahilyabai ghat and the Kedar ghat. etc. Each ghat had some story about it.
People were lighting oil lamps and placing them in the still waters. Hundreds of them, glittering, were floating in water. All the boatmen were careful not to upset the lamps. Added to this, there were cows and buffaloes taking bath. I wondered why human beings and animals had to take a risk by bathing in the polluted water. I put my hand in the waters and collected some water. It was crystal clear and cool.
While passing the Manikarnika ghat, known as the cremation ghat, four or five bodies were burning at the same time. I had raised my camera to take a picture when the boatman ordered me to put it away. He said photos should not be taken there and people would be fined if caught.
At 7 p.m., it was time for the evening aarti. The one I had been looking forward to. Many people, like us, had preferred to sit in the boat to get a clear view. Of course it was not free and we had to pay extra money. By this time, the crowd had left no space vacant. Silently, we all waited and watched the beautiful decoration that glittered like bright yellow jewels in the dark. Already priests had started performing aarti at some other ghats.
Suddenly seven priests appeared and stood in front of us on a higher platform made for them. They were young and of the same height. They started aarti and we were mesmerised. They performed it in a synchronised manner. Starting from incense sticks to bigger oil lamps, the aarti was shown in all the directions. Lastly, when prasad was distributed, people hurried towards the priests. Everyone wanted to be the first. They reached faster than the VIPs sitting behind the priests!
Soon it was time for us to get back to the car and I looked at the river for a last time. I could see many glowing lamps still floating. The river was at peace and so many people had faith in it. What would happen in future if the Ganga gets polluted further? Where will the devotees go? What will happen to the evening aarti? Who will take bath there? We, the Indians, who take pride in our diverse culture and religions, have unfortunately forgotten to preserve our very own Ganga.
(The writer’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org)