Devansh locks his elbow and throws up his left hand. “I wash myself in the Ganges every morning. No soap or chemicals, just the holy water. I haven’t used soap in 12 years, but smell, no scent. The river takes care of me.” Before I could respond, a young calf came stampeding down the long flagstone steps of the Ghat. I scrambled to my feet, grabbing my camera and bag, jumping back to safety. I looked down to Devansh, cross-legged, a leather bound book of mantras in his lap, calm as ever. A clatter of hooves revealed the source of the commotion, an enormous bull thundering after the calf. Shouts and the shuffle of footsteps rolled along ghat’s steps as locals jumped to their feet. Devansh stayed put, slowly raising his right arm, palm outstretched. As he did so, the bull’s path shifted, hurtling down the steps to the sand below. As quickly as it had left, serenity returned. Devansh’s eyes remained transfixed on the now snorting bull below, kicking his hooves. “People are like the bull, meat, meat, meat. If we only satisfy our wants, we are no better than the animal. Fucking and eating.” The banging of drums distracted my attention as I turn to watch one of the hundreds of daily wedding processions. Drumming boys leading the couple to the bank of the river. “Society has forgotten. Indians look to America for success, while Westerners come here seeking more. What is the point if we don’t ask why? If we don’t understand the point, we are just like the bull.”
Ma Ganga, the Mother Ganges, is a physical and spiritual lifeline to the people of the Northern plains of India. From its source at the icy waterfall of Gaumukh, the river brings with it fertility and an immediate connection to the endless circle of life, death and reincarnation. The entirety of its course is dotted with shrines and temples flocked to daily by pilgrims. At sunrise and sunset, the temples and ghats are populated by small gatherings of worshippers, giving offerings or embracing the spiritual power of the flowing waters. Along its course and floodplain, the river has supported over a tenth of the world’s population with water, food and fertiliser for thousands of years. The river crosses the precarious line of religious boundaries, with certain sections being held sacred by Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus alike. This lifeline of India, which has stood for millennia, offers the uninformed observer a glimpse into the complex web of spiritual and social realities which create present day India.
In the foothills of the Himalayas, the Ganges cuts a deep line through the still impressive mountains. Lush green trees coat the hills, with the occasional rocky outcrop emerging from the growth. Two pink suspension bridges span a deep ravine, linking both sides of the town. Rishikesh oddly came to prominence with a visit from the Beatles, who travelled there in 1968 to study Transcendental Meditation in an ashram run by guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Since then, backpackers have been flocking to the small town. The attraction of the town is clear, stunning vistas from the hotels which overlook the Ganges, with the backdrop of incredible mountains. Rishikesh offers a near silence and serenity that seems hard to find elsewhere in the chaos that is daily life in India.
Down from the main road, in amongst the trees and rocks lining the river, are the mystic Sadhus. The most visual expression of eastern mysticism that the westerner associates with India. Dedicated to a life of poverty, the Sadhus are synonymous with India and can be found throughout the country. Their steady walk and unflinching gaze creates an aura of intrigue. Wrapped in a simple orange robe, with dreadlocks draped around their head, many are willing to sit and explain their journey towards liberation and the final stage of life. Images of strange rituals and self inflicted punishments designed to show their devotion to the Brahman fill the media interpretation of these Babas. For the most part, Sadhus usually skirt the line between vagrant and monk. Doling out spiritual advice or providing some type of service in return for a donation.
If the Beatles opened up Rishikesh to the Western world, they were also some of the first to learn the darker side of Indian mysticism. John Lennon went on to distance himself from the Maharishi after suspicions that he was not the celibate ascetic he claimed but rather, was motivated by material gains of money and power. Though the Beatles themselves had by this stage resumed psychedelic drug use and broke most of the rules of the ashram. Many Indians dismiss the ashrams and Sadhus of Rishikesh as nothing but tourist fluff, designed to exploit cash rich travellers seeking some sort of spiritual revelation. More sinister stories of sexual assault occasionally filter out from the small town, usually beginning in the same circumstances; a young backpacker sitting down with a smiling robed man, sharing some marijuana, basking in the sun on the rocks before being led off to a distance house. For thousands of years, the simple saffron robes and bushy beards have offered an easy hiding place for those seeking escape from society. Hence their ranks have always consisted of some avoiding a chequered past.
Just twenty minutes from Rishikesh is the holy city of Haridwar, a stark example of the real India. Absent are the hostels, white water rafting tours and vegan restaurants, rubbish laden streets and astounding poverty on ever corner. Life moves fast here. For this holy city, the Ganges and the ghats along it provide a sanctuary from the assault on daily life. Stepping into the old town, nearer the river, one comes across self-effacing ashrams. No large banners hang from the street corners proclaiming promising quick qualifications in Reiki or transcendental mediation. Rather, these religious houses offer free basic accommodation for those travelling and practising ascetic living, in exchange for cooking and cleaning duties. On the corners and along the walls of the alleys, homeless Sadhus line the street. Some suffer from mental illnesses, or appear to be victims of a crippling drug addiction. The difference between those who choose the life of paucity and constant religious mediation and those whose only option it remains, is frequently blurred. It is almost worthless to try to tell the difference. Throughout India however, these holy men are treated as such and there is a great respect given toward them from the larger population. The eschewing of all earthly goods in favour of a mediative goal of becoming closer to the real meaning of life, is a tradition which has been central to Hinduism. In an expression of this deference, pilgrims and locals alike donate money or food to the Ashrams which house the Sadhus.
For Hindus, Haridwar is one of the holiest cities along the Ganges. According to religious lore, Lord Shiva gave a jug of Amriti, the nectar of immortality to Garuda, Shiva’s trusted mount. Garuda was to bring it to Nirvana, however his journey took twelve demigod days (twelve human years), as he was attacked by demons. Each time he was attacked he was forced to put down the jug. And each time he did, a drop spilled into the river below sanctifying the place for eternity. Haridwar was one of these places of battle, and so the waters of the Ganges here are believed to have intense powers. Its religiosity hits fever pitch every 12 years with the Kumbh Mela festival, one of the biggest religious gatherings in the world. 2016 marked the halfway point and subsequently it was the Ard or half Kumbh Mela. Millions attended this year’s festival, bathing in the river’s purifying waters and praying on the ghats. The sheer numbers of people involved in this festival have resulted in mass stampedes and big casualties. This year, the authorities created more bathing days, to reduce the congestion, much to the disdain of the devout. Even with the increased frequency of bathing days and slightly reduced attendance, the sight of such sheer numbers of pilgrims is incredible. From before dawn, thousands of pilgrims of all ages flock to the Ghats to ritually bathe in the fast flowing waters of the Ganges. The entire town is alive and buzzing with an atmosphere more akin to a secular festival than one associated with religion. From huge speakers, poetic mantras are broadcast in a crackling booms from high posted speakers . Hawkers sell everything from diyas (a small oil lamp in a bed of flowers which float down the river) to a milky substance made straight from the waters of the Ganges. The notorious river pollution doesn’t appear to dissuade the revelling pilgrims, dousing themselves in the river and collecting the water in plastic containers, to be brought home to relatives unable to make the journey.
Religion, like everything else is highly commercialised in India. If a service or a product can make money, a thousand people are already doing it in India. Forget the American dream, India is the king of capitalism. This incredible propensity to buy and sell is a direct result of a nonexistent welfare system in which millions get left behind by state structures. The constant hawking and haggling creates vast amounts of employment opportunities and offers an ability for the poorest Indians to provide for their families. Events such as the Kumbh Mela bring in not only thousands of Hindu pilgrims, but thousands of Sikhs and Muslims, who set up food stalls, sell plastic containers and make chai. Even in one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, the real essence of melting pot of India is clear. Coming from a more reserved and retiring religious upbringing, the mixture of capitalism and religion is an unusual one. Instead of disdain and disapproval at the numbers and eagerness of those selling goods and services, there is a common acceptance that everyone has to make a living. This commercial aspect has been integral to the Kumbh Mela. British colonial records from the mid nineteenth century refer to the influx of people of all religious orientation and the need for increased security in order to keep order. All these aspects combine to create an atmosphere, both pious and joyous that draws observer in.
Varanasi, about 700km south of Haridwar, has long been seen as a venue of otherworldliness and mysticism. The British colonial aristocracy were drawn by the public displays of worship to Shiva, a god which they associated with the same attributes as the devil. Death is a public affair in Varanasi, and hard to escape. For Hindus, it was here that the god Shiva first stood with his wife, Parvati as the earth was formed. Shiva was content, sitting for decades, as gods do, on the banks of the life giving river. The physical manifestations of life and death, the river and God of destruction, Shiva was not the only deity to take earthly form and live in Varanasi, but his importance began the city’s unusual relationship with life and death. The writings of Kipling, while deeply coloured with an imperialist view, describe the workings of an old city centre, that has changed little in a hundred and fifty years. Due to the connection with Shiva, Varanasi is the holiest place where a Hindu can die. Those who die in Varanasi are not reincarnated but immediately go to Nirvana. In accordance with Hindu tradition, these bodies are cremated and the ashes spread over the Ganges. To be cremated in Varanasi is an honour, and bodies are brought from all over the country to be cremated here, a process that doesn’t come cheap. The primary place of cremation is the Manikarnika Ghat. Here huge piles of wood create outposts bordering the ghat, where a sense of unease and death is palpable. Bodies are paraded through the narrow city alleys, wrapped in brilliant gold cloth followed by a trail of mourners.
Smoke rises and drifts across the water as the mourners gather around. A far less gruesome affair than one might imagine, the mood is sombre and respectful. Men gather around, waiting the three hours it takes for the body to burn. Stray dogs skirt to and from the smoldering piles, a stark reminder of the cycle of life and death. This privilege does not come cheap, the cost of a funeral pyre is around four thousand euro, a enormous sum for most Indians. Thousands do find the funds however, and it’s estimated that 32,000 tonnes of human remains make their way into the river each year. Just metres from the burning ghats, Indian life exists at its most vibrant. Fishermen line the steps repairing old nets, readying them for the following morning. Self declared tour guides hawk postcards and bindi dyes to the wandering tourists. School kids and grown men alike play cricket atop of one another, trying to avoid a run to the water. Labourers of all ages make their way down with huge loads of laundry, thumping each garment against small rock platforms in the shallows of the water. While a group of men build the traditional wooden boats beneath billowing nets.
Devansh motioned for me to follow him up to the Asssi Ghat temple, the southernmost ghat in Varanasi. It’s in the unwalled temple that Devansh now sleeps. He’s been there for 12 years, ever since he left his life as an accountant in Mumbai. His focus on and frustration toward the preoccupation of society on physical happiness is more understandable as he speaks of brothels, drugs and a lavish but materialistic lifestyle of the past. Refusing to be labelled a Sadhu, Devansh only wears a simple white cloth, otherwise naked bar the large glasses framing his face. While his belief in the physical powers of the mantras he repeats thousands of time a day is difficult to comprehend, his physical health is clear and not certainly what you’d expect for someone living 12 years in the elements and eating only what he can get for free. I went to leave him to his mantras, but as I did he muttered a further warning of those clad in orange claiming to be Sadhus. All is not as it seems, there is an evil in the nearby. A message, his tone suggests, applies to more than just life in Varanasi.
As I walked along the ghats, a group had gathered in a large rectangle, with thousands of tiny oil candles laid out on the ground. A brilliant orange glow cast huge shadows on the walls of the temple behind while the sound of an outboard motor could be heard chugging up the river. The contrast from the day to the night, the spiritual to the commercial, was as perfect an explanation of the power of the Ganges. It had the ability to be many things; a giver of life in food and fertiliser and a portal to the life beyond death, connecting thousands to a spiritual life in a physical way, one which they could submerse themselves in every morning, fish in, cremate their dead, wash their clothes, and pray before it that night. Each city along the river offers a different experience, tranquility for the backpackers of Rishikesh, religious fervour for pilgrims at Hardiwar and the final destination for thousands of deceased at Varansi. Even on the briefest of voyages down its course, it immediately becomes apparent that both life and death are omnipresent, inescapable and celebrated along the Ganges.
Words: Daire Collins