Asia » India » Uttar Pradesh » Varanasi - 25th January 2018
25.01.2018 - 25.01.2018 25 °C
The past few mornings had been cool, clear and crisp. Today was positively freezing, foggy and soggy.
But, at last, we'd be travelling by boat on the sacred River Ganges and arriving in Varanasi like proper travellers - providing we didn't freeze to death along the way!
I'm not sure what type of boat we were expecting. A typical wooden boat, perhaps with a pretty awning, colourful cushions and rugs on which to while away the hours, a mast and sail to speed us on our way...? Well, correct on one point at least.
A typical wooden boat awaited our arrival at the foot of one of Mirzapur's ghats, next to an old chap casting a line out into the calm water, more in hope than in anticipation of catching a fish for lunch on a bone-chilling day such as this.
The boat was of the kind used by men who rowed pilgrims out to the Sangam at a previous port of call (Another holy city. Another extraordinary experience!). It had a chugging diesel engine but neither a mast nor a sail in sight. A set of rustic oars sat idly on its boarded floor, just in case the engine broke down (again?). The dark-skinned boatman, in a jacket zipped up tightly to his neck and with a white bandana tied around his head, manned a tiller at the stern. At least there were two plastic garden chairs and a couple of bright blankets for us to sit on. Given the total absence of sun, a pretty awning would have been surplus to requirements anyway, wouldn't it?
Handing us a couple of bottles of water and a cheerful pink carrier bag containing a meagre lunch of biscuits, crisps and fruit (but no life-jackets), Bablu waved us farewell. So did a small contingent of locals intrigued to see two grey-haired old foreigners wrapped up ready for an Arctic expedition heading off into the grey mist.
Into the freezing fog we headed, the bank on our side of this wide stretch of water just visible, the one on the other side not so. Passing more of the town's ghats, people waved from the steps with a smile (or was it a laugh!).
We waved back - but certainly didn't smile at the piles of ancient rubbish and religious offerings, some still in plastic bags, by their sides and about to add to the river's problems.
David wrapped a blanket around his knees. I sheltered on the floor behind a convenient windbreak near the prow of our craft.
The silent boatman, clearly able to read the river's currents and sandbanks, steered us in zigzag fashion through the mist.
Sometimes we were near the starboard bank, passing a lone fisherman squatting with a pole in his hands, propelling his tiny boat at a sedate pace close into the muddy shoreline. Elsewhere, men tended elaborate fish traps and an occasional ferry boat loaded a few passengers and their bicycles.
At other times, we were on the port side observing men seated high up on rickety bamboo platforms seemingly keeping watch for pirates, and a boy tying coloured cloth around bundles of flowers to be taken to market in waiting boats. Here too, at the edge of these holy waters, were bright yellow and red fabric remnants and scorched earth at the site of a lone funeral pyre. Bloated carcasses of a cow and a goat bobbing along were reminders too of the Ganges' sacred significance.
Sometimes we were way out in the centre overtaking smaller, more heavily-laden boats being rowed or with a single square sail - and with awnings protecting their fortunate occupants from the chill wind that threatened to turn our noses blue! We huddled deeper into the warmth of our jackets and layers of t-shirts and fleeces beneath.
The bird-life on, above and beside the water in the early morning was prolific. Flocks of ducks (pochard and pintail, I think David said), pairs of grebes, grey herons, pied kingfishers, bright white egrets and black cormorants of varying sizes were commonplace. Ospreys, vultures, red-naped ibis and black kites occasionally flew overhead. The light was poor, making photography awkward, difficult, challenging - and all other euphemisms for nigh on blooming impossible. (Thank you Photoshop for suitably enhancing one or two of my poorly-exposed photos to include with this blog!)
David confirmed his identification of birds on the river using his Helm Field Guides 'Birds of the Indian Subcontinent'
By late-morning, the sun had slowly begun to warm the air, lifting the chilling mist from the water, brightening the sky. We passed cultivated banks gold with the blooms of mustard plants and squashes growing in rich silt deposited here during the last monsoon. Huge scarecrows flapped their wings in the breeze. Men washed bowls at the water's edge. Women and girls washed clothes. Boys washed themselves and enjoyed a swim in the swift waters that grew greener, browner, greyer with every mile. Despite everything, fishing with nets suspended beneath floats made of plastic bottles seemed to be a worthwhile enterprise for some.
The river banks were often high above us, villages concealed but villagers waving to us from on top and their garbage spewing down to await disposal by the next monsoon flood.
In two places along our route, we encountered floating bridges constructed of flimsy, narrow roadways suspended above cylindrical metal pontoon drums each a little more than the height of a partly-submerged man. We ducked as our boatman found a space between two drums high enough and wide enough for us to squeeze through. Temporary in design but doubtless having been there for years, these pontoon bridges were suitable only for pedestrians and light vehicles. Beyond both of them, high concrete viaducts were under construction - in time, they would allow either trains or the usual heavily-overloaded lorries to cross, changing the landscape and the environment here for ever.
At one such crossing point, at Chunar part-way through our journey, we stopped to stretch our legs. The mist had cleared, the sun had come up and, finally, we felt warm. We'd been sitting in a cold boat for the past four hours and now we needed to 'spend a penny' (a British term not often used these days, except by polite folk of a certain age). That call of nature would have to wait as our walk to the historic Chunar Fort was up across an open expanse of sand and along a road lined with houses and workshops. Unlike kissing in public, pissing in public isn't frowned upon by Indian men; it was, however, a bit infra dig for two polite old Britons.
Along the way, we briefly watched some boys playing cricket on a dry, flat pitch complete with a scoreboard and horses grazing on what little bits of greenery they could find around the edges. We also stopped to inspect the work of carpenters making wooden furniture with basic tools in the open air, to watch the local left-handed pressing service in action with his giant, smouldering-charcoal iron, and to exchange smiles with a group of men playing a game of rummy. The penny was spent in woods beneath the fort's ramparts shortly after.
Chunar Fort itself, however, was a disappointment - we'd have had to walk a lot farther to gain entrance to the small part that's open to the public. It's now largely a police or army training camp, complete with a sports ground where trainees were playing cricket, the game with which all Indians seem obsessed.
We returned to the boat, continuing downstream, enjoying the sunshine, nibbling our biscuits, crisps and fruit - and looking forward to dinner.
This part of the river was deeper, its sandbanks and islands more frequent, requiring more careful navigation across the currents. Except for small groups of kites and an occasional cormorant, it was now largely devoid of birds. In places, the banks were low and men shovelled dry, sandy silt into a line of boats to be taken off and sold for use in construction elsewhere. A few temples fringed the shoreline and a truly enormous pumping station tried unsuccessfully to empty this equally enormous river to irrigate dry fields inland.
As the sun began to drop towards the horizon, so it became chilly once again. Fortunately, the imposing, crumbling, red sandstone Ramnagar Fort rising high above us on our starboard bow soon indicated that we were nearing our destination.
In fading light, with a mist starting to fall, row upon row of ghats and temples hovering above the waterline welcomed us to Varanasi, our spiritual journey's end.
This had certainly been a day to remember, partly for the cold, the lack of comfort and the starvation rations.
Mostly, however, it was memorable for all the right reasons - its unique view of this sacred river, the life (and death) on and beside it, and for the very special way of arriving in one of the world's most ancient and most holy cities.
I'm glad we did this journey by boat.
I'm also glad, looking back, that the boat 'broke down' and limited us to just one day on the river. Two days might have been an experience to remember for all the wrong reasons!