The Ganges by boat - Return to India 4

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January 24th 2018
Published: March 25th 2018
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Sitamarhi Temple Sitamarhi Temple Sitamarhi Temple

This moated Hindu temple is certainly very unusual and its interior murals of mirrored mosaic are truly stunning,
January 2018

Return to India 4 (click on 'Previous Entry' below the panorama for earlier blogs)

The Ganges by boat

Uttar Pradesh

Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’).

Allahabad to Varanasi

Continuing the travels of two somewhat elderly brothers, David (of ‘the grey haired nomads’) and the younger, Mike, (aka, ‘keep smiling’) getting to know each other rather better as they travel through the north of this fascinating country.

Our hosts at Kanchan Villa Guesthouse in Allahabad are joining us for breakfast again this morning and there’s much excitement in the air as we prepare to embark on a two-day boat journey down the River Ganges, drifting gently on the mighty river all the way to Varanasi.

A representative from a local tour company arrives by car at our hotel at the appointed hour and, after brief introductions all round, we’re on our way. An ominous silence is broken after some twenty minutes as we finally leave the busy city traffic behind. ‘I have
Hanuman TempleHanuman TempleHanuman Temple

At 108ft tall Hanuman is one big idol, but for the moment he’s clothed in scaffolding and looking a bit worse for wear
to tell you that your boat is presently out of commission,’ our driver tells us with a nervous glance in the rear-view mirror. ‘They’re working on it right now, but in the meantime we’ll visit Sitamarhi Temple, about five miles from here while I try to establish the delay.’

I guess with that on our minds we’re really in no mood to wait around and take our shoes and socks off again. However, this rather spectacular moated Hindu temple is certainly very unusual and its interior murals of mirrored mosaic are truly stunning, so let’s make the most of it and try to keep positive. It’s quiet and rather peaceful here today, but up to 50,000 visitors can be expected daily during festival times.

An hour-or-so later and the news is certainly not good. The boat is still unserviceable. ‘I’ll check again shortly,’ our man says. ‘Meanwhile I’ll leave you at the nearby Hanuman Temple and walk from there to the mooring for more information. I’ll be back within the hour.’ At 108ft tall, Hanuman is one big idol, but for the moment he’s clothed in scaffolding and looking a bit worse for wear.

Street scene
The local market looks rather more interesting and we’re dying for a drink; nothing alcoholic here you understand, so it’s a welcome Coke or Fanta from the fridge and a friendly chat with the stallholder.

A further Indian hour later (one and a half hours to be precise) our man delivers the final bombshell. He looks at the floor while he delivers the verdict. ‘The boat’s repaired, but it’s downriver in Mirzapur, our destination tonight.’ That’s five-or-six hours away on the water! After much debate we finally give up on this first leg of our Ganges trip and opt to continue the drive along the Ganges valley to our pre-booked hotel in Mirzapur and hope for better things tomorrow. Knowing brother Mike, he will be negotiating considerable recompense for our disappointment.

There are no beggars on the streets of Mirzapur, our half way halt en-route to Varanasi. There are no tourists either, other than us by the look of it, and as a consequence, pale faces are a somewhat rare sight in this bustling town. I’ll leave Mike at the hotel in recovery mode and take a wander through town before dinner.

It’s much like

Another smiling face!
any other: dusty, noisy and vibrant. Wonderful! Come with me.

Stallholders smile from their stalls as I pass. They’re all cheerfully waving a friendly hand. ‘Take my picture?’, 'Where are you from?' or, ‘How are you today?’ You’ll recall that I recently bought a smart purple long-sleeved shirt for the princely sum of 100Rs - £1.20, but I could be persuaded to have another; a bit more upmarket perhaps. I’m prepared to go to a couple of quid if really pushed. Two tailors are working away at their sewing machines in the back of the open-fronted shop and I can see some very smart shirts displayed in glass cabinets around the walls as I step over a muddy puddle and cow pats and climb the steps. I’m really quite excited! Neither gentleman speaks English, but between us we come to the understanding, between much hilarity, that I could have one made to measure by Monday. The shirts in the window are not for sale. A shame that. We leave tomorrow morning – if the boat is up to it.

At 8am our driver arrives at the hotel with news that the boat is ready, and within
Mirzapur - 8am on the chilly GangesMirzapur - 8am on the chilly GangesMirzapur - 8am on the chilly Ganges

An open wooden boat with two rickety white plastic chairs up the pointed end is not exactly what we were expecting
minutes we’re at the mooring on the river, shrouded in a chilly grey mist.

The sight of our ancient, open wooden boat with two rickety white plastic chairs up the pointed end is not exactly what we were expecting for an eight-hour cruise on the Ganges. But the noisy motor is merrily chugging grey clouds of fumes in readiness for our departure and we’re handed blankets and a plastic carrier bag containing bottled water, a few bits of fruit, a packet of biscuits and a bag of crisps for our lunch. Not quite first class but we’ll no doubt survive.

Mirzapur fades in the morning haze as we leave, passing its many ghats at the start of our journey to Varanasi. Piles of detritus thrown onto the river-bank await the monsoon to be washed down-river and soon we’re wrapped up in our blankets against the icy wind as we pass the many rustic waterside villages. Men are washing in the shallows and women vigorously bashing their laundry on the banks, ribbons of bright mustard line the cultivated slopes and sunlight sparkles fleetingly on the water as midday approaches. There is no evidence of commercial
Cruising the GangesCruising the GangesCruising the Ganges

Mike well wrapped up on board our luxury cruiser!
water traffic other than the occasional ferry, taking villagers off to work. Indian vultures, osprey and black kites cross overhead and pintail, great-crested grebe, red-crested and common pochard, little grebe and great-grey heron watch us with interest as we pass. Cormorants sit spread-winged on convenient perches and friendly fishermen wave from their narrow open boats, and others on their seats high over the water, keenly watching their Chinese nets for the days’ catch.

Our boat wends its way between dusty grey sandbanks and silt islands on sage- green water, carried with the current and steered with precision by our young bandana- scarfed skipper at the tiller. There are encouraging signs of investment as we reach our midday halt, with an impressive new bridge nearing completion and the old busy pontoon bridge soon to be redundant. Kids are playing cricket on a fine-looking mud pitch below the castle as we take some welcome exercise. We stop for a chat with a carpenter making tables using traditional hand tools, and a group of squatting men playing cards by the roadside in a brief break from work. It’s warmer here off the water allowing us to wander somewhat aimlessly up

Signs of rapid progress. The present pontoon soon to be dismantled
to the decaying castle – again occupied by the army, before returning to the tub to feast on our meager packed lunch.

There are signs of more intensive agriculture beyond the banks as we finally approach Varanasi. Villagers wave to us from the top of the riverbank where tall grasses sway in the wind like tousled hair, and the invasive water hyacinth carpets the river. Raju, our ‘fixer’ tour guide pre-booked by Mike before leaving home, is waiting for us on the shore as the city comes into sight along the left bank, a drifting line of imposing buildings we instantly recognize as the Holiest of all Indian’s cities. He’s there with a friend to help carry our cases to a nearby hotel and will introduce us to Varanasi with a walk along the riverfront when we’ve freshened up.

You’ll doubtless have seen Varanasi on television or screen so you’ll have some idea what to expect – or will you? Hold on to your seat!


Our Ganges river cruise final over, we’re now booked into our comfortable hotel conveniently situated near to the river and the sights and sounds of Varanasi.

Varanasi’s Aarti extravaganza rocks to the clanging of bells reverberating in our ears, the clashing of cymbals, the haunting lilt of conch shells blown by saffron-cloaked pandits, much mournful chanting, and the rhythmic circling of flaming lamps.
Our guide, Raju, will be waiting for us whenever we’re ready.

As sunset approaches, Raju escorts us to the Dasaswamedh Ghat on the riverbank for the evening Ganga Aarti, a highly choreographed ceremony worshipping the great Mother Ganges. Varanasi’s Aarti extravaganza rocks to the clanging of bells reverberating in our ears, the clashing of cymbals, the haunting lilt of conch shells blown by saffron-cloaked pandits, much mournful chanting, and the rhythmic circling of flaming lamps. Our early arrival has assured us of great front row seats on the chilly-bum stone steps for the one-hour, twice daily, ritual. This is our fourth Aarti along the Ganges so far on this trip. It’s truly spectacular and a must-see for all pilgrims and visitors. There are other Aarti performances further along the riverside, seemingly in fierce competition to provide the ‘greatest show on earth’.

The first thing you’ll notice in daylight is that the 2.5million locals in Varanasi tend to walk with their heads down. They’re not sad or shy; indeed they are quite the opposite. They are just extremely wary of where they tread. Tourists can be easily identified by their samba-dancing gait. The unimaginable density

Contented bullock in the cowpat (gohari) factory. 'Give us a kiss'
of street cows rightly suggests a problem in the cowpat department. It is at its worst around the cow market area where they’re bought and sold, but there is one place nearby where cowpats are welcome. Numerous cooperative and contented cows and bullocks happily produce their offerings in some volume at the local cowpat factory, where dung is processed by hand into nine-inch pancakes. Nice job that. Called gohari, the cowpats are laid out to dry before being sold on as fuel for fires and ovens. Even the walls are covered with them here! We’ll see more of these highly revered animals along the way, that’s for sure.

January 26th 2018 marks the 69th Republic Day in India. There will be mass parades all around the country today but here in Varanasi the only evidence of celebration is the array of tricolor flags and balloons on the streets, flag-waving and drum banging crowds, music blaring from mega-watt amplifiers that shake your bones, horn-blowing motorcyclists and marching throngs blocking the already busy roads. We’re here with Raju, picking our way along narrow alleyways, hopefully up-and-over the cowpats, and up-and-down the steep steps of the ghats through the crowds

Fish Market
to see some of the lesser-known goings on in the town.

In a tiny courtyard off the main drag there’s a statue of the Rani (queen) of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, a local Joan of Arc or Queen Boadicea, who led her forces of resistance against the rule of the British East India Company in1857/8 and died in battle. (I shall ever understand how they have so graciously forgiven us Brits. But perhaps that’s true of life; we choose to remember the good things we left behind and close the shutters on those we all surely regret). With a bit more fighting in mind, there’s a novel alternative to your daily visit to the gym, along the road here. A dozen or so men of mixed ages are practicing their wrestling skills in a small sandy square just off one of the side-streets, watched over by their personal trainer. It’s only fun as far as we can tell and a daily workout for the participants.

The temple around the corner is also rather unusual. Built in the shape of a phallus or phallic object, it’s a symbol of divine generative energy we’re told by Raju, and people
Varanasi Varanasi Varanasi

Chicken anyone?
are here to worship Shiva the Destroyer. Such male/female objects, called lingam, are dedicated to Shiva and appear in the most unexpected of places.

Over there is the fish market, a couple of guys merrily chopping up today’s catch, a slim gent is tearing the feathers off a recently deceased chicken - blood and feathers everywhere, an elderly man chops betel leaves in readiness for chewing and spitting, bright red, on the pavement, and studious craftsmen are painstakingly polishing stonework figures. Beyond that, the vegetable market – those masters of the art of display, and the spectacular flower market, a delightful riot of colour and friendly faces. Milk comes in churns fresh from cow to market, from outlying villages and here in town there are ‘house cows’ in the courtyards of some finer homes, fed with clean fodder to provide the family with a guaranteed litter-free product.

Monsoon rains brought new levels of high water to the shores of Varanasi in 1978. It’s hard to visualize the river some 20m higher than it is today. We can look down to the river way below from the balcony here at the watermark to where tourists
Varanasi - the Mighty Ganges Varanasi - the Mighty Ganges Varanasi - the Mighty Ganges

The view from the balcony at flood level 1978!
and locals in Western dress walk leisurely today, as if taking a stroll on the seafront on a sunny Sunday in Brighton.

Raju has arranged for a boat to take us to see the ceremonial cremation Ghats from the river this evening. We will understand if you don’t wish to come.


The grey-haired-nomad

Scroll down for more pictures - and don't forget to check out the panorama show at the top.

Tour: ‘Sail on Ganges’: Ecowin Tours - NOT RECOMMENDED (though to be fair, this tour is probably aimed at the younger backpacker market. Ecowin offer camping on an island at the half-way point on the journey on this tour, but we chose a more comfortable hotel alternative)

Accommodation: Galaxy Hotel, Mirzapur. Comfortable, central and perfectly adequate stopover.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Varanasi Milk MarketVaranasi Milk Market
Varanasi Milk Market

Fresh from the cow!

Varanasi from the GangesVaranasi from the Ganges
Varanasi from the Ganges

The floods of 1978 came half way up the red building on the right.

Kids on the street

Aarti 'fire on the Ganges'
Varanasi TempleVaranasi Temple
Varanasi Temple

Dedicated to Shiva, this temple is built in the shape of a phallus or phallic object. It’s a symbol of divine generative energy.

Bike's anyone?

25th March 2018
Mirzapur - 8am on the chilly Ganges

Mysterious and full of history.
26th March 2018
Mirzapur - 8am on the chilly Ganges

Hi Dave and Merry Jo, Always good to hear from you. This was my third visit and it gets better every time. How fortunate I am to have a brother with such good connections there - this was his twelfth visit. There's more to come as you will realise from Mikes version (keep smiling) - he sees very different things to me! We're off to Ireland in the motorhome soon; must remember to take the umbrella. David
27th March 2018

What an extraordinary photo David. Has a real wow factor.
28th March 2018

One Of The Oldest City In India ...Older Than History Varanasi is a great city ....
2nd April 2018

Great article. I love the ‘make it snappy’ advice.

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