India is not a country where you can simply observe, you’re compelled to participate. If you don’t join willingly, there are a billion people who will take you by the hand and physically persuade you to become part of this country.
We dropped by Haridwar to find a city full of orange-clad men chanting and parading down the streets. Their excitement was contagious so we hurried behind, trying to find an inch of space in the crush. That’s when we arrived at Har-Ki-Pauri and had out first look at Mother Ganga.
The sight was shocking. It felt like we had left modern India behind and had stepped into the spiritual soul of the country.
Women sat fully clothed in waist deep water furiously splashing their heads and washing huge swaths of fabric. Bare chested men in their underwear waded into the rapids and struggled to gain their footing before being swept downstream. Thousands of families clung to metal chains as they dipped together to wash away their sins.
We hesitantly dipped our toes into the FREEZING COLD water. It felt like every person in the bathing ghat was gauging our reaction, staring to see if we would brave the Himalayan water. Before we could make the decision for ourselves, a group of boys made the decision for us; they began splashing, laughing at our sputtering outrage.
We spent the entire day dipping and swimming against the strong current. A nearby group of women chastised me for not holding onto the chains, grabbing my hand to ensure that I didn’t float away. Upstream children shouted for Vinnie to join them as they jumped from a bridge into the water and floated downriver. Every five minutes another smiling face would approach us with a photographer in tow, “Sar, sar! One picture!”
One picture became five pictures, which became twenty pictures and then forty. Strangers would approach us and jump into the frame. “One more!” they would scream. And people didn’t just want our photo, they wanted US to take THEIR photo.
As night approached, people dried off and huddled together waiting for the ceremony to begin. Old women, sadhus, children selling mendhi and the mandatory cow were all packed on the marble steps leading into the river. Men in blue uniform scouted the crowd for donations, yelling at people to take off their shoes and not to use banned plastic coverings. Overhead the speakers were blaring music and announcements.
The jovial party atmosphere turned more introverted and personal. People clutched prayer beads, chanting and bowing into the Ganges. Others lifted a cup of milk and while mouthing a prayer, emptied it into the water. Flowers and coin offerings floated downstream until they were upended in the rapids where entrepreneurial young boys waited with magnets and rope.
An excited young guy turned to us and asked, “Are you ready to see the most amazing thing in all of India?”
As the sun set and the rain cleared, several men brought down a large diety and the Aarti of the Goddess Ganga began. Across the river from us, lamps were light and circled around the deity. The crowd pushed towards the fire, putting their hands into the flame and holding the heat to their foreheads.
Six minutes later the ceremony was over. We had waited in the rain with thousands of people to witness the most amazing thing in India and it lasted as long as a commercial break!
All at once the crowd stood and lumbered towards the stairs. We moved with the people, crossing the bridge to look out to the Ganges. Bobbing on top of the water were tiny flower petals and brightly lit candles. Small boys waded into the water to grab the coins before they were upended by the rapids.
In that huge crowd, surrounded by so much activity, I realized why the day had been so special: we had joined in, not just watched. We may not believe that our souls are wiped clean but there is this a lingering sense of togetherness and belonging. We held hands with people, laughed at their jokes and chanted along together. We connected.
For the record, not everyone loves their dip in the Ganges.