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Spiritual India

This was the spiritual India I’d imagined.
We are in Nasik, where one of the holiest rivers in India, the Godavari, runs through the old city center and pilgrims come from everywhere to bathe and pray.  Nasik is a city out of Hindu mythology, so there are many temples and shrines and it’s a center for religious pilgrimage where people come to cleanse their souls in the river.  
It feels very different from Pushkar – another pilgrim center we visited a couple of weeks ago where the infrastructure was set up to both accommodate and prey on pilgrims and visitors. Nasik feels like the real deal- full of families and people coming here for purification.
We rode in today from Saputara- not nearly as downhill a ride as I would have expected after yesterday’s climbing.  It was a lovely ride down with beautiful mountain views and soft early-morning light.  We passed many grapevines – we entered India’s wine growing country — and there were creative scarecrows guarding grapes and roadside stands selling mounds of green and purple grapes.
As we passed over a bridge in Nasik.  We had clearly come to a special place, so after navigating the traffic to the other side of town to get to the hotel, Michiline and I took a tuk-tuk back to the action in the old city.
We wandered down to the river which was lined with gnats (bathing pools) and sat quietly on some steps for about an hour and absorbed.  We were welcomed but were careful not to intrude.  Occasionally we were approached by curious pilgrims, children and beggars but generally left to sit quietly.
What I saw was the spiritual mixed with levity and joy. No heavy-handed gloom and doom religion here.
There was a lively continuing circuit of women receiving blessings in the river.  Families coming to the water together to bathe. People launching little bowls of flowers into the river prayers. Men bathing and praying.
Intermixed were children climbing polls, splashing, playing, swimming. Women were lined on the edges doing brightly colored laundry – soaping, beating it with a long flat bat – rinsing.  Women who had bathed stood back combing out their wet hair. Families gathered photographing each other with cellphones and some were set up with their own picnics. Samosa and chai sellers roamed around with the flower sellers giving it a picnic atmosphere. 
 I saw a family that I think may have been releasing a loved one’s ashes into the river. The men had mostly shaved heads except for a little spot in the back and were wearing white – which I understand it the color of mourning here.  This river is one of those that will allow the soul to be liberated, so friends and family bring ashes here to immerse them in the river and liberate their souls.

Women bathed fully clothed. Men and boys stripped down to shorts or loincloths.

After just absorbing all this we walked through the gnats and over a bridge to the market.  There were women with different herbal medicines laid out on blankets- roots, moss, bark, dried leaves …I suspect there was a potion for everything available. We saw men reading palms and telling fortunes. And wandered through a food market laden with fresh grapes, tomatoes, peppers, snap peas, little green  eggplant, a leafy herb that looked something like watercress and huge red carrots. 
When we passed the spice vendor he invited us to taste, and suddenly many of the flavors we tasted in the food had a visual in a small seed or pod or mound of colorful powder.  That seems common practice at markets – just stick your hand into the bin and taste – and I heard from other travelers that dairy gets tested for quality the same way – people stick their hand into the bucket of milk to check the thickness and quality of milk fat. But better not to dwell on those details…. Just eat it and keep the antibiotic handy.
We wandered up the hill towards some of the many temples. There were several temples that featured photos of a man looking very angelic and holy and charging entrance fees.   There were long lines to go in.  We did not go in, but Rodney – who has traveled to India often and married to a woman from here, explained that people would go there to have these gurus pray for them and pay for them to say prayer on their behalf. And prayers often had different prices. A simple blessing might be one rupee but praying for your son to pass university entrance exams would cost more.  The more exclusive the temple, the more expensive the prayer.  People can pray for themselves, too, of course but the thought is that while you are here on pilgrimage might as well get a special prayer, too.
Fascinating and moving day today.  A reminder that it’s always worth it to get out and explore – even after biking 90k and a nap seems more appealing.
Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA