I finally made the trip to Ganga Matha. Yes I just got back from Varanasi after years of putting off the trip. I hadn’t wanted to go before this as somehow it felt a bit hyped. Is the place truly as amazing as people say it is? I couldn’t understand why people were hooked to it.
Somewhere last year I decided it was time for me to head there and I picked Shivaratri as the date to go. For years I had been intrigued by photos of the city, more than a spiritual trip, I was looking forward to photograph the city.
We landed at the height of the festival, just two days before SHivaratri and the city was already cordoned off to cars by the police and army. We ended up having to carry our bags on foot to the hotel through the throngs of people around us. Good thing, I had opted for a city based hotel instead of one on the ghats.
We headed to the balcony restaurant to get an aerial view of the city. Everywhere we turned there were people walking around as instant line barriers were being put up. The cops in khaki and army in blue were in hundreds around the city centre leading up to the Dasaswamedh Ghat – the main ghat of Varanasi.
I had decided long back that, I would fulfill my religious obligations before I began exploring the city. All I wanted to do was sit at the banks of Ganga and watch life pass by.
So we dressed up and headed into the people filled streets and was confronted by a street wise tanker with a soldier at the machine gun control. Yes, Varanasi kicks it into you that Life is short, death could be in the next second. Security for the festival had been tripled. gun wielding cops and soldiers were everywhere with constant blasting of announcements in Hindi. Of course to the non Hindi speaking person, it was pure gibberish.
Still we persisted and somehow got onto a rickshaw and nearly fell a few times on our ride to the ghats. We were pointed towards an earthen narrow road that would get us to our destination.
My first view of the Ghats was not spectacular. I remember going, is that it? Ganga was vast and flowing majestically but it wasn’t something out of the Varanasi I had imagined. It didn’t help that there were a few boatmen bugging us to get a boat in a mixture of Hindi and English. I decided I needed to walk and find a spot for our dip in the holy river. We walked past Prayag and Dasaswamedh Ghat and arrived at Ahilya Ghat.
We were still being hounded by boat men when we heard a voice in Tamil greeting us. Lali was a Varanasian who had grown up at the Chetiar mutt in Kashi and in time had picked up Tamil. Now he was a boat owner and asked us if we wanted a boat. After the chaos of all that Hindi, his Tamil felt welcoming and I agreed to the boat ride at sunset.
But we had other things to worry about first. Where do we change?
There was no way we were going to change right there in the open, no matter how easily the locals were doing it. The cordon of vehicles made it impossible for us to head back and change. Lali finally pointed us to a slightly abandoned corner. So all that we had to do was jump into the river.
It was about 3 in the afternoon as my mom headed into the water first. I was staring at the water. It was a beautiful clear green colour. We had arrived at one of the best times to see the ghats. ¾ of the stairs were visible and the waters were calm and clear and not muddy and filled to the brim as it is during the monsoon months.
Ganga matha looked welcoming, freezing but welcoming. It was the middle of the afternoon but she was amazingly cold.
I sat at the edge of the last step just above her gentle waves which were touching my toes. I could feel her coldness but there was something exhilarating about it. I was reciting my prayers to Shiva and ganga as I sat at the edge of her waters. Knowing that her inner steps were slippery, I went down step by step into her.
The moment the waters reached my chest, I gasped in shock. It was as if she was embracing me. I dipped my head in salutations into her waters and the feeling grew tenfolds, as a cold stream lifted me off my feet. It really felt as if she was hugging me and pulling me closer to her. I have walked into so many rivers and seas, never had I felt this way. My mind was screaming it is true it is true as I chanted
Jai Ganga Matha, Jai Ganga Matha, Jai Ganga Matha….
The water was so cold but there was such warmth in the embrace. The only word that can explain the feeling was – exhilaration.
I stepped out of her waters after my third dip and just sat at the stairs amazed with the experience. Varanasi looked different to me. The chaos of the streets were gone, the sounds of the haggling boat rowers were gone. All I could feel was an exhilaration and serenity like no other.
It was all true, the Ganga experience is out of this world.
Jai Ganga Matha…
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