Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, is famous the world over as one of the holiest of Hindu sites. It attracts Hindu’s from all over India and the world to worship and to bathe in the sacred waters of the River Ganges. For visitors such as myself, it is one of the “must visit” places in India, despite its reputation for also being one of the dirtiest and most congested cities in India. The city’s focus is the Ghats lining the northern side of the river for about 3 miles from Assi Ghat in the south to Raj Ghat in the North and the congested maze of narrow lanes running immediately behind the Ghats. I was staying barely 50 metres from the riverbank next to Man Mandhir Ghat and very close to the centre of events.
Early the first morning I took a boat ride to witness the daily ritual of thousands of devout Hindus bathing in the river as the sun rose above the opposite bank and bathed the Ghats in a very mellow light as the mist gradually cleared. I felt somewhat uncomfortable that I was one of many tourist boats, bow to stern and sometime 2 or 3 deep, watching this most personal of activities. On subsequent days I sat amongst the pilgrims on the Ghats and felt much more at ease being part of events rather than an impassive observer in a boat. The action on the Ghats continues pretty much day and night and combines religious activity with those essential for daily life. Dhobi Wallahs and buffalo share the waterfront with bathers, hawkers, priests and much more, including 2 burning Ghats, which operate almost constantly to satisfy the demand for people to have their ashes scattered on the Ganga, thereby releasing them from the eternal cycle of rebirth.
The narrow lanes behind the Ghats are a real maze and contain a wealth of history, numerous temples, shops selling locally made glass bead necklaces and other crafts. A prize find was the German bakery, selling delicious apple crumble and cappuccino. The lanes themselves start each new day clean, presumably washed down every night, but as the day wore on they became very dirty, in part because the narrowness of them meant that a single cowpat became an impenetrable obstacle, until smeared into the cobbles by a thousand passing feet. The narrow lanes were also the main way for thousands of pilgrims to reach the Ghats and for hundreds of buffalo to reach the river. The river itself was cleaner than I expected; partly I suspect because the heavy rain of the monsoon had not long passed and the river was still flowing quite fast; I have no doubt it gets a lot worse if what I saw going in is anything to go by.
One afternoon I decided to venture upstream and to the opposite bank of the river to visit Ramnagar Fort: the former home of the Maharaja of Varanasi and now a museum. It looked about 3 miles, so I decided to go by rowing boat. Having negotiated a reasonable price with a boatman, he quickly found a willing volunteer to row this lunatic (me) up steam in the hot afternoon sun. Judging by the strange looks I got and the relish with which the oarsman told his chums on the riverbank where he was going, it was clearly not a regular request. We started by hugging the shoreline by the Ghats to avoid the worst of the opposing current and then headed across the river; despite pointing the bow of the boat 45 degrees upstream, we still ended up going backwards, but did eventually reach the opposite bank, but still well short of the Fort. That was the easy bit. The oarsman by now looked close to expiring and I did offer to get out and walk along the sandy shore whilst he pulled the boat along. Clearly offended he doubled his stroke rate and we inched forward into the current. Sandbanks abound in this part of the river, as we found out a short while later when we grounded mid river. Undaunted by this setback, the oarsman redoubled his efforts and managed to pull us clear, even if we had gone backwards again. An hour later we finally reached the Ramnagar Fort.
The fort itself is actually architecturally very impressive, rising defensively from the riverbank and topped with elaborate balconies and temples. Sadly this part cannot be visited except by clambering along the riverbank, which of course I simply had to do. Inside the fort is a museum – a typical collection of rather moth eaten stuffed animals, howdah’s, carriages, an armoury and, tucked away in a corner, a wonderful collection of carved ivory pieces. Outside I also stumbled across two real elephants, one a magnificent bull with huge tusks, but was quickly ushered away. Readers will be pleased to hear that the boat trip back to Varanasi was with the current and much quicker. The oarsman was well rewarded for his efforts.
Photo credits: Jeremy Richards.