Fish Whisperers of Varanasi

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At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water. 

I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…

From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.

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A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.  

I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me. 

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As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting.  I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.

“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious. 

The son nodded.

“What are they for?”

“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.

“To be…what! Why?”

“Why? Because…He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”

Where else indeed. 

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I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance. 

They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.

No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is. 

Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.

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Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.  Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…

A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.

Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves… 

Perhaps.

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10 thoughts on “Fish Whisperers of Varanasi

      1. Slowly. I did spend a lot of time on the waters, riding ferries, on my last weekend with a friend who came up from Bangalore. He told me that aside from Varanasi, Kolkata is the only city in India that still has a wide river flowing through it, that damming and irrigation have reduced others.

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  1. The same river – Ganga. Different moods at different places. I got to see the two tributaries that joined to become Ganga up in the Himalayas. An unforgettable experience. A little lower down in Haridwar, she is narrower but extremely turbulent. The current there is so strong that you risk getting swept away if you don’t hold on firmly to the thick metal chains provided. In Rishikesh, she is wide and seemingly placid. Got only a glimpse of her in Kolkata, but she seemed calm enough, like in Varanasi.

    I would love to trace her path to the sea… 🙂

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  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful moment, this quiet, meaningful ritual. What a special place, where so many come to pay their respects, albeit in different ways, or just to sit and watch and appreciate as you have done.

    Such fond memories, thank you for reawakening them.

    Liked by 1 person

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