A few weeks back, we reported on Jake Norton and David Morton’s attempt to climb Chaukhamba IV in the Indian Garhwal. But their trip to the source of the Ganges River on the Gangotri Glacier was only phase one in an expedition to follow India’s lifeline 2,600 kilometers to the world’s largest delta in the Bay of Bengal. Phase two was focused on the river, the culture, and the crisis of maintaining clean water in such a vibrant, moving mass of humanity and development. In his next vignette on the experience, David Morton traces their route through the ritual and visual feast of Ganga aarti. —LYA Editor
Words by David Morton, Images by David Morton and Jake Norton
We took a heavy beating in the Indian Garhwal. Multiple feet of snowfall in 12 hours is a beating. No question about that. In fact, I felt as bad as I can remember feeling on any expedition anywhere. The two days of postholing took its toll. We were ready for redemption. Or at least purification.
There’s a wonderful ritual that happens each night in India. People in villages, towns, and cities congregate at night and perform what is called an aarti. It’s a Hindu religious ritual of worship that purifies the body and soul of sin and natural impurities caused by normal life. Offerings of butter or ghee lamps are made to the dieties. I hoped it would purify my mind to let go of the mountains and embrace the remaining part of our journey along the Ganges’ sacred banks.
The Ganga aarti is a visual feast. I’m moved by the mass of humanity. It’s probably why I love Kathmandu, why I’m loving India, and why I’ve always loved New York. The aarti is an incredible display of passion, delight, and ritual. As we moved out of the mountains and down the Ganges, we first landed in Haridwar, one of the most sacred cities along its banks. As sunset approached, we could sense the movement toward the river. First, a few people making their way among the shops, then more, then eventually as aarti time came close, the whole flow of movement was toward the river. During these evenings, there are songs sung together that bring a sense of organization to what otherwise feels like a chaotic rush of energy and activity near the riverbank. Music played, flames flew, people prayed, dogs barked, kids cried, and multitudes immersed themselves repeatedly in the river. This didn’t happen just in Haridwar. That, to me, is the amazing aspect of the Ganges.
As we soon learned while traveling downstream, not only does this happen in a historically and religiously important city like Haridwar, but it happens all along the Ganges, from tiny villages to bustling colonial cities like Kolkata (Calcutta). The aarti and bathing in the Ganges just seem to be part of Indian DNA. Our next stops were equally as important as Haridwar: Allahabad and Varanasi.
Allahabad is the confluence where the Yamuna River meets the Ganges, as well as the mythic Saraswati River. The actual spot where the green and brown waters meet is called the Triveni Sangam. If you bathe here, it’s understood that your impurities and sins are washed away. Of course we were attracted to that. We were all in. After haggling for a boat, we spent a fascinating evening at the Sangam in a flotilla of boats, bathing together as the sun dropped into a blazing orange sky.
Next up was Varanasi, the oldest inhabited city in India. It’s also the place where, if you were to die there, you are guaranteed salvation or removed from the cycle of rebirth. As attractive as that sounded, we weren’t planning on expiring in Varanasi. Bathing to purify our sins was enough for us. Our days in Varanasi were intense. Evenings in 100+ degree heat near the burning ghats, or the crematoriums, were almost unbearable, but the mornings watching locals bathe as the sun rose behind them were exquisite. Babies’ heads were shorn for their first ritual bath in the mother’s arms, while elderly men waded from the banks into the river with canes. These were truly sights to behold.
I realized as we left Varanasi that the contrast to the mountains was confounding me. I came to India with dreams of the solitude of the majestic Garhwal Himalaya, yet what I found was that during this expedition, the crush of humanity in religiously important towns is what gave me peace.
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