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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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