For the last few months, I have been based out of Ludhiana on a project. Although I can go home every other weekend, I decided the exercise isn’t worth it given a 10 hour journey and regular flight cancellations due to the heavy fog that has engulfed the North of India and holding on tightly. So I decided instead to take a 5 hour long train journey to Haridwar. I always had a great desire to see the Ganga, and this was probably the best time to do so due to low pilgrim footfall in winter. A tough few months also meant that a break was needed, and what better than one of the holiest places in India?
This trip marked the “first time” of many things. It would be the first time I would travel by a train by myself. It would also turn out to be the first time I would travel in a train ticket-less. It would be the first time I would bribe an officer to get a seat on said train.
The first time I explored a city alone all day. And that’s where things got exciting. I expected to be overwhelmed at the Ganga’s beauty and sheer enormity. Instead, I was met by the sight of large piles of wet clothes on the stairways, men wearing small nothings that were also soaking wet, children crying because their parents insisted on dipping them in the freezing waters (parents who would otherwise bundle them with so many clothes that they would run the risk of rolling away), sellers shouting out to buy their wares of plastic bottles filled with the holy water and garlands, and families having lunch picnics. I ambled around, soaking in all the sights and sounds, and soon found myself in the midst of small shrines which nestled marble statues of Radha & Krishna, Hanuman ji and Shiv lings. Each shrine had a pandit who called me over to take prasad. And this is when my experience turned refreshingly unexpected.
In the South, where I have done most of my temple visits, any hint that a 27 year old is single is followed by a blessing that she quickly finds a suitable husband. Not just temples- I have had playful arguments with my grandmother who would do the same, urging her to instead bless me to get a good job or grades. Married women are promptly greeted with a blessing that her husband outlives her, because of course.
But not by the Ganga. The pandits’ first reactions when I approached them was to politely enquire if someone would join me. After I would answer in the negative, they would proceed to chant mantras and guide me to make offerings of flowers and ganga-jal to the deities. When it was time to customize blessings, I was asked if I was married. Newly single and overcome with pain, I would pull myself together and say that I wasn’t, waiting for the familiar Sanskrit words urging God to find me a suitable boy to marry. But that’s not what I heard. I was asked to stretch out my right hand to have holy thread smeared with vermilion tied around my skinny wrist, because if I were married, the thread belonged on my left hand. Being a girl with a childish face, I was then asked if I was a student or a working professional. On answering, the pandits would recite a chant interjected with wishes that I progress well in my career and receive peace and prosperity.
The entire experience was a very refreshing one. My solitary spiritual experience was contrary to my expectation of one fraught with gender discrimination and judgment. And considering we were all by the Ganga, also made complete sense. This mighty river, revered as a Goddess, has single-handedly nurtured civilizations for centuries. She flows on, deep and silent, despite the many abuses she is subjected to. She needs no one, but without her, the millions of lives that depend on her would cease to exist.
What an irony it would be to tell a daughter of the land, standing besides the mighty Ganga, that she needs another for her well-being?