For a better sense of Varanasi’s spiritual side, visit the Ganges River before the day begins. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
“India transformed me” is one of the great travel cliches, but how else can I explain the fact that I willingly got out of bed at 4:23 a.m. to make a 4:45 a.m. cab? I had only one morning in Varanasi and therefore only one chance to cruise the holy Ganges River at sunrise.
It was still dark when we arrived at the Assi Ghat, the southernmost of Varanasi’s 80-plus ghats (steps that lead to the banks of the river). Sleepily, we left our car and headed for our captain and vessel. He was a barefoot boy of about 15 years old with a small wooden paddleboat. After boarding, we slowly and quietly sailed to Manikarnika Ghat, the crematorium where an Untouchable caste burns the bodies of the dead.
To devout Hindus, bathing in the Ganges remits their sins, but dying in Varanasi’s waters grants them moksha, or an end to the cycle of rebirth. I was warned that families who can’t afford cremation throw their loved ones into the water, and that babies are never burned. I thought if I happened to see this during this most spiritual time of day, amidst pilgrims performing their ritual ablutions, it might change me somehow.
But as we combed the water, I mainly felt calm. The sun began to rise, and we released diyaas (flower bowls with lit candles) overboard along with our good wishes, the flame of the candle shining as one with the pink-orange sun. Daytime announced itself as we approached the busier ghats, where we saw more men and women in the water: bathing, praying, meditating and washing clothes. Near a temple, I spotted an ascetic covered in ash with long, curly hair. He pointed at his hair and then at my own long curls and waved. I was awake.