Impressions of India: Varanasi

05/12/2015 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

Wednesday January 21, 2015

This morning we were picked up early by our trusty driver Mr. Singh and his dear assistant, Neetu, who we have become enormously attached to. We will miss them, as this is our last ride to the Delhi airport for our short flight to Varanasi. We all said our goodbyes and they too seemed sad to see us go.

The flight to Varanasi was uneventful, and our guide, Adil, pointed out the Himilayas on the edge of the skyline, far to the north. They were snowcapped and beautiful. He said this was the only time in his life he'd ever seen snow. He marveled at our pictures from home with snow and ice, and also could not believe what a beautiful part of the world we live in. It's so true. I have gained a huge appreciation for the beauty of my home, the Hudson Valley, since I've been away from it.

We arrived at our hotel midday and rested for a few hours before making the pilgrimage to the Ganges. Adil gave us some pointers to remember for the trip to the river: do NOT give money to the beggars that will be flooding us as we walk along the streets; if you give to one, others will then be all over you and you'll be in real trouble. Also no shopping along the route through the bazaar, and stay in a tight formation, so we don't get separated from each other. I found myself a bit nervous, and also excited for this one final excursion before we depart for home.


Another small bus took us to a jumping off point where there was a line of rickshaws powered by humans! Ellen and I could barely fit our two (not so big) butts in the small seat and we grinned nervously as we embarked on this heart-pounding, potentially life-threatening rickety rickshaw ride. We were holding onto each other for dear life as we started out perched high behind a very thin old man who was peddling us to the Ganges River. At one point, he had to get off and and push the vehicle -- we felt so horrible we wanted to get out and push with him! How strange to be ferried along by a person probably half either one of our weights! But as I looked around, there were also many Indians riding in these vehicles as well and it seemed to be the best means of transportation to get through the streets that lead to the river.

The bazaar was full of every kind of shop you could imagine selling to natives and Indian tourists. We could have stopped at many of the stores to get a scarf or two but Adil told us very firmly NOT to give money to anyone or to look anyone in the eye. Good advise and it seems to be the best way to keep the crowds of beggars at bay. But first we had to make it alive through the insane traffic that was whizzing around us at what appeared to be record speeds with many loud horns honking, animals running in front of us, motorcycles nearly colliding with us -- and at the roundabouts, forget about it! We had to just hold our breaths and pray for a miracle (which would have been making it to the river in one piece!) And yet, here I am, alive to tell the story -- so we did make it.


After getting out of the rickshaws, we still had quite a walk to the steps leading down to the Ganges and this is the section where beggars of all shapes and sizes were lined up along the sidewalk and approached us from every angle. We were reminded that for many people who are ill or dying, the belief is that to be blessed by the waters of the Ganges is the pinnacle of a soul's journey. Many people ask for their bodies to be brought here after death for cremation, as this will ensure they will be freed forever from the cycle of birth and death..

The scene at the river was awe-inspiring. Countless boats were jockeying for position to take in passengers for the sunset ride, the air was thick with smoke and a fog had begun descending on the area, so visually it was very dramatic. We saw a young man with a handsome boat festooned with pink and white balloons approaching the shoreline.


Then he motioned to us to come aboard! We each found a seat and he slowly pushed and paddled his way out of the crowded loading area, his copilot pushing other boats away so we could break free and out onto the river. My heart was pounding as I clicked away, hoping my camera was catching some of the magic!



Dusk was descending quickly as they rowed us downstream and I marveled at the array of ancient buildings and groups of people bustling around setting up what appeared to be several staging areas. I asked what this was all about and Adil told me there would be a big show here after dark. Something else to look forward to!


As we reached the middle of the river, the priest who had joined us began a puja ceremony by giving us each a small "boat" of flowers that had a burning candle in the center. As he gave it to me, he asked me to think of loved ones who have passed on, and those still living, to send blessings to. We each got a red smudge on our third eye and repeated the mantra he was saying line by line, as instructed. Then we each put our luminous boats in the river and watched as they floated away, joining hundreds of others. It was a profound experience that now lives deep inside of me, not to be forgotten.



The boat turned up river in the smokey darkness toward the burning fires. We knew what was next. We approached this place of holiness with reverence for the ceremonies being performed. There were multiple fires and as we got close enough to see what was happening, Adil explained only the closest men in the family carry the body of their departed to the funeral pyres. The shrouded bodies are covered in flowers and garlands, then set down on the earth. We watched as they slowly removed the flowers, then began unwrapping the shroud. They then lifted the body onto the fire and chanted. We watched in silence. Such an honor to witness a ceremony so sacred to those of the Hindu faith.

After a while, the boat turned back and headed to the main steps where we entered. Something amazing was going on there: an enormous light show, loud music and chanting which got more dramatic as we approached. We disembarked, curious about this wild celebration going on. Adil explained that this was a celebration to Lord Shiva and the holy waters of the Ganges. Throngs of people were watching, clapping and chanting along! It was a perfect capstone to what we had just witnessed -- the celebration of a soul's journey through life and into death.



We walked back through the gauntlet of beggars, each one pulling at my heartstrings, and entered a dark alley where the rickshaws were parked. We found our ride and this time felt better that our "driver" was a young man who could easily carry our combined weight! Now the heart-pounding experience began again only this time at night: dodging, weaving and pumping through the maze of ever-moving vehicles of all shapes and sizes. We eventually made it back to our van, the hotel and bed: exhausted once again, but I was present to a profound feeling that I have been touched by the Gods.

Wake up call tomorrow morning at 5:00 am to go back for sunrise on the Ganges! We will dress warm -- it's cold in India right now!

Mary Anne Erickson is an artist who has been documenting the demise of the American roadside culture for over 30 years in paintings and photography. Her work can be seen at She also blogs about great food and entertaining ideas at