Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Ganga (Inspired in India, Part 2)

by Sandy Kingsley

The sacred Ganges River (the Ganga, as it is called in India) emerges from the Himalayas into the the state of Uttarakhand, India and flows south and east through north India into Bangladesh. The Indian cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, Allahabad, Varanasi and several others all have banks along this holiest of holy rivers.

On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, India
On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi
Varanasi, mentioned in Inspired in India, Part 1, is one of the holiest Hindu cities and the most ancient, continuously lived in city. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus to make in a lifetime. On any given day, there are hundreds of people in Varanasi making their pilgrimage to the banks of the Ganga. Perhaps for this reason, it has an almost festival-like feel to it. Not in the sense of cotton candy and carnival rides though. The atmosphere is charged with a thick spiritual energy mixed with a good dose of Northern India chaos. Hindus come here to bath in the Ganga and even take water from the river to bring it home with them. An aarti ceremony (ceremony of light) takes place every night in the main ghat on the banks of the river. In Varanasi, it is performed by several Brahmin young men. (Brahmins are the priest caste). Afterwards people line up to honor and be blessed by a guru.

In Part 1 of this post, I promised to share a few of my experiences – from spiritual, to educational, to just plain sweet and comical. These experiences have stayed bright in my heart and memory since visiting India in 2005 and again in 2013. I hope in keeping my post short that you will read it and feel some of the magic that the country and its people exude.  Maybe you too will catch the ‘visit India’ bug that I have!

Story from the Ganga in Varanasi

Aarti ceremony along the Ganga in Varanasi, India
Aarti ceremony
My travel partner and I made an offering to Ma Ganga (the Ganges River), wishing blessings for our families and sprinkling water over our head and arms. We continued our walk along the river, arriving at the main ghat. There we were invited to take a seat, front and center, at the aarti ceremony. A young man introduced himself to us, sweetly appointing himself our guide for the evening. As the aarti ritual started, we sat with our “guide”, enthralled by the light, the movement, the sounds. The other spectators/participants in the ceremony were from all over India. Many of them made very long journeys to get there. I quickly became enraptured in the ritual and the sea of devotees sitting around me. It was one of those moments where remaining in the present moment, no past, no future, felt very simple. The air was incense-filled and burning candles seemed to fly in the air, creating an atmospheric vessel of sorts to capture the sounds of chanting, signing and conch horns. For what felt like an hour, the energetic vibration rising was visceral. In that place and time, I felt life giving me such an incredible gift that it was hard to believe I was not dreaming it all.

As the ceremony came to a close, everyone was given a handful of flower petals and crowded down to the Ganga’s edge to send them off into the water. We again sprinkled Ganga water on our arms, then walked back up the stairs. A line started to form in front of a Sadhu (holy man/guru) who had been at the ceremony. Our guide told us that if we wanted to, we could get in line ourselves and speak to him. Afraid of being disrespectful, my friend and I were not Hindu after all, I asked our guide if he was sure this would be ok. He reported back to us, after checking in, that there was no problem. The guru had told him, “There is no matter that you are not Hindu. We are all one. We all come from the same place.”

The Holy Man at the Ganga

Sadhu (holy man) blessing along the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, India
Sadhu blessing
I felt an overwhelming sense of love and gratitude. As we approached him, I gestured and said, “Namaskar”. The Sadhu gave me the Indian head tilt as a sign of acknowledgement, then he put a smudge of red kumkuma on my forehead (third eye, third chakra). I looked him in the eyes and paused as if stuck there. Again he acknowledged me with the head tilt and a soft smile. I felt a major emotional wave being received through my whole body: it was an intense sense of connection, acceptance, peace and amazement. I felt honored to be there. Somehow, when I looked into his eyes and saw the peace and stillness that he held within, it raised my own vibration to feel more connected than I had ever felt before. We spoke for a few minutes. The Sadhu invited us to visit his ashram before we left Varanasi.

Emotion welled up in me, but I held it back. I walked back to our guide and fished in my pockets for money to distract myself. I offered our guide 10 or 20 rupees before we parted ways. To my utter astonishment, he turned away the money. He said, “No, no rupees. I not do this for money. I do this to share you the meaning of India.” I was speechless. Then unable to hold back a tidal wave of positive emotion, I was overflowing in gratitude. I could barely catch my breath and did not try to catch the tears that were flowing. Tears of love, acceptance and belonging. Embraced by a culture seemingly not my own, but then it was.

Looking for an inspiring yoga retreat in India?

This journey has the perfect combination of cultural immersion, historical interest, local interaction, yoga exploration and practice, plus spectacular festivities!

About the Author, Sandy Kingsley

Sandy is a seasoned yoga teacher (500-hr RYT) and a grant writer for a nonprofit organization. Nothing makes her happier than traveling and sharing the delights of India with others. Her love affair with India started in 2006 when she and a friend decided to travel as far as they could using frequent flyer miles. On her second trip to India, she took her husband with the sole purpose of ensuring that he would want go back again and she was successful! Sandy is thrilled to be accompanying travelers on journeys to India with Inspired Exploration: Travel to Delight the Heart and Senses. 

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