We pushed off from the stone steps along the western bank
of the Ganges around 11 p.m. Twelve passengers and a ferryman in a small wooden boat headed north along the edge of
India's great holy river. Anush, our boatman, rowed against the current into the middle of the river where he folded
his oars and let us float in silence to observe the activities on shore.
Last New Year's Eve, I was in Varanasi, an ancient pilgrimage site in northern India. Varanasi is one of the oldest
cities in the world. For more than 2,000 years, it has been a major pilgrimage center. Hindus come to bathe in the
Ganges in the belief they will be cleansed of physical, emotional and spiritual sins. Varanasi is also a sacred place
to die. According to Hindu mythology, the body's final dip in the Ganges at Varanasi will liberate the soul from the
I'm not a follower of or believer in these practices, but ever since I read William James' Varieties of Religious
Experience in college, I have been fascinated by the ways in which people find meaning through ritual. So last year, I
planned to be in India over the holidays and the Ganges on New Year's Eve. As in all of India, many private and public
rituals take place out of doors - on street corners, civic plazas or the banks of its rivers.
Riverfront steps are known as ghats. They line the Ganges in every city through which the great river passes. Ghats are
where believers walk into the water, hands folded in prayer, and where masses gather for colorful, noisy festivals.
There are more than 100 ghats in Varanasi alone, Dasaswamedh, our destination, being the largest.
Our small group arrived at Dasaswamedh Ghat well after dark via bicycle rickshaws. A harrowing ride through narrow,crowded streets was adventure enough for some. But we tumbled out of the rickshaws and plunged into the crowd heading
for the riverbank. Shadowy streets gave way to staircases blazing with torches intermingled with huge electric lights.
Ear-shattering music signaled the festival had already begun. On Dec. 31, it was dedicated to Lord Shiva's sacred light
Down by the river, a stone platform jutted over the water where five young priests danced in set patterns. Heavy
drumming interlaced with the whine of the oboe-like shehnai. Everything was amplified by giant loudspeakers. As the
celebrants shouted and clapped in varying rhythms, the priests swirled about like athletes alternately swinging torches
or raising heavy bronze candelabra.
Vendors aggressively sold incense, sacred beads, garlands of marigolds, all kinds of noisemakers and candles nestled in
tiny paper saucers. We bought candles for our boat ride and threaded our way down to the river.
Embarking over an unstable plank, we met Anush and his son, Raju. Dressed in jeans, a blue T-shirt and sneakers, Anush
looked like any American father. Raju, a little ferryman in training, wore jeans, a shirt and sweater plus a red cap.
He helped us settle into the small boat and then nestled next to his father.
Anush rowed through a nest of other boats then straight toward the middle of the Ganges. Turning north, he headed for a
distant stretch, where only a few bonfires could be seen. The clamor of the festival subsided as we slowly approached
one of only two burning ghats" in Varanasi.
Harish Chandra Ghat is a holy site where families bring the white-shrouded bodies of the deceased for a final cleansing
dip in the river before cremation on the bank. All year long, fires are lit and burn, night and day. Hindu families
save for a lifetime to purchase the right to be at Harish Chandra Ghat and to buy sacred wood for the ritual.
As we floated closer to shore, we were asked to take no more pictures in respect for the dead and the grieving.
Eleven bonfires blazed in the darkness. Dozens and dozens of men covered the hillside, some carrying the shrouded
bodies down to the river on bamboo stretchers. (Hindu custom dictates that women are not permitted at the final
The scene had the quality of a dream: Here we were, 13 people rocking silently in a boat surrounded by black water and
smoke-filled skies, the dim murmuring of men on the riverbank performing rituals that honor the dead and are believed
to liberate the soul.
At the fulcrum of midnight, Anush turned the boat around and we prepared for our own private candle ritual on the
river. We floated back toward the fire festival - with the current. As we skimmed through the darkness, those of us who
wanted to perform a ritual of remembrance did so. We lit our small candles and gently placed them in their paper
saucers on the water. Then without speaking, we watched our candles disappear downstream with hundreds of others.
Freelancer Judith Reynolds writes for the Arts & Entertainment section and is a periodic contributor to the Travel