– By Rijul Nadkarni (RLBU)
Every river has a mind of its own. Some are romantic and playful and then there are those that paint a picture of serenity. It’s on a cruise that one encounters the many moods of a river or any water body for that matter. Along the journey one can learn about stories from the past, explore new lands and visit forgotten civilisations.
Having spent most of my life in Bombay , Goa , Muscat and Surathkal before coming to Delhi , my affinity for the coast and ‘flowing water’ is obvious. Though one may not have the time to set sail across oceans, but there are always the short cruises and I managed to hit one such short cruise through the Holy Ganges.
After a couple of hectic weeks while on a project assignment in the vicinity of ‘Banaras’ , I along with couple of other mates hopped onto a bus on a Saturday night . Travelling by a bus in UP/ Bihar is quite an experience . It’s almost like a Mumbai local train or any coach on the blue line of the Delhi metro magnanimously condensed and often sometimes there are more bodies atop the bus than inside it .
On a Saturday night , we’re enroute to Varanasi, about an hour and a half long journey from our current location . There are two major bus stops on the route. if you happen to commute by bus . The first bus stop is Maruthi Nagar which is used for the buses coming down from Calcutta and the other one is Lanka which berths buses coming from Delhi. If you happen to travel by train , the Varanasi railway station is located at “Cant” , an Air Force Cantonment area which is a prime location and is well connected to all the corners of the city and there’s Kashi railway station where fewer trains halt and is more ‘ancient’ of the pair . When you arrive in Varanasi by train, you will be overwhelmed by the masses of people that frequent this train station at any given time on any day. It is always packed with people and pilgrims, which is understandable since it’s one of the holiest cities in the world.
We were put up at Ishaan guest house close to the Assi Ghat (a little more on ghats later ) . A guest house accommodation is something I’d strongly recommend than the more flashy , attractive and river-facing hotels . They’re generally massive homes with some of the rooms offered out on rent . It gives a homely feelings having all the basic amenities a hotel would provide at more reasonable price with the only constraint being food which one would have to arrange for oneself. On the flipside , it helps you experience ‘Espirito de kashi “ – The ‘Banaras ki Galliyan ‘ . The people , the music and the stories will make you delve deep into the city’s flavor as endless and labyrinthine as the lanes of Kashi.
Any trip plan to Varanasi will revolve around a visit to the most sacrosanct spots of them all – The Holy Ganges. The whole atmosphere is mesmerizing possibly turning an atheist also into a devotee . The most appropriate time to head there whether you’re a ‘morning person’ or not would be around sunrise. We were at the bank of the river by 6 am (sunrise timings vary at different times of the year so please look that up before heading . ) . After using some ‘tricks of the trade’ , we negotiated our way to what we felt was an affordable price and in great satisfaction as if to have closed a mammoth deal , we boarded the boat that would be our ride across the Ganges. After some brainstorming , we unanimously decided to name it ‘Amish’ due to Varanasi’s association with Lord Shiva .
So, as Amish hit the Ganga waters on a chilly Sunday morning, we let go of all tensions and surrendered our minds to eternal bliss . With the boat gently picking up pace and the cool breeze caressing our cheeks , ‘we rowed along gently down the stream. We opted for conventional boat with couple of oars instead of the motor boat so that we could test our strength and temperament. Our boatman was kind enough to let us try our hands at it . There are about 87 ghats along the river and flanked by a rail bridge and a road bridge on either side, it definitely offers a picturesque sky view. But we had to settle for the view Amish offered us and our boatman played guide for a while taking us along the ghats and explaining stories and plots behind some of the ghats .
For some of us who aren’t aware , Ghats in Varanasi are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges . Most of the ghats are used for bathing and puja ceremony purposes while a few are exclusively used as cremation sites. Most of them were built after 1700 AD, when the city was part of Maratha Empire as per our boatman guide. The two most famous ghats are the Dashashwamedh and Rajendra ghats which house the famous Ganga Aarti . The Manikarnika ghat is the primary cremation ghat. There are various background stories with respect to this ghat with references to ‘Karma’ , ‘Mukti’ , birth-life cycle etc.
The cremation process itself work like this: the bodies arrive strapped to the car roofs at a certain place outside the old city and is then carried through the little alleys down to the cremation Ghats, where hectic activities goes on all day long. We were told that about 100 people are cremated on a daily basis. That needs a lot of firewood and a lot of people to build the fireplaces. A certain quality of wood is used for the cremation process, to keep the smoke and the smell as little as possible. The cremation cost depends on the weight and type of wood used.
It’s ironic to label a river / place as holy, take a dip in it and at the same time immerse dead bodies of animals into the same. But we’ll leave that debate for later.
After getting a glimpse of the Ghats, our boatman took us to the opposite bank by rowing perpendicular to the river flow where the water is much cleaner to take the customary Varanasi Holy Ganga dip . This much talked about dip is supposed to wash off all your sins and we hoped we had taken the required number of dips to wash off our sins too. o
The stunning sunrise over the horizon with the Ganga in the foreground , the panoramic view of the ghats and seagulls rapidly kissing the water surface and gliding back up into the sky in a flash is a spectacle to say the least .
Post the boat-ride , one can’t miss to catch Lord Shiva’s ‘darshan’ at the Kashi Vishwanath temple at one of the ghats .
One can visit the Buddhist temple in Sarnath which is about 10 km away and come back to gear up for the Ganga Aarti in the evening . By the housing monuments built by emperor Ashoka , Sarnath boasts of fine infrastructure , mesmerizing art and skillful craftsmanship with beautiful sculptures .
Head back to Varanasi before 6 Pm when the Ganga Aarti kicks off as it’s something you can’t afford to miss out. As the bell thongs and the Aarti commences with a divine scent dispersing into the air , goose bumps trickle right down the spine . The bells are sounded in sync , the lamps are circled in an anticlockwise manner by the priests accompanied by changing of songs in praise of Mother Ganga . The Bengali contingent add their flavor to the atmosphere with the ritual that is followed in ‘Durgo Pujo ‘ to take it to a whole new level .
An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. It’s usually made in the form of a lit lamp and in the case of the Ganges River, a small diya with a candle and flowers that’s floated down the river.
Our day at Varanasi ended on a powerful note with the Ganga Aarti after which we spent an hour or so discussing college shenanigans and instances at work place sitting at the river bank in the moon light with the mind at the epitome of peace . This ended our one-day ‘affair’ with the holy Ganges and Varanasi in the most romantic manner possible , under the moonlight .