Swimming against the tide – Rishikesh and Haridwar

Back on the banks of the Ma Ganga and all I can say is this – I think I swam at the wrong end!

I’m with my friend Anu who I worked with in hotels many years ago in the UK and I am so pleased to be in her company and exploring this holy place. Rishikesh and Haridwar offer some of the most important temples in Hinduism. I attend the Mansa Dewi Temple and the Chandi Devi Temple. Mansa Dewi is the Goddess of fertility and prosperity. She is also known for ‘what you will’ what you wish for she will grant you. Pilgrims in the thousands descend upon these towns to bathe in the river and attend these sites.

As always in Hinduism, high on the hill we venture to opposite ends of the town to the most important temples here.  It’s ridiculously hot and as we meander past the series of shrines, offering flowers, food, incense and prayer, the crowd engulfs us and the intermittent holla of Jai Krishna bellows through the corridors. It’s the same across the valley and Anu tells me that if I will it so, it will be. At this point I will for aircon. Nope. Oh well how about safety, my ‘go to’ prayer for me; and health, my ‘go to’ prayer for others. I feel like I’m bobbing for apples. Head down at the feet of the Shiva stone. Head bowed for blessing from the Brahmin priest, head down for the tikka to be applied. This bowing of respect is in all religions. Bowing down in the pews of Catholic churches; bowing down in prostration in the mosques.

At night, the Arti ceremony differs from town to town and I particularly enjoy the one in Haridwar. Not as grand and showy as Varanasi and a better vibe than in Rishikesh. What I particularly love is the oath that it begins with. The promise the crowd of thousands make to the Ganga; a Goddess in their eyes to keep her clean, to respect her, to not throw their rubbish on her banks or in her living water. That explains the clarity of the water this end. Perhaps Varanasi needs the same oath. I enjoy the colours of Hinduism, the giant Krishna on the banks – 20 feet tall and bright blue, the Sadhus scattered around with vibrant orange across their faces and in their clothes. The flowers in every colour offered to the Gods and the backdrop of crisp white of a Brahmin priest and the milk often poured over the Shiva stone.

If I recall nothing in future of what I’ve learnt, or who I met– the colours of India are permanently etched in my mind.

Yours in Faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim


Varanasi – Spiritual Enlightenment or Soul Destroying?

I know, heavy title, right. Hear me out.

India always presents such stark contrasts, but Varanasi is a paradox to me. It is a holy place. It is a sacred city on the banks of the holiest of holy Mama Ganga, goddess of the Hindus. It is a giver of life and sanctuary for the soul in more ways than one.


Wandering the endless narrow streets (much like Venice without the canals) and the addition of countless cows and consequent cow shit (holy land mines, as per my host). I came across temple after temple after temple. On every corner there was a shrine to Shiva, the creator of this town. Or the telling orange clothes of an approaching sadhu. They are holy men who have dedicated their lives to God. Not to be confused with a priest; only a Brahmin can be a priest (their caste system is a whole other post).  But a holy man, who eats, sleeps and breathes prayer whilst sitting for hours chanting Sanskrit scriptures. He relies on the kindness of others for food. He is happy to offer advice and counsel if asked, but more so a man of solitary devotion to God. 

Then there is the river itself, a holy living Goddess flowing for 2500 kilometres providing life and spiritual hope to all those who adorn her banks. Or better yet to bathe in this mighty river is said to cleanse the soul. Of course, I indulged in this opportunity to cleanse some sins away. I’m the Unlikely Pilgrim after all. Holy yes, pure … not the word that comes to mind when submerged in this water, especially with a buffalo within spitting distance. 

Nonetheless I cleansed, I bathed, and I even headed to the temple to be blessed.
Like my previous entry (Cremations and Corpses) describes. There is commitment to the ceremony of this place. The dedication to rituals in ensuring the soul is clean is paramount. Pilgrims from all over India, and in fact the world, come in the millions to soak up the energy of Varanasi. In theory it is beautiful and spiritually charged. 

However both times I’ve been here I’ve felt an underlying sadness; not a surface bad feeling, but a deep sorrow in my heart.
A sorrow for the conditions here: the streets are filthy with animal mess, rubbish and general grime. Children as young as three years old beg on the streets well into the night.

 Seedy and uneasy feelings down by the river after dark surrounds me and the lower castes are avoided and disregarded. An example, the Aghori the men who work down at the cremation sites to ensure the masses get their golden ticket to heaven work tirelessly, yet I’m advised not to talk to them or risk being tainted by someone else’s woes. Superstition or discrimination? I’m undecided.

With all the colour and spirituality, Varanasi is certainly an incredible place to visit. I can’t help but invoke feelings of helplessness when I think of Varanasi though. A place so full of hope and maybe that’s why the poverty is more obvious to me here than in other parts of India. Albeit the divide is everywhere in India. Maybe it’s the simplicity of life here, because all the people need is their God. 

Find out for yourself.


Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim


Cremations and Corpses.

Got your attention! Well the cremation Ghats in Varanasi certainly had mine. Having visited this chaotic city before, I opted for a guide this time round. I had limited time and didn’t want to miss anything. Thank the Lord for Rohit, such an endearing, kind and super knowledgeable guy.

(Checkout my FaithChat with Rohit here  https://youtu.be/XfOb42mYDWA )

We headed to Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation Ghat. There were to be no photos, I was advised (fair enough). Here the pyres burn 24 hours a day with a constant stream of bodies (people) arriving to have their life’s dream realised. For Hindus, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi is said to break the cycle of reincarnation. You are no longer a product of your karma and no longer a victim of deeds of past lives, but on a one-way ticket to heaven.


It is men only in this place. Women are deemed too emotional, too overcome with grief to be still and quiet as to not disturb the souls of the dead. Therefore, the men carry the corpse through the streets down to the Ghat and immerse the body in the river. A series of rituals unfold. The eldest man is shaved: head, face and neck. Various oils, herbs and specific fabrics are sourced and all have their place.

When the body is fully cleansed and prepared, it is placed upon 200 to 300 kilos of wood and set alight with a special flame. There is no fixed price for, it fluctuates by the minute 200-500 1000 rupee. Whatever the price, dependant on the day the family pays willingly.


I watched five corpses arrive and be prepared. I witnessed the men as the family members chatted amongst themselves and oversaw proceedings in such an official and disconnected way. I bet within their hearts the grief was screaming.

But it is for the good of the soul of their loved one. An outward calm sits upon their faces. I’m not sure I could contain my grief with such control and dignity. No girls allowed; a smart move.

The sobering realisation is that in fact I’m surrounded by death, and that that stick is a leg burning before me evaporated my feelings of admiration for the families. This prompted a quick departure to the famous Blue Lassi Cafe to collect my thoughts and process what I had just seen. In my reflection, I do admire the ritual, the steadfastness of the men and the commitment of the Hindu people to journey here to die and reach salvation. I wonder if other religions were given just one act to attain salvation would our commitment be as strong and as widespread?


I visited the Ghats just once as I felt within myself a need to respect the process that was occurring and not overstep my privilege to be part of it. The families happily allow us tourists to stop by and witness their culture and it’s up to us to do this respectfully by not making it a spectator sport.
Yours in faith,

The Unlikely Pilgrim