BARRY O’BRIEN finds his cruise on a rickety boat to Varanasi an eye-opener
We were in a tiny village on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India.
Many residents had never seen white (Caucasian) people, houses had no running water, many had no electricity, but nearly everyone had a mobile phone. And we felt like film stars as there was a line-up to have selfies with us.
Impeccable, sari-clad ladies carried tubs full of dried cow dung on their heads for burning in the stove. Water buffalo were milked by hand and green feed was fetched from the fields.
The entourage that followed our every move was just as interested in everything we did as we were fascinated in seeing how they lived.
Wife Pat and I were on the 40-passenger Assam Bengal Navigation vessel Rajmahal, one of the few passenger boats on the river between Varanasi and Patna and only cruising this stretch of river in August and September when the Ganges is at its peak after the monsoon season. The company is in its 15th
First impressions of our home for the next seven days were mixed. The wind, on the tail end of a cyclone, was fierce and the water very choppy. A rickety old tender was waiting to take us to the vessel anchored on the other side of the wide river. The crew battled to hold the boat steady as a thin gangplank was lowered.
We came to love that rickety boat that took us to a new adventure every day. After our rough introduction the Ganges was like a millpond. It was like expedition cruising without getting your feet wet. Quays and landing stages were virtually non-existent, and access to the bank was always across muddy flats.
Every meal was a new taste sensation as we discovered tastes never before enjoyed. And there was plenty of it. Even good old shepherd’s pie had a spicy zing to it.
This fascinating adventure to locations rarely visited by tourists gave many new experiences. I don’t remember seeing another Caucasian, even in the bigger cities of a million and more. We had many quizzical stares and requests for photos. In a stop at one of the larger towns, we were greeted and interviewed by a reporter and photographer from the local edition of a national newspaper, such was the importance and rarity of our visit.
Cruising was only done in daylight. As the river recedes, channels can be hard to follow and sandbanks appear. On one occasion we came to a dead stop while cruising at speed, sending dishes flying.
Our cabins had full-width French windows, giving great views of the ever-changing, ever-interesting scenery and activity on the banks.
We drank and cleaned our teeth with bottled water on our Indian visit and made sure not to eat vegetables and fruit that couldn’t be peeled. But we were quite comfortable eating vegetables aboard as all were washed in bottled water. By being careful we escaped the dreaded “Delhi belly”. Food hygiene and preparation has improved greatly in India over the last decade.
A cooking demonstration was followed by a delicious tasting; another day a sari-wearing demonstration on how to wind an (up to) 8m piece of colourful material around the body. For men, the dhooti, a length of cloth wrapped around the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked in at the waistline, worn by Hindu men. The ladies fancied wearing the sari but men hesitated at the dhooti. Nevertheless, all joined in and tried them on with mixed reactions. We watched a Bollywood movie over a number of nights — they tend to go for three hours or more. The Indians beat the dastardly British in a game of cricket amid much song and dance.
Varanasi in northern India is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, dating back about 3000 years. Our guide gave us a small vision of life behind the ghats — riverfront steps leading to the banks of the Ganges River. Hindus from all over the world believe they must bathe in the holy Ganges at least once in their life, believing bathing facilitates remission of sins.
Walking around the little alleys dodging “land mines” — cattle, dog and even human poo — we were confronted by a huge sacred cow blocking the narrow walkway taking us through the heart of this city, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism.
As we carefully stepped over its legs, the completely unperturbed beast chewed happily on its cud.
On our small boat excursion next morning at dawn we observed the religious ceremony as many bathed and prayed in the soft glow of the early morning sun.
Sari-clad women were completely immersed in the river in joyous ceremony. Bottles of river water were filled to sprinkle around the home.
Dating back to 1700AD, 86 ghats are used for bathing and puja rituals where a lamp, candle or incense stick are lit accompanied by a chanted prayer or hymn to show reverence to a god.
Two ghats are used exclusively as crematorium sites. Two of the departed are undergoing the journey to the next world as we pass.
The crematorium owner, once an Untouchable in the caste system, is one of the richest men in the city. Hindus bring the bodies of the deceased from all over India — we later saw one being transported on the roof of a car.
The funeral pyre is lit with a flame obtained from the crematorium owner. An ordinary match doesn’t cut the mustard.
The ashes, and any part of the body not completely burnt, are floated into the Ganges.
A huge pile of ash was being washed away with the current. A little further down a man was dipping his toothbrush in to clean his teeth.
Those not permitted to be cremated are pregnant women, children under 12 years, anyone affected by a visible skin disease and those bitten by a cobra.
The women and children are wrapped in banana leaves, weighted down with a large stone, taken to the middle of the river and lowered into the water. The snakebite victims are laid out on a bamboo cradle with a pillow under their head and floated off downstream. Sadhus (holy men) and those of high office are sat upright in a chair, weighted down and gently lowered.
In the evening as the sun goes down, thousands of Hindus attend the spectacular Ganga Aarti ceremony, trainee Brahmins or young priests performing a choreographed devotional ritual using fire in the form of burning lamps as an offering to the Goddess Ganga.
ABN Rajmahal organised us the best seats possible, sitting in the front row of a first floor balcony to observe both the ritual and the ecstatic crowd.