When I first picked this book, captivated by the pretty cover picture of one of the ghats, or stairs, lining the Ganges, I wasn’t sure if I would be reading of a traveler’s journey or a seeker’s. It wasn’t surprising that it turned out to be the latter, given the large number of people worldwide who are drawn to India’s spiritual heritage.
And no river epitomizes this heritage more than the Ganga, or Ganges. One of the largest rivers of India, the Ganga is considered holy and sacred by those of the Hindu faith. Legend has it that in ancient times, the goddess Ganga agreed to fall from the heavens upon the earth to save her mortal devotee, a king named Bhagiratha whose ancestors, having been burnt to ash, could only be freed for salvation by her pure waters. So mighty was she that when she cascaded from the heavens, the world was in danger of being washed away by her strong currents. So Lord Shiva, one of the gods of the holy Hindu trinity, gallantly stepped in and offered his locks to receive her waters and then gently lowered her to flow over the plains of India. Given her divine source and her short stay on Shiva’s locks, Ganga is worshipped as a goddess and a spiritual entity by millions of Indians who address the river as Ganga Maa or Mother Ganges and believe that her water can wash their sins, heal them, and help them attain Nirvana or Moksha, the freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Originating from the Himalayas in Northern India, the Ganga traverses hundreds of miles through the heartland till it flows into the sea, supporting a population of more than half a billion. Along its banks are India’s numerous towns and cities, sacred as well as densely populated - cities such as Hardwar, Varanasi, Allahabad and Rishikesh. For hundreds of years, these towns and cities have welcomed seers and believers who seek spirituality and tranquility. Today, the wheels of modernity that churn in a new and vibrant India have also touched these places. Seekers and seers now brush shoulders with a local populace leading a regular lifestyle, so that alongside Nirvana, one finds the huge rich-poor divide, the squalor, the poverty and petty crime.
All this also makes for an odd, unreal, and in some ways spiritually uplifting experience for most non-Indians unused to the heterogeneity of many centuries living side by side. When author Claire Krulikowski lands in India, first in Delhi and then Rishikesh, she is enveloped with a sense of calm and belonging. This isn’t strange, since there is bound to be openness and acceptance in a society and country that is teeming with life and where swamis, monkeys, shopkeepers, other pilgrims all jostle for room. This openness is what draws her more and more into the country, its people and its mores. She starts to feel a sort of inner peace in this mishmash of wealth and poverty, spiritualism and materialism, acceptance and rejection. Her journey through Rishikesh and its ghats and her interactions with sadhus, lepers, monkeys and cows as well as ordinary people fill her with an immense joy which somehow translates through her writings. A pleasurable read, although my take is that it is not the sacred that is the source of her well-being and peace; rather, it is the dichotomies of chaos and order, tradition and modernity that impart a surreal character to her life in India, a surrealism that makes her and others more casual, accepting, trusting and open-minded.