You never know a place until you see it yourself.
My first view of the Ganges came as a surprise. After jolting through Kolkata’s mid-morning traffic—hand-painted buses, top-heavy mopeds, death-defying cyclists, barefoot pedestrians and motionless cows—the car spun through a tightly-packed suburb of pastel houses and palm trees before the road simply stopped.
I left the car and walked through an archway of trees, meeting the strong heat of the sun. A few pigs grunted past me, and just ahead, a family of water buffalo chilled in a pool of mud. Some women scrubbed red saris with vigor, slapping and squeezing the water on the muddy slope that ran down to the edge of a glassy river I had only ever known by name.
Here it was, one of the greatest rivers in the world—nearly 1,600 miles (2,600 km) in length, flowing down from the snowmelt of the Himalayas, through the emerald green valleys of eastern India and then across the fertile delta that spills out into the Bay of Bengal. Over 400 million people see this river every day, but this was my first time. The vast water was colorless—not brown or grey but neutral as steel, shifting with the daylight in most colorful country in the world.
This is the great magic of travel—that in a moment, a river I knew only by name became real. Children leapt into the water, splashing all around the neck-deep water buffalo. Women bathed in the shallows, and an adult man bowed his head, then scooped up a handful of water and trickled it over his head—an age-old ritual that has been repeated on the Ganges for thousands and thousands of years.
The Ganges is the mother to all life, or Ganga Mata in Hindu Mythology. The river itself is a goddess with the power to bring the soul back to Heaven from Earth—a watery path between life and death, suffering and liberation. Millions of Indians believe the water is purifying—to merely wash in the Ganges is to gain forgiveness for ten lifetimes of sins.
Indeed, the sins of all humanity seem to darken the river where it slices through Kolkata, India’s third largest city and the epicenter of a sort of beautiful chaos that can only be experienced firsthand.
Seasoned travelers know that the real destination of India is the people. To reduce a nation to a list of sandstone ruins and architectural icons is to overlook the spirit and wonder of India. Yes, the alabaster Taj Mahal is magnificent, along with the forts and tombs and mosques and temples that mark this landscape—but the wide and flowing Ganges reminds us that the material world is impermanent—that all of us are travelers, moving through life.
India is not just a place to visit, but a mood you embrace—a spiritual endeavor. To my friends and family back home, I have “gone on a cruise”, but the Ganges is bigger and more beautiful than any cruise could ever contain.
Instead, I feel as though I am floating through the sacred heart of India. Already, the stress and schedule of life back home have vanished like ripples in the water, disappearing behind us. Green banana trees rustle in the warm breeze, children yell and wave from the riverbanks, and fishermen fling their nets up into the air, praying for a good catch. Boats pass like fellow friends, all of us brought together by this one great river. Already, I feel a part of this place.
Already I am afraid to look away—even for a moment. Already, I am afraid of missing a single scene in the marvelous drama that is India—and so I leave the curtains open, leaning out from my balcony. Already, I wait for the five o’clock light of the late afternoon, when the falling sun makes everything gold.
This is the way to know India—in the pink and golden light, surrounded by all the color and motion of life—feeling a part of it all, while gently and silently floating up the holy river.