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“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.
The best time to experience the spiritual energy of Varanasi is at sunrise. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
As the sun rises, it is customary to make a wish while releasing a diya into the water. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Experiencing Varanasi’s sunrise by boat on the Ganges River has become popular among tourists. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Hindus hope that their ashes are released in the Ganges River at Varanasi, though many also travel here to perform their ritual ablutions each morning. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
The river is used not just for holy purposes, but for bathing and washing clothes as well. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Varanasi has more than 80 ghats (a series of steps that lead into the river), and most ghats are used for bathing. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Some ghats are used exclusively for cremations, which are carried out by an Untouchable Caste. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Cruising the four-mile river is a fantastic way to see the multiple activities that are carried out each morning. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Boat rides can take between one to two hours // © 2014 Mindy Poder
The busiest section of the long succession of ghats is around the main Dashashwamedh Ghat. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
After bathing in the ghats, many Hindus go to one of Varanasi’s many temples to pray. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Unlike men, women must be fully covered when entering the Ganges River. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Some ghats are just a series of steps, while others are surrounded by shops and temples. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
Ganpati (or Ganesha) is one of the most worshipped Hindu deities. // © 2014 Mindy Poder
A group of men sit near the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi // © 2014 Mindy Poder
One man performs puja in Varanasi // © 2014 Mindy Poder
You’re guaranteed great people watching when spending the morning along the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, no matter how you do it. // © 2014 Mindy Poder