Taking in — and Floating on — the Ganges River

If you see a body floating down the Ganges, it's usually safe to assume it's dead. Devout Hindus deposit the remnants of their dead into the river, as they believe it purifies the soul. But don't be too sure. Body-surfing has arrived in this, the holiest of waterways.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This weekend marked the celebration of Diwali, or the festival of lights, for millions of Hindus around the world. The holiday marks a victory of good over evil, of light over darkness, and maybe that's why it's always accompanied by sweets and fireworks.

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INSKEEP: That sound comes to us via NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves, who recently paid a visit to another place sacred to millions of Hindus, the Ganges River.

PHILIP REEVES: The Ganges remains the superstar of India's great rivers, and, for Hindus, the holiest of them all. The devout travel for many miles to immerse themselves or deposit the ashes of their dead into her waters. They believe the Ganges will carry their dead to another realm, freeing them from the cycle of reincarnation. Some can't afford cremation. So if you stand on the riverbank, you sometimes see bodies floating by and find yourself wondering what that journey through the waters must really be like.

Now I know, or at least I know part of the answer. I've been a body floating down the Ganges, though mine was not a spiritual journey. I made it wearing a cheap plastic yellow helmet, a pair of tennis shorts, some sturdy sandals and thankfully a life jacket.

In the Himalayan Mountains where she begins, the river has a different personality: She's young and wild and cascades between the hills with impressive force.

We were in a place called Riche Kesh(ph). I though I was going on a white-water rafting trip. When I arrived on the riverbanks, I was given a paddle and a helmet and ordered to join a handful of others sitting in a large rubber dinghy. We set off down river, paddling awkwardly. The water gained speed. Soon whooping and cheering, we were spinning through the rapids swollen by the monsoon. Only after this did the full purpose of our mission become clear. The river widened and slowed. Then with the encouragement of our river guide, one by one the occupants of my raft began to jump into the water. We were body surfing down the Ganges.

But gliding silently along with the forest rising up the hills on either side, past temples, past long tailed langur monkeys scampering around the rocks is an experience that goes far beyond the fleeting thrill of white-water rafting.

There's one other thing, Hindus also believe drinking the Ganges purifies the soul. I can't say one way or the other. But I can tell you a mouthful of that glorious river, swallowed by mistake, didn't do me any harm.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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