Braj Ghat, Gharmukteshwar is a cluster of dwellings that sits like a bee-hive on the branch of Ganga that flows by.
It is right on the Delhi-Lucknow highway. As it was a festival day, lots and lots of vehicles were parked all along the side of the highway. Our driver found a gap, and managed to squeeze the Toyota-Innova super-cab into that. One could, theoretically, drive off the highway, down into the kuccha-road, and find a parking lot far closer to the river. But then one would have to cross the local toll collector, who would be sitting with a rope on one hand and a big stick in the other (the rope, for acting as a toll barrier, and the stick as a token of authority). And having paid the toll, one would have to struggle through the bathing-ghat crowds and shops, inch by inch, leaning on the horn, to find the parking lot. We gave that a pass, and walked across from the highway.
While the general hubbub and enthusiasm of pilgrims was quite infectious, it wasn’t easy to walk through the narrow thoroughfare. Some Tarzans in big cars and station wagons were bulldozing their way through the crowd, and they couldn’t care less if they ran over your foot. These are not the sort of people you can argue with in any case. The roadside eateries and shops were picturesque and inviting. But we just passed them by and gingerly made our way forward, and in about ten minutes we were on the ghat-steps by the river. Lots and lots of people were busy having their dips. A couple of boats were berthed there. We hired one.
The boatman and his mate started paddling. The idea was to go across to the other side, or find some other suitable place, where we can be away from the crowd. It had been raining a bit up the trail where Ganga was coming from, and so the waters had that murky-foamy look about them. The boatmen were experts, and knew how to use the upstream and downstream currents, knew which parts of the river were dangerous etc. Rowing across a river is not as simple as drawing a straight line between two points. The boatmen labored hard and skillfully, taking us in an elliptical route. Finally, when they reached a point where the depth of water was just below chest height, they stopped and dropped anchor.
Venkat and Ramay were first off the block, jumping into the river. Then I. Water was very pleasant and cool, and the flow was vigorous. Marwadi had not come prepared for the dip – perhaps he didn’t have his wife’s permission. But then seeing Ramay, Venkat and me wallowing in the waters, he decided that valor is the better part of discretion, shrugged off his reluctance, and jumped in.
The next hour or so was sheer joy. The Sun was high. Someone chanted Aditya Hrudayam, the hymn to the Sun. That is a hymn from Ramayana…At the height of the battle, sage Agastya comes to the battlefield and initiates Lord Rama into a secret mantra, Aditya-Hrudayam – ‘Heart of the Sun’. Guru Poornima Day, standing in the flowing waters of Ganga, chanting the Aditya-Hrudayam looking up at the Sun – this was sheer joy. With a part of the river wholly to ourselves, with just river birds for company, immersing oneself in the swift waters of Ganga – this was heaven.
After a nice long while – refreshed, cleansed, energized – we reluctantly clambered back into the boat, and the boatmen took us to the far side. Quite a few folks were busy on that side too. What a fascinating tradition it is that puts something as joyous as an outing to a river, right in the middle of religion! Whole families were having a ‘whoopee’ day out, and were doing all sort of little rituals. Kids were singing river-songs. Elder folks were offering libations to the departed. Ladies were making offerings to the Goddess Ganga – dress pieces, bangles, comb, coins and such. Some gave Daana (gifts) to local priests…
Rowing back turned out to be more of a challenge for the boatmen. After a real struggle, they did manage to go to the other side, but the boat had to go some distance to get back to the point of disembarkation. On the way, we passed a river-side cremation ground. Stacks and stacks of firewood. One pile was ablaze. Just a few simple rural folks, consigning someone’s last remains to the holy fire, by the banks of the Ganges. In death – dignity and deliverance.
Gharmukteshwar – literally, the ‘Abode of the Lord of Liberation’…
….To be concluded…