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My Ganges Boat Tour in Varanasi

Written By: jipp - Jul• 16•19

One of the highlights of my whole trip to Varanasi happened on my last day in this holy and ancient city – the boat tour at Ganges river. Just so that I could avoid being roasted under the burning sun, I decided to do it early in the morning. Refusing to think too much, I asked the hotel to arrange it for me. It was INR300 per hour, so I took 2 hours so that I did not have to rush. On the first day when I was supposed to go for it, I woke up only to find out the hotelier was still soundly asleep. Refusing to wake him up, I returned to my room and continued sleeping. When I told him about it later in the day, he told me that I should have just woken him up. He wouldn’t have minded at all. So that was what I did on my second day, I woke him up and found myself floating on a boat 10 minutes or so later.

The boatman was a 27-year-old local guy who was born and raised in Varanasi. To spice up the conversation that we had, I asked him if he’s been to New Delhi – the capital city of India. He told me he’d never anywhere else but Varanasi all his life. Taken aback, I told him he should, to which he replied “may be in another life”. I felt a sharp pang across my face, regretting to have had that subject brought up in the first place. I could always argue back but I saw no point to it. Urgh.

I was quite taken aback when I first noticed that it was a rowing boat instead of an engine-powered one. Two hours suddenly seemed so relevant. Luckily the Ganger river in Varanasi moves very slowly, in fact you don’t even see it moving so propelling the boat with a pair of oars is not as tough as it would have been if it was moving at high speed.

The boat took me to the other side of the river where a large crowd of people had already gathered around. After all it was a weekend. Some were taking a dip in the greenish water of the Ganges river, a practice considered as a form of soul purification among the Hindus, while some were enjoying the beautiful sunrise from the large sandy area on the riverbank which was probably the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of sedimentation.

The view of the sunrise really was spectacular and somehow I felt like the sun was nearer to the earth as I was standing there and taking it all in. The boatman offered me a cup of chai to which I politely declined. Somehow the paranoia in me kept telling me that the water might have been siphoned off the river and that thought alone would not tolerate even a single sip of chai that they offered to me. I feel so stupid when I think of it now. Urgh.

I was enjoying the morning view and all the things around me when I caught sight of a group of teenagers – probably volunteers – who were collecting trash and putting them in plastic bags. While it was a commendable act, I really think refraining from dumping any trash at all would have been more effective both in a short and long run. That the people would still litter mindlessly in a place they consider holy is really beyond me. I’ve seen how religion and culture go head to head with each other in many places that I’ve been to but here in Varanasi, culture seems to be the clear winner when it comes to littering.

So from the sand area, the boatman continued rowing upstream, this time to another major attraction in Varanasi – the crematorium. The crematorium in Varanasi is probably the biggest in the whole of India with 200 to 300 bodies are cremated every single day. The boatman told me how it is the dream of every Hindu devotee in India to be cremated and for their ashes be disposed of into Ganges river. “It’s good for the Karma” he assured me.

After docking his boat, I followed him to the multi-storey crematorium where I had a very close encounter with the furnaces where bodies were burnt among piles of woods. I was surprised by how tolerable the smell was, in fact I could almost not smell it, but the smokes were suffocating especially when the wind brought them directly to me and I had to hold my breath. I was doing alright but inhaling the smokes from burning bodies did not seem so appealing to me.

I was lucky because I had already seen in full view the burning of bodies in Kathmandu so I was not really concerned about how unprepared I was to see it again in Varanasi. I remember how somebody – probably one of the family members – would bring a torch to the body and started the fire, usually starting from the face before spreading to other parts of the body. I even recorded it on my camera – something that was strictly prohibited at this crematorium in Varanasi.

The crematorium

The hardship of the labor was unbelievable too. They do it round the clock but I am not sure if there were any work shifts involved. My focus was on a group of laborers who were unloading woods from a newly-arrived cart when a group of youngsters approached me. They said they worked at the crematorium too although I was quite sure they did not. They asked if I could give them money for their hard labor, reiterating that it was good for my karma too.

The boatman seems to give his nod of approval too but I know all too much about people ripping tourists off at places like this one. I said I did not have much money so I offered IDR100. They gave me that unhappy look and demanded more. “At least IDR400” one of them told me. Answering to the bell of alarm in my head, I told them I did not have that much money and immediately started off to leave. One of them came after me, saying they could accept that IDR100 and I granted it to them, just so that I could get out of situation (and place) quickly.

Rowing back to my hotel, it really was such a serenity. Knowing that the river came from the depths of the Himalayan mountains, roaring its way across the continent all the way to Bengal Bay, I felt so much connected to the nature and earth and all the elements in between. I remember how I had planned to get a taste of the water in the river – perhaps just a dip of finger and put it on my tongue – but after visiting the crematorium and watched them dispose the ashes of burned bodies into the river, I had to drag down my ego and said no even the slightest thought of doing it. I mean, I’ve always been a firm believer in second thoughts. Heh.

Somebody was waiting for us when we arrived back at the boat docking area. He introduced himself as the owner of the boat, and demanded that I paid the money to him. I told him that my deal with the hotelier through which I booked the boat tour was to pay the money to the hotel and not to the boat owner. He had to agree to it. Then he asked if I could give him some tips for the boatman, and I told him that I had some but I’d prefer to hand it directly to the boatman.

If there was one thing that I had learned from the experience, it’d be to hand the tips to the boatman when the boat was still out in the river, away from the prying eyes of the boat owner and not when it had already been docked and the boat owner was there to see. When I handed the money to the boatman, he did not look happy. Thinking back now, I think he would have to pass the money to the boat owner later – and if he was lucky, some of it would go back to him, if ever. I wish I could turn back the time but just like the river of Ganges itself, what is past is past. It goes one way – and will never go back to where it had flowed from. Uhuks!

Saying goodbye to the boatman, I took a little walk along the riverside of Ganges to see what there was to see, which was aplenty of course. From what I have read, the Hindus (I am not sure if this applies to every Hindu or only some of them) believe that one will undergo the purification of soul by just being in the vicinity of Ganges river. I can’t really say much about that but I really could feel the air of spirituality when I was there walking along the riverbank of Ganges where millions of Hindu devotees would come to purify their souls every year.

I was enjoying the view, the ambiance and the beautiful atmosphere when my eyes caught sight of pillow cases, bedsheets and whatnots being dried under the sun. I mean, I was OK with it until I caught sight of people washing them down in the river of Ganges. Then it began to disturb me. With my hotel being so close to the river, I couldn’t help but thinking that the hotel that I stayed in actually washed their bedsheets, pillowcases and even the towels at the river of Ganges! So all throughout my stay at the hotel in Varanasi I’ve been literally rubbing my bare skin with the river of Ganges. From then on, I had to really minimize my skin contact with those stuff. Urghh.

My lazy stroll along the riverbank of Ganges continued until it was too hot to stay outdoor so I decided to retreat back to the hotel and returned to the comfort of the air-conditioner.

I returned to the riverside of Ganges late in the afternoon though, to attend one of the highlights of my whole trip to Varanasi – the Ganga Aarti Ceremony. The ceremony which began at about 7pm was started with chanting of hymns by some individual, probably a religious, followed by a group of young pandits in saffron robes who came on stage and performed a ritual of holding and swinging flaming oil-lamps in a synced motion, in unison with the chanted hymns.

Another group at the next temple performed the ritual of waving and swinging a peacock feather fan (or at least looking like one) in one hand while ringing a hand-bell in another, also in unison with a chanted hymn. It really was a spectacular sight to behold and I felt so lucky to be there to witness it all.

Returning to my hotel later, it came to my mind that it was my last night in Varanasi before I flew back to Kolkata – one of the cities that I had always wanted to go to all my life and the more I thought about it, the more excited I became.

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Exploring Varanasi

Written By: jipp - Jul• 06•19

Bhadra Khali Guest House

The hotel was Bhadra Khali Guest House. I found it on Booking.com with excellent reviews. Since the room that I booked was so cheap, I was not surprised when the guy at the counter told me that the one that I had booked was a non-airconditioned room. He offered to give me one with air-con, with additional RM75 to the bill for 3 nights. I was there when the heat was making news all over, with the temperature at some places in India had soared to 50℃. That temperature is a no-joke. Considering that I may spend much of my time in the room (thanks God they had a good internet connection!), I agreed to get the one with an air-con.

Bhadra Khali Guest House met most of the good reviews that I had read about it on the internet. The staff were super-welcoming. The owner was there too most of the time. Opening up to a conversation that I started, he told me that he was in the UK for 20 years but had to come back to Varanasi because nobody was taking care of the hotel. We exchanged views on India and the people, which was one of my favorite topics of conversation. He told me how outsiders would think that everybody on the streets of India is poor when that is not quite the case. In fact some of them are millionaires but they mingle around with the crowds and you wouldn’t be able to tell which and which.

He also told me how that there is job for everybody in India, and those who can’t find a job are those who are lazy and want easy money. I gotta say I was taken aback when he said that but then he is a local there so he should know his people more than I do.

My favorite part of the hotel is the rooftop café. Unfortunately, the summer heat (yes, they call it summer) made it almost impossible to stay on the rooftop when the temperature was soaring high, and going there in the morning when the temperature was cool could expose me to a threat in the form of monkeys – or so I was warned by the staff. I was told that the monkeys could be quite aggressive so I had to be careful being around them. But I did manage to sneak out when they were not around and enjoyed the beautiful view of Ganges River from the atop the building. The view was breath-taking and the feeling was amazing.

One of the best things about Bhadra Khali Guest House was the location, which was very much near to the river. Walking out from it would be a quick access to the riverside and very near to the main temples where the puja ceremonies would take place in the evening every day. When I first came out to the river, I was instantly overwhelmed by the crowds, the sweeping views and the bustling atmosphere. Dozens of boats were docked at the riverside while dozens more were making their ways across and along the river. They really looked like they came straight out of a movie scene that I remember having watched, or probably from some book that I had read. 

The History

Varanasi is a city of a very long history. It is described on Wikipedia to be a city that dates back to the ancient time, when gods and goddesses were still roaming the earth and even fought against each other. In Hindu mythology, Varanasi is said to be the place where Shiva dropped Brahma’s chopped off head which then disappeared in the ground and holifed the whole area. In later eras, kings are known to have built temples and palaces in Varanasi and they are still very much there as a testament to its glorious past.

Exploring the streets of the old town of Varanasi can be quite confusing. It is a complex maze of streets that would likely send you tagging behind your own tail if you are not familiar with them. Quite a few times I lost my way and had to ask around, which was not easy since most of the locals could not speak or understand English. They’d point their finger to somewhere but it was more like they wanted to get rid of you the quickest possible.

The Smell

Just like in most major towns and cities in India, Varanasi is still struggling with littering problem. The buildings and the streets are so beautiful – even rivalling those in the old towns of, say, Europe and probably South America, and yet the piles of trash and the stench that comes with them is such a huge setback. The stench does really come from the piles of trash though. Instead it comes from the spitting of betel – which is a popular practice among the locals in Varanasi (and many parts of India).

Then the people of Varanasi seem to embrace their co-existence with animals, mostly cows and dogs so their disposals also make up most of the smell of the streets. That we did not see any cats all throughout our trip was one of my topic of conversation with my travel buddies when I went to India the first and second time. Seeing them in Varanasi and later in Kolkata was quite a surprise and delight to me. But still they were far fewer than the number of cows and dogs that I bumped into while walking on the streets in these two cities. They were literally everywhere.

I gotta admit that the smell of the streets of Varanasi was quite unbearable to me in the beginning, but as I spent more and more days in this bustling city, my nostrils kinda got used to it and I could finally accept the fact that all the smell was part of the characteristics of the city and in a way was part of its beauty. Heh. 

The Food

The quickest way of finding out the best restaurants in Varanasi is via Google – which would usually lead you to TripAdvisor. Desperate to get a good food in Varanasi (the hotel does cook but I had to stop ordering food when the cook seemed to cough incessantly, just for precaution), I googled for it and tons of restaurant reviews popped up. After noting down some of the restaurants that I thought I had some interest in, I went to look for them.

I was actually looking for a restaurant called Aadha-Aadha Café, and without any internet access to my phone, it was not easy to locate. Asking the locals had proved to be futile too, may be because they don’t go to such restaurant. When I finally managed to find it, it was closed for the summer because the restaurant is apparently located on the rooftop of a hotel where the summer heat was unbearable.

I went to my second choice on the list, to a restaurant called Sushi Café and Continental Restaurant. The food did not really wow me, but it was the coffee that immediately clicked in my head. India may be known to produce some of the best, not to mention expensive, teas in the world but coffee is definitely not really their cup of tea. Getting a good coffee on the streets of India has always been not easy so when I found a not-so-bad coffee at Sushi Café and Continental Restaurant, I was thoroughly delighted.

And of course I kept coming to this restaurant ever since, and I had come to realize that the same reviews on the internet could come so handy when it comes to ordering food. Since the menu did not offer any visual assistance, I had to rely wholly on my own imagination based on the name of the dishes on the menu. Fortunately though many of those who have left their reviews on TripAdvisor left pictures of food that they ordered too – together with their reviews – so it really made my ordering food so much easier.

I wish I had the guts of eating some of the food on the street of Varanasi which were aplenty but 3 visits to India were apparently not enough to grant me with those (the guts). For one the streets are so dusty, so I could not help but imagining that those food were heavily coated with dust and dirt. Then the hands of the food handlers – I mean, I could imagine all kind of things on their hands but the bottom line is, I just did not have the guts. Not yet.

And then the chai. I am more of a coffee guy and less of a chai’s but then it is still good to be had as far as my constant need for caffeine is concerned.  But then I had this stupid thought that some of the water supply might be siphoned off the Ganges river – which was not entirely illogical since the holy river is believed to be able to purify both the bodies and souls. I never asked any of the locals to confirm about this anyway.

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