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Sunrise on the Ganges - A Visit to Varanasi
About 6 AM every morning, just as the sun is beginning to rise, thousands of people can be found lining the banks of the Ganges River at Varanasi. They are there to bathe in its sacred waters, washing their clothes and themselves, filling brass jugs to take home, exercising, or simply sitting, gazing at the emerging sun. Many of them are elderly because Hindus come to Varanasi to die. The burning ghats (crematoriums) along the waterfront testify to this. The fires can be seen all day, and the ashes leave a path down to the river. There are younger people too, and holy men, along with innumerable goats, cows, pigs, and pigeons.

The devout of India all hope to visit here at least once in their lifetime. There are pilgrim houses all along the waterfront. Huge trucks are parked everywhere with countless pilgrims occupying bunk-bed space in their backs. Those who cannot afford the "luxury" of a space on a truck, or space in a pilgrim house, must sleep on the street. It is wall to wall bodies. Yet it is all strangely quiet and pure. The only sound is the tinkling of scattered temple bells. How can it possibly be so quiet with so many people? All these pilgrims have come for this sunrise. It is a magical time. At this hour the river, which normally flows north to south, reverses its course. No one knows why. And despite its obvious pollution, the river's sulfur-filled water is pure.

After sunrise, one is startled back to reality as it becomes necessary to make your way back through the throngs of pilgrims. It is daylight now. Step over the pilgrims and beggars who are still lying on the street or on the sidewalks. They and the rags they wear are not clean.

Take a shortcut through the narrow back alleys, which are now filled with debris as well as human and animal waste from the night before. Filthy beggars and diseased children will cling to you as you walk. They touch all parts of your body. You dare not stop. If you give out one rupee, there will be a crowd around you within seconds. There sits a holy man. Stop for a quick photo and give him a tip. If he thinks the tip is not sufficient, he will throw it back at you. Children will run for it.

Now walk around that cow, perhaps adding a colorful flower lei to the cows neck. And be careful of the dung as you do so. Suddenly you're aware of something different. Protruding overhead is a golden spire. But a wall surrounds it and the wall contains only one opening. Take a quick look at the oasis inside. It is a temple. Everything here appears clean. The faithful are entering. Ignore all the vendors trying to sell you holy Ganges water. And "No, I don't need a guide". Back away and continue single file through the narrow alleys, at last returning to your transportation back to the hotel for breakfast. No one talks on the drive back.

But take notice of the brightly wrapped bodies of the newly departed, being carried down the street to the ghats on the river. Now you arrive at your hotel and go quickly to your room. You and all others in your group are thinking the same thing. "I must take a shower and change clothes". No where in the world will a tourist experience such "culture-shock", all within a couple of hours.

To come to India without experiencing this sunrise ritual at Varanasi is unthinkable to this writer. From this beautiful and shocking experience one can better understand India and its people.
About the Author
Author of this article is Gene Gill. For more information visit his website: Gene Gill Miniatures.
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