I know what you’re thinking –- who, in their right mind, would swim in a river known for funeral pyres and ash scattering? A river that, through time and evolution, has developed a species of bacteria specializing in exfoliating skin (living or not) and even more interesting, a bacteriophage that feeds on bacteria.
First, I was in northern India, close to the source, where the water is so clear you can look down from a bridge and watch fish swim below the surface … and second, perhaps right mind is relative.
I was staying at an ashram on one side of the river and the swimming hole was on the other. One downside to the swim was that the only time I could squeeze it in was dawn (around 7am), and while the afternoons were a lovely 70 degrees and sunny, the morning lows dipped to 45 degrees.
It would be a wet, chilly walk back to the room. I should mention here that while men can swim practically naked and put warm clothes on for the walk back, women must wear full-length trousers and long-sleeved shirts over their swimwear in order to not offend the local renunciates. For my swim, I wore a cotton, long-sleeved Indian tunic over my Speedo one-piece, and completed the outfit with baggy nylon workout pants.
Concrete steps leading up from the river created the swimming area. The water was low in February (the Himalayas hadn’t begun their spring thaw) so I stood at the edge, and after watching the water flow for a moment, plunged in feet first. About 20 feet downstream there was a chain to grab in order to clamber back onto the safety of the relatively warm concrete … and that was it. I repeatedly plunged, drifted with the current, grabbed the chain and pulled myself ashore. I did it so many times that first morning that my lips began to turn blue. I didn’t want to stop.
I laughed from the moment I hit the water. The Ganges is effervescent. I felt an incredible buoyant joy –- as though I was being held by eternity itself and in its arms felt the pure happiness of a child. After that swim, I began to believe in the purifying reputation of Mother Ganga.