I have added links to words which may seem unfamiliar to you…the description is a snippet of Allahabad, a north Indian city considered spiritual by Hindus in India.
Ganga and Yamuna, companions of myth, rivers in real life.
Legend tells us Ganga is the older of the two, springing from the dreadlocks of Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction. She purifies all that touch her. Yamuna, her dusky aide, is the sister of Yama, the Lord of Death, and assures a smooth passage to all who bathe in her waters.
Yamuna’s journey ends at Allahabad, the holiest confluence known to Hindu religion. Her waters, the darker of the two, churn into the arms of Ganga each day, each minute, without pause. Their meeting is celebrated by the tolling of bells at all times of the day in one or the other of the hundreds of temples that line their banks.
Dawn breaks on these waters with the pealing of a million bells, and hundreds of the faithful taking their daily dip, relieving themselves of their sins, quite unaware that their sins wait for them like robbers in ambush, jumping on their backs the minute they cross the ghats
in their wet clothes, mumbling prayers.
Through the day, come visitors from far and near– beggars in tatters, old widows in white, grim-faced devotees clasping hands or doing their laundry, young women in bright pink and red and orange sarees
, American and Israeli backpackers, some with dreadlocks to rival those of Lord Shiva, nude sadhus
, or those covered in saffron and ochre robes, bright yellow marigold garlands in their matted hair.
Ganga and Yamuna bless them all, the twin beauties, holding hands.
On their banks sit shaven headed or bearded holy men. They lounge under old umbrellas hung on skeletons of bamboo, telling futures and dispensing advice to throngs of locals, who sit with closed eyes and open mouths, ready to part with their pennies for some reassurance against misfortune. The faithful come to these saffron or white-robed holy men in droves, braving the harsh sun in summer, the chilled air in winter and the unceasing downpour of the rainy season.
Evening is the hour for ritual worshipping with music and light. The gods and goddesses rise from their riverside abodes on the prayers of the devout. Twinkling flames from earthen lamps light up the breasts of Ganga and Yamuna, kept afloat on fragile lotus leaves. They reflect the hopes of the worshippers who walk between the river and the temples. A few sit rapt in prayer upon the ghats, unflustered by a dozen microphones blaring different prayers, cymbals and drums, the occasional flute.
Camphor-and-sandalwood laden smoke rises from the yagnas
, fires kept alive down the centuries. It mingles with the rank smell of open drains, overflowing dustbins and the stench of the cremated bodies at the shamsan ghats
Allahabad is one of the ideal Hindu places to die. Those cremated here, their ashes flowing down the Ganga fortified by her tributary Yamuna, attain nirvana, freedom from the relentless cycle of birth and death that Hindus believe is the secret behind all life.
Dinners eaten and stories exchanged, the daytime residents of Allahabad ghats
retire, some to homes, others to ramshackle hotels and guest houses, yet others to roadside porches. Other than the random stray dog nothing stirs, and the river breeze carries little other than silence broken by the night watchmen on their rounds, and the tap-tap-tap of their lathis
Only the burning ghat is awake, and here and there amongst the dying embers sits an erect, still figure. The flickering lights reveal dreadlocks and gaunt, unclothed bodies rapt in meditation, the aghoris
. Ganga and Yamuna, tired of carrying the burden of sins and desires of humankind, lie quiescent, asleep. Their waves fold over each other, reflecting the half-moon, and a yellow lamp or two lit on the ghats.
As daylight touches the tips of the tallest temples at yet another dawn, the dark figures at the shamsan ghats melt away. A new day of prayers and purification begins for Ganga and Yamuna, with the tolling bells and clamouring cymbals of Allahabad.