We walk out of our quiet garden hotel into India’s wondrously phantasmagorical street life, on our way down to India’s Holy Mother, the river Ganga.
Hem, our Micato Travel Director, has made this festive devotional walk countless times. He tips his hat to wandering saddhus, checks in at a gaily lit streetside store that somehow transforms soft drink bottles and snack boxes into gleaming jewels. He waves to a group of old fellows at a tea stand, briefly interrupting their discussion of a modernly relevant verse of the Mahabharata.
As we approach the river, more and more fellow pilgrims throng the street. This is the Ganga Aarti, a daily occurrence at dusk, a chance for businessmen in suits and villagers in traditional dress, college students and bright-eyed grandmothers to do puja in the waters of the holiest river on the planet.
We hear the clash of cymbals and chanted verses from a brightly lit stage on the river bank. We’ve read that the sacred river is anything but pristine, but we understand that to these pilgrims human pollution does nothing to sully the river’s divine purity.
Hem hires a small, gaily decorated boat, and we’re rowed out from the crowded bank for a better look at what Mark Twain called “the supreme showplace of [Varanasi].…a splendid jumble of massive and picturesque masonry, a bewildering and beautiful confusion of stone platforms, temples, stair flights, rich and stately palaces…soaring stairways, sculptured temples, majestic palaces, softening away into the distances.”
Hem shows us a devotional app on his iPhone, chants a couple of verses, and hands us a diya, a candle inside a cup made from leaves and flowers. And like many millions before us have for thousands of years, we place the diya in the river, and it floats away to eternity.