Travel writer Erica Bray took in the sights, and one sacred ritual, of India. (Photo: Erica Bray)
Before my first trip to India, people warned me about a lot of things. They told me to be prepared for lots of poverty. To only drink bottled water. To dress conservatively. To anticipate terrible traffic. And to not swim in the Ganges River.
This last one was usually thrown in as a joke. Of course I wasn’t going to swim in the Ganges. Me? Jump into one of the world’s most infamously dirty rivers? A river in which locals defecate, wash their clothes, dump their trash, and bury their dead?
Hell, no. I was way too rational for that. I didn’t want to risk any sort of strange parasite or disease burrowing itself into my body. Gross.
Would you jump in? The Ganges is a notoriously polluted river (Photo: Thinkstock)
A few weeks into my journey, however, a shift in my “rational” approach happened when I agreed to participate in a ceremony that required fully submerging myself in the Ganges River — not just once, but three times.
It’s here in Rishikesh where Erica first heard the call of the Ganges River. (Photo: Erica Bray)
I received the invitation while in Rishikesh, a peaceful town at the foot of The Himalayas in northern India. Cows, monkeys, and yogis rule its winding roads, and the Ganges River weaves through the center of town.
WATCH: Clean the Ganges
I traveled to India on a yoga pilgrimage with 11 others from around the world. While in Rishikesh, our morning and evening yoga practices were held in a small studio overlooking the Ganges, a river highly revered by most Indians.
It was hard to fathom: How could a river so disgusting be so revered? In Hindu mythology, the river is a goddess whose waters purify the soul. Looking at its filthy color, you’d think no “purifying” could ever take place in this body of water. Yet each morning, devout Hindus come to her banks to pray.
For many, the Ganges is a place of spiritual cleansing. (Photo: Erica Bray)
After morning yoga practice, I would walk along the banks of Ganga Ma, as the locals call her, and watch with wonder and quiet reverence as women in rainbow-colored saris and men in dusty cottons would toss marigolds into the river. Some of the faithful would then sit in silence, meditating. Others would chant ancient Sanskrit mantras, the melodies intertwining with the rhythm of the wind. A handful would jump into the river, immersing their bodies repeatedly like a pogo stick, up and down, up and down, up and down.
I asked why the men did this, and I learned that it’s a ceremonial cleansing of the body, mind, and spirit. A few of my fellow yoga pilgrims wanted to participate in this ritual and asked me to join. My initial response was a firm “No way.”
However, irony had an unexpected way of tapping me on the shoulder during my India trip. After a few days of sinking into the rhythm of Rishikesh, absorbing the spirit of its people, and meditating regularly — I changed my mind.
Or, perhaps it’s better said this way: Hushing the mind changed me.
Watching this daily cleansing ritual slowly changed Erica’s mind. (Photo: Thinkstock)
I would gaze at the river on my way to the local market or from the yoga studio and wonder what it felt like to be enveloped by those waters. There was a pull, an unexpected and irresistible pull. It tugged from deep within and triggered an exhilarating mix of excitement and fear. As esoteric as it may sound, the river was calling me.
So I stopped trying to be rational and rely on Western intellect. I let go, and answered the call.
Taking the Plunge
Erica takes the plunge. (Photo: Erica Bray)
It was chilly the morning of the plunge. With a breakfast of bananas and chai warm in my belly, I walked down to the banks of the Ganges with six other yoga pilgrims. All women, we were dressed conservatively — knees and shoulders covered to respect the cultural norms of Hindu women. We also wanted to avoid the stares and camera phone clicks of the local Indian men.
We found a remote part of the river, away from curious onlookers, where the water was relatively clean. Since Rishikesh is closer to the river’s source, the water there was nowhere near as polluted as it was further south in places such as Varanasi. (Thank goodness for this, otherwise I may have had second thoughts.)
We were each carrying a handful of fresh marigolds to present as a symbolic offering. I cradled mine in my hands, knowing that in a few minutes, they would be floating downstream, and I would be in the water. The butterflies in my stomach started fluttering. Anxiety and doubt surfaced. Should I do this? Why am I doing this? Do I want to do this? Am I trying to prove something? Can I sneak back to my room without anyone noticing?
While this swirling mental chatter has a history of creating hesitation, it failed to put me on pause this time. I let go of the intellect, closed my eyes, and let my heart guide. I was taking the plunge — literally and figuratively. It was a sweet feeling of surrender. This is what letting go felt like. And it felt… right.
After a floral offering to the river, Erica slowly eases in. (Photo: Erica Bray)
I opened my eyes and knelt before the Ganges, a holy river with an ugly reputation. I tossed the marigolds as I offered up a silent intention to a river that, at that moment, was the most beautiful thing in the world. Then I jumped.
An icy, electric current shot through my body as I immersed myself completely, then resurfaced three times. Up and down, up and down, up and down. The water was icy cold. It was also intensely invigorating. It inspired a sensation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Volts of energy shot through me. I felt so alive. So utterly, completely alive.
She’s all in. (Photo Erica Bray)
I emerged from the water feeling victorious. I shot my hands into the air, shouting praises of gratitude toward the sky. It was a baptism into the same world but with a new lens — which included a new openness to the irrational, the questionable, and the scary.
I recall this moment at the Ganges whenever I need the confidence to plunge into something that, at first, may frighten me or be something I don’t fully understand. I take a deep breath and just let go. There’s only so much you can control or rationalize. If you don’t take the plunge every once in a while, you’re not living.