Thursday, July 5, 2012

Varanasi and the tiny flames on Mother Ganges

A boat on the Ganges. Note in the distant center a herd of water buffalo kicking up dust. 

The holy river, from the Infinite crescent of ghats (stairs leading to the river) that are the Varanasi bank.  Floating on her are the traditional ferry boats, market boats, fishing vessels in a complex heat. The boats, paint chipping as sweating boatmen push bamboo oars through the opaqueness. This water is polluted. But only on the surface of it’s being. This is the Ganges, as these are the vessels, carrying happy and suffering lives as if to celebrate continuously, like a many-thousand year hum.

I know nothing about the art of these boats. They are not canoes. In 2009, when my eyes met the Ganges waters, I knew even closer to nothing about boats.  Who really cares what they are? They are the boats of this river, a place of incredibly long continuum of societal change. The boats are a metaphor for the spiritual journey to be had, the expectations to be broken, and challenges to be met. That is a lesson that I decided to reminisce on in this journal. Defining something, ‘the art and ecology of a canoe’ is less about what insights I might have on them, and more about how it exists in its rightful place. That is a principal guide in this journey, to allow things to be as they are rather than how they may be defined in comparison to others. The boat simply floats as it does. Get on it.

A boatman on the early morning Ganges. Varanasi ghats in the entire background.
Civilizations on the Ganges have come and gone. So have the boats. This water is old and wise. The city itself feels as if every building has a wall from every different eon of time, 500 years apart, with construction still happening where it is loudest. Being in a boat on the Ganges feels the same, as if the collective pieces from all eras make up one time-less existence, recycled to different purposes as souls are thought to be in the Hindu tradition.

Embodied in the Hindu tradition as a Goddess, the river is energetic and ever moving. Her healing properties, able to purify all that is unclean, come from her ability to create immense movement. In the Ganges, change is the way to purity, even as the river is said to be one of the top five most polluted in the world. Four hundred million people survive on Ganges. Every day people step into her water to bath themselves. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said “you can never step in the same river twice”. In the Ganges, you are always stepping in the same river, but you yourself are changed.

Every night in Varanasi fire dancers conduct a ritual of gratitude once the sun is down. They perform slow movements endlessly as the flames reflect on the still water. During one of these rituals a small boy about the age of eight came and sat with me. In front of me an ascetic covered in clays and paint was moving closer and closer to us with his hands help out. His massive dread locks and intense glare were locked on me, and I become consumed by him. It was an attempt at a trance. Closer he got and the more I tried to match his intensity. Once he was a few inches from my face he realized I wasn’t going to give him money, for whatever reason. He looked at me in disgust and moved away. The boy, not saying much the whole night leaned over and said “that’s alright, he was just going to buy drugs anyways”. I was shocked by his honesty. It seemed to float my understanding of the situation. The boy then gave Lauren, my girlfriend, a free drawing of an eight pointed flower in gold and red before parting.

The boy’s name just happened to be Siddhartha. His pragmatism and insight humbled me. In Buddhism there is a saying that attaining Nirvana is like crossing a river, the practice is simply your boat to crossing that river. Some even have compared the Buddha to a Ferryman. We didn’t see him again after that evening.

Before leaving Varanasi, I rowed a boat on the water early one morning. As a common ritual, candles are floated down the river in little baskets in incense. The candle, just floating on the surface during certain pilgrimages can light up the entire river. In some ways it reminds me of the lotus flowers I had seen in Sarnath just up-river, where the Buddha first taught. The lotus, living in the water, comes to float a flower on the surface, as, goes the Buddhist allusion, a mind rises to find understanding. And just as the bodies of the dead are burned on the ghats, like constant candles they are dedicated to the holy river. And those candles are carried by a boat. 

A candle floating out into the Ganga


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  3. Wow! It is so nice to see and walk around the river front of Ganga while attending the Ganga Arti. On the ghats of river it offers prosperous and awesome feeling. Also you can visit many historical spots and temples like as Durga Temple, Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankat Mochan Temple, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, Ramnagar Fort, and many more. And you can easily hire local and out station taxi and make a ride for the entire city And you can experience the historical city. And you can easily hire local and out station taxi and ride for the entire city.