Essense | Riverghat | 28th June 2022 | Virtual Wire
The afternoon is pleasant and the winds blow strong. Humongous clouds of white and grey in the blue sky form snowy mountains that would look great on camera.
A faint rainbow can be traced bridging two peaks of clouds. All of these I witnessed from my terrace. Then my friends called me over to hang out at the river ghat and I got ready in a rush to travel down to the edge of the city where wide steps of reddish colour descended down to the mighty river. The steps extend to one side to include sitting areas. A smooth path beside the main steps led down to the river. Iron rails offer standard protection from carelessly stumbling into the waters. Trees and bushes pepper the area, providing minimal shade from the sun.
My hometown is known for having several ghats like these that run alongside the constructed roads of civilization and the ancient Ganges like a parallel border that separates them. Google translates ‘ghat’ as a mere flight of stairs leading down to a river. But the river ghat has always been much more than that. Ghats have been witness to festivals, pujas, cremations, happiness, sadness, love, hangouts and so on. Each ghat has its own record of human experiences and historical incidents. Varanasi, for example, is known for its 88 ghats, of which the most ancient is Manikarnika, first mentioned in a fifth-century Gupta inscription.
Humans and their Ghats
In the period before modern development, ghats had simpler usage. They provided easy access to water so naturally, people went there to bathe, wash clothes and utensils, gather water and do other daily activities. Riverside temples had ghats where priests did pujas or gathered water for the former activities. The immersion of idols during religious festivals was also done at the river ghat. Not all ghats were open to the common people, especially those owned by the rich.
This was even more of a problem for the lower caste communities ostracised by society. The riverghat fell into class politics without its consent. The ghat was typically the main mode to access transport across the river. Boats both local and foreign traversed the rivers and crossed over to land via such ghats to seek the path of their destinies. Even in the modern era, the river caters to domestic use and the ghat for swimming. Boats and launch rides continue the tradition of water transport over the river. The riverghat ties them all.
Witness To Human Experience
A whoop of joy, a cry of grief, a gasp at a confession, a flat-out rejection and an uncountable number of conversations buzz like the river insects and birds that fly over the heads of the occupants gathered at the riverghat. For the young generations, hangouts at the ghat after a hard day at school or work is a blissful conclusion to a tiresome day. For the luckier ones who live right by the river, they can pop out of their homes and flats to get down to the riverghat any time. For the elderly, this place is a trip-down nostalgia as well as a resting corner. Ice cream stalls and snack sellers are welcome sights for small cravings. Even animals like dogs are found running around or napping in the sitting areas. Some of my fondest memories in school and college include chit-chatting with friends and celebrating their birthdays in the presence of a gentle breeze, the flowing river and a clear sky.
There's something about sitting down at the ghat and staring out into the grey-white water, the cloud-flecked blue sky and viewing tiny buildings and temples covered in a thin film of greenery from the land across the river, that makes us confess some of our deepest secrets. Our fatigue with life feels less as we feel calm in the presence of the ancient river. We also derive the most excitement at the same place, especially during festivals like Durga Puja when the idol immersion ceremony takes. The mixed emotions of excitement and sorrow seeing hundreds gathered to bid the goddess farewell as she leaves for her abode is a unique experience at the calm river ghat.
Life And Death
As Life flutters and celebrates itself at the ghat, Death also comes down at the same place. Some ghats are reserved exclusively for the cremation of expired human beings according to Hindu custom. Officially known as Shamshan ghats, they have been witness to the human vessels of departed souls turning to ashes for perhaps centuries.
The only occupants of such ghats are bereaved families, friends and priests. The pathos of life and the inevitability of death hangs in the air. Of course, that's not the only way to go if you count people being killed and thrown off into the river or a deaf and mute lady standing at the ghat, angrily taking off her ear aids and flinging them into the river because she’s tired of hearing the evils of this wretched world. I get the sentiment but Girl you needed them to SURVIVE. No one will sympathise with you throwing off damn expensive hearing aids (This is why I don’t like Indian soaps).
In conclusion, I believe we give our river ghats too little credit, dismissing them as just a quick go-to hangout spot when we are broke, underestimating their importance as witnesses to countless human experiences. I advise you, however, to avoid making your own experiences on days when the weather is painfully hot, the breeze non-existent and scorching sunlight heating up the seating space to the point where you yelp and jump several feet high with your butt on fire.