Tag: Ganga

The Mighty Ganga

The city of Varanasi is the spiritual headquarters of the Hindu religion. The mighty Ganga (Ganges) River flows through the city, and it is because of this holy river that Varanasi is so important.

The Heart of Varanasi - the Ganga River

Boat's eye view from the Ganga

People make pilgrimages from all over India (and the world) to visit Varanasi and to be in the presence of the mighty Ganga. It is believed that a lifetime of sins can be washed clean with a simple dip in the water, which easily explains its popularity (and people’s willingness to get in a disgusting river)! Life revolves around this river, and day or night you can find people bathing, doing laundry, leading their cows to drinks, cooling off, playing, praying, fishing, and the list goes on. Sadly, the river is grossly polluted and extremely unsafe for swimming (by our standards), however, that did not stop thousands of devoted Hindus from rejoicing in it every day.

Laundry on the Ganga

Cows in the Ganga

Trash along the Ganga

Bathing in the Ganga

Because of its spiritual importance and the fact that its waters eventually reach the sea, many Hindus opt to honor their dead via cremation on the banks of the Ganga. It is believed that if you die in Varanasi, your soul will be released from the endless cycle of reincarnation that largely defines the Hindu religion. Every day at dawn and dusk, you can see the smoke of different cremation ceremonies taking place. The cremations take place at specific ghats, or docks, dedicated to such ceremonies. Some ghats are reserved for laundry-doing, some are for bathing and still others are for cremation. The cremation ghats are easy to distinguish as the shores are packed with thousands upon thousands of logs of firewood. Photos of creamation ceremonies are forbidden.

Burning Ghat

Fuel for the cremations

Ghats on the Ganga

Though a very eerie idea for us to wrap our heads around, it is a perfectly natural and wonderful thing for many Indians. The intensity and extremes of Varanasi are a perfect representation of the eccentricity of India. It was a wonderful and eye-opening last stop for us in a country that throughout our visit, we loved and hated every day.

Scenes of Varanasi

Scenes of Varanasi

The streets of Varanasi

Ganga Aarti Ceremony

Animated Hindu God Painting

I see the appeal of Hinduism. Where at home religion is a part of your life, in India it is so intertwined with life that it’s hard to differentiate one from the other. There is so much color, light, music, and opportunity for celebration in the faith. Religion is part of your cuisine, your style, your friends, even your social standing in the community. For young children, there are animal gods, many dressed in different costumes and there are numerous, fun stories about their powers and various manifestations.  If I was a kid and I had to chose between dressing up, being quiet, behaving and going to church or getting to run around with all my friends while fire twirlers were performing and cymbals were gonging, it wouldn’t be hard decision.

One Hindu celebration that we witnessed in both Rishikesh and Varanasi was called the Ganga Aarti Ceremony. Ganga Aarti is performed everyday along the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) river. There were so many people and so much energy surrounding the event that it literally felt like a once a year type celebration – a 4th of July if you will. But no, this was just another regular Tuesday, or Wednesday or any day – it didn’t matter. The ceremony features priests facing the river and performing various symbolic offerings with candles, and rice, and feathers, etc. Meanwhile another man is leading the group in song or just chanting. Hundreds of people are along the riverside releasing candles into the Ganga. Thousands of others are sitting nearby watching the ceremony while still many more are just standing around talking, from what I could tell.

Nightly Ganga Aarti Ceremony in Rishikesh

Sarah participating in the ceremony

Flower boats for release into the Ganga during the ceremony

Varanasi Ganga Aarti Ceremony Madness

Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

Where in church, silence is expected, believers are attentive, and things go in a particular order, that could not be farther from the truth here. People move and listen and come and go and participate however they wish. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s loud, and it’s just part of everyday life; but because it is impossible to separate religion from life, nobody tries to.

The Vibe of Rishikesh

Rishikesh vista

Rishikesh is special and fascinating for a number of reasons. First, its location at the foothills of the Himalaya and the headwaters of the Ganges (or Ganga, as they call it here) sets a beautiful backdrop. Flatness to the south, mountains (similar in size and feel to the Flatirons coming out of Boulder) cut majestically up from the wide and pale green Ganga (also a very holy body of water to the Hindus). The river here is relatively clean, and swimming in it is a common (and cold) activity. 2nd, its location away from normal Indian craziness (but it’s all relative). Rishikesh is actually the main city across the water and to the south a bit, and it’s regular old Indian mayham. The 3 main areas where travelers and pilgrams hang out are separate communities north of the main town and across the river – Ram Jhula, Lachsman Jhula, and High Bank. In all 3 of these, there is very limited traffic – mainly only scooters and motos, and then a jeep service between Ram an Lachsman. This is a very important factor in the development of the spiritual center this place has become. Most importantly though, this place is special for it’s spirituality, and the people that it draws in the pursuit of it.  Yoga capital of the world, the region is dotted with Ashrams where pilgrams come for serious study. Ashrams range in their price and focus, but most require adherence to a schedule of study, a dress code, a conduct code, and that participants be serious in their dedication. We considered staying in one of the lite Ashrams for a couple days, but decided that we could get the yoga/meditation we wanted just by dropping in.

The entrance to Parmarth Ashram

There is a lot of focused brain power and spiritual energy in this place. A LOT. For all of the reasons above, Rishikesh is the perfect storm of elements to create probably one of the world’s most significant hubs of people energy. And you can feel it. Lots of Boulder people would dig the vibe here. Sarah gets a bit annoyed by all the travelers dressing the part (lots of people here wearing hippie clothes that wouldn’t be caught dead in them back home), but I think it’s just people getting away from their lives and getting into the vibe here.

Students of the ashram

The streets are lined with these unique beggars. Dressed largely in orange, this skinny old dudes with huge beards and long hair would very unobtrusively ask you for a donation as you walked by. As many people come to Rishikesh to cleanse and build up their karma, it’s a good place to be a(n apparently spiritual) beggar.

Rishikesh Beggar

There is NO alcohol in this city. None. Can’t have a beer with dinner, no wine, no hard stuff. There is one restaurant up in High Bank that has beer, supposively. Good for the budget though. Oh yeah, and no meat either. It’s so easy to eat vegitarian when meat is not an option. Haven’t missed it once since we’ve been here. Nobody offers it, nobody eats it, and the food is delicious.

Sunset on the Ganga

A Yogi’s Dream

Our next stop was Rishikesh, a hippie/yoga enclave in the northern state of Uttarakhand. Rishikesh made headlines in the late 1960s when the Beatles spent time in an ashram here writing their famous White Album. The Beatles ashram is now out of commission, but there are many others that are going strong. Thousands of Westerners and Indians visit Rishikesh every year to live the ashram lifestyle (à la Eat Pray Love), dedicate themselves to yogic study, and/or take in the beautiful scenery of the Ganga (Ganges) River flowing through town. It is a very spiritual place full of hippies and wannabe hippies, as well as true Indian gurus and wannabe gurus.


We spent a week in Rishikesh, relishing the relaxed vibe and relative peace and quiet that seems impossible to find in other parts of India. Though we considered staying at an ashram, we decided that we’d prefer the flexibility of making our own schedule so we opted for a guesthouse instead. That’s not to say we didn’t go with the flow and dive into what Rishikesh has to offer.

Parmarth - the most popular ashram in Rishikesh

Ted and I found ourselves doing yoga on several occasions – which were Ted’s first yoga classes ever and my first since college. We were entertained by our various teachers, each with their own style and expertise. One class had over 30 people in it as apparently our instructor was a renowned yogi – what did we know? Our second class was led by a rather feminine man with an adorable lisp and I could barely contain myself from giggling as he commanded us to relax our right nostril and our left nostril while focusing in savasana at the end of class. Another teacher was particularly into using breath when moving through the poses – he had us nearly hyper-ventilating. Needless to say, we learned that each yoga class is very different depending on who is running the show!

Prayer at the banks of the Ganga

We spent a few evenings doing guided meditation at an ashram which was a brand new experience for me. I have a long way to go towards ‘stilling my mind’, but I have to say that overall I enjoyed the experience very much and am intrigued to learn and do more.

And we both took dips in the holy Ganga River (as it is called). It was a quick dip as the river was freezing. Please note that this is not the dirty polluted Ganges that you are imagining. Up in Rishikesh, the water is a beautiful blue-green color, flowing from the Himalaya before it has yet to be contaminated with the filth, sewage, garbage and animal run-off that destroys it further south. The Ganga is of great religious importance to the country’s hundreds of millions of Hindus. We regularly saw entire families by the river edge swimming and splashing themselves with the water of this great river. Many families fill up jugs with the sacred water that they then take home with them for future use.

A cold dip in the Ganga

Plastic jugs for sale - take some holy water home with you

So, though we didn’t do much in Rishikesh, per se, we did our best to take advantage of what this spiritual center had to offer and found that we quite liked what that entailed.

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