Project India: Hands of Hope

Bus ride teaches cultural lessons

By Brooke Hines
Chart Reporter

Brooke Hines

Around 2 a.m., the bus stopped.

I peeked out the window and watched a crowd gather outside. They were moving boulders, boxes and rocks to block off the road directly in front of the bus. Apparently, we were the first ones to arrive at their party, and things had already turned sour.

The crowd was shouting at officers who seemed equally frustrated at the situation. An hour later, the crowd grew and gathered around a parked car. Five or six of the mob began pushing on the car until it was on its side with a broken windshield. The crowd cheered and we became nervous. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I closed my eyes and hoped for sleep.

At 3:30 a.m., a fellow traveler began calling for help. He had been in the Indian army and reminded every police officer he could wake that the driver was off the bus and there were children and foreigners at risk.

A dip in the Ganges River is said to wasy all sins away,
according to Hindu worshippers.

“They haven’t seen you on here, so this probably won’t affect you,” he assured us.

We closed our shade and pulled out our emergency phone numbers. A lovely woman from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi calmed our worries. She asked the simple question, “Do you see any people wearing orange?”

We soon understood what she meant.

During the monsoon months of July and August, a pilgrimage takes place. Pilgrims (referred to as “Kanwarias”) from all over India don saffron outfits and walk to the banks of the Ganges River, where they fill their canteens with holy water and wander back to their homes where they are highly celebrated. When some villages believe the route of the pilgrims is not receiving proper respect, they sometimes take matters into their own hands. The roadblock was a prime example.

After about two hours of sitting, the roadblock was lifted and we were permitted to continue. As the sun rose, we were able to see tents that were serving as rest stops lining the highways. The elaborately decorated tents had props to hold the Kanwarias’ poles. This enables the pilgrims to never touch their canteens to the ground.

Sometimes Kanwarias can be severely injured from their
intense journeys to the Ganga. Nevertheless, the pilgrim's
devotion to the journey rarely wanes.

In the madness of the city, techno music blasts from huge TATA trucks filled with dancing blurs of orange racing to the celebrated northeast region.

This pilgrimage is not only an excuse to party, it’s a precious religious rite of passage. The Ganges is seen as the embodiment of the Hindu goddess Ganga. The Ganges is referred to multiple times in many of the sacred Hindu texts.

Several myths, varying subtly, describe Ganga’s descent to Earth. In one of these myths, the god Shiva was asked to break the fall of Ganga as she came to earth to liberate the spirits of earth. Now, she lies as the Ganges and watches as Hindu worshippers bathe, burn and worship along her banks.

After 12 hours of airports, bus stations, taxi docks and medians, we arrived in Varanasi. and saw the orange bloom in full force. We were skeptical when we read this in our guidebook: “Varanasi is a trippy dance party that has been going on for centuries and everyone refuses to take off their costumes.”

The statement proved true over the next week while I watched the Kanwarias dance their way to the Ganges through twisting Varanasi alleys, where vendors spoke multiple languages and cows perched on temple steps.

The pilgrimage no longer surprised me as I saw it in its cultural context. In fact, the wild energy of the pilgrims and the possessive nature of the villagers complemented each other nicely — much like the ebb and flow of the murky Ganges among the saffron bathers.