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August 20th, 2017
August 20th, 2017

Briefly down the Ganges

Martyn and Margaret remember a brief, sentimental journey on the Ganges River to mark the 70th Anniversary of India's Partition.

Boatloads of wood for the funeral pyres
Boatloads of wood for the funeral pyres
In the nineteen sixties, the inveterate English traveller, Eric Newby, embarked on a twelve-hundred-mile journey down the Ganges with his wife, Wanda.  More recently, I found myself afloat on the same legendary river with my wife, Margaret, and daughter, Leah.  I must confess at the outset that ours was a brief voyage, a pre-dawn embarkment in an open wooden boat to view the burning ghats, the semi-submerged temples and the thousands of devotees that immersed themselves in the monsoon-swollen river at sunrise on the banks of Indiaīs holiest city, Varanasi (Benares).

“To millions of Hindus it is the most sacred, most venerated river on earth,” wrote Newby.  “For them it is īGanga Maī - Mother Ganges.  To bathe in it is to wash away guilt.  To drink the water, having bathed in it, and to carry it away in bottles for those who have not had the good fortune to make the pilgrimage to it, is meritorious.  To be cremated on its banks, having died there, and to have oneīs ashes cast on its waters, is the wish of every Hindu.  Even to ejaculate “Ganga, Ganga” at the distance of 100 leagues from the river may atone for the sins committed during three previous lives.”

In defence of our short voyage, I should add that by air and road we had in fact covered a considerable distance along the riverīs path from its head waters in the foothills of the Himalayas to its debouch into the Bay of Bengal at Kolkata (Calcutta).  (Four hundred miles out to sea the ocean is still discoloured by the silt brought down by the Ganges.)

Nevertheless, it was that short stretch along the crowded waterfront of Varanasi that had fascinated me ever since I had read (twice) fellow Canadian Paul William Robertsī Empire of the Soul: Some Journeys in India.

“During my first night there”, he recounts, “walking the maze of pitch-dark or blazingly overlit alleys and bazaars weaving down towards the ghats, the tiers of long stone steps leading to the Ganges, I felt as if I had entered a zone linked invisibly but tangibly to another world, a realm more subtle and more powerful than ours.”

As you approach the river, the roads become too narrow for vehicular traffic and the alleys winding and crowded.  As if by design, you must walk at last on your own two feet to reach the sacred river vying with hurrying pilgrims, dead bodies hoisted above the crowd by mourning relatives, numerous holy cows and bulls that chew contentedly and refuse to move out of the way, Aghoris (sadhus clad only in ashes taken from the funeral pyres, whose waist length hair is matted with cow dung), saffron-coloured Sivaites (devotees of Siva) returning with pots of Ganges water slung on poles over their shoulders, monkeys, pariah dogs and armies of small boys and girls, neatly dressed for school and universally equipped with satchels, blue uniforms and heads slathered in Brylcreem.

I realized we needed the help of a guide to thread that maze in safety and enlisted the services of Mr. Sushil Kumar Roy, a genial and knowledgeable man in his mid-fifties, who negotiated the labyrinth at five oīclock in the morning.

“You must be afloat when the sun rises,” he had cautioned us the day before.  “That is the most auspicious time for Ganga Ma”.  And so we found ourselves underway as dawn broke over the city, the peace somewhat shattered by a dozen other boatmen jostling for position along the bank.

“The river is very high because of monsoon”, Mr. Roy informed us.  “We are actually floating over submerged temples and there,” he pointed to a dark pillar of smoke, “the river is so high that there is hardly room to burn the bodies on the steps.”

As if in defiance of the rising waters the logs of the funeral pyre hissed and crackled under the ministration of the “doms”, the men who tend the fires and provide the wood.  Ironically, thought assigned the vital task of ensuring the cremation leads to the deceasedīs salvation the doms are Untouchable, condemned by the cast system because their association with the dead results in impurity.  Their boss is the dom raja, the “King of the Untouchables”, at one time Varanasiīs most infamous citizen and reportedly one of the wealthiest men in India.

“Is it true,” I asked Mr. Roy, “that if you canīt afford to pay for a funeral pyre you can still escape from the cycle of reincarnation by having a live coal placed in your mouth when you die?”

Mr. Roy shook his head sorrowfully as if someone of my age and experience should know better.  “You are not needing a coal”, he admonished, “government has installed electric crematorium.  Very cheap.”

“So what about you,” I ventured.  “Wood or electric?”

“Neither,” retorted our guide, “I love this place.  I donīt mind coming back a hundred times.”

“Even as a donkey?”

“Even donkey”, he grinned.  “There are sad donkeys and happy donkeys.  I will be happy donkey.”

Our two rowers were now making no headway against the current.  The normally docile Ganges driven by the monsoon rains was running a good two or three knots a mere twenty metres from the shore.  I was reluctant to say anything, but realizing we would not have traversed half the city by nightfall I finally whispered in one of Mr. Royīs heavily thatched ears.

“In my other life”, I confided, “I am a shipīs captain.  You need to get this boat right in against the ghats where there is a slight counter-current.”

Perhaps Mr. Roy thought I was referring to a previous incarnation; nevertheless, he conveyed my instructions to the rowers who shot in towards the bank and finally started making progress.  By the end of our brief voyage we had passed a number of the approximately 100 ghats in Varanasi.  They are the steps to temples, the palaces of princely rulers, cheap hotels, asceticīs abodes, abandoned houses and the mooring for craft of all shapes and sizes.

It is estimated that 60,000 people each day take a holy dip in the 7 km-stretch of the river we had travelled along since dawn.  In the same distance, 30 sewers are continuously discharging into the river.  The “Great Mother” is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic - no dissolved oxygen exists.  And yet thousands daily wash, worship, do yoga, offer blessing, launch candles and shave in its muddy waters, seemingly with impunity.

“And now,” said Mr. Roy as our trip drew to a close, “we must drink some of the holy water for spiritual and physical health.”

Without pausing he scooped up two handfuls of Ganges water and swallowed them enthusiastically.

“Forgive me,” I protested as he urged us to drink, thinking of the 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml. of water.

“Ah!”  Mr. Roy winked conspiratorially. “You are wanting brief voyage not brief life, isnīt it?”

And with that he leaped ashore with the alacrity of a man half his age, urging us to follow him into a rat-hole of a tunnel that led, he assured us, to a temple where the erotic and divine could be viewed in harmonious co-existence.

Martyn Clark has spent fifteen monsoons in India.
Photo Credits: Leah Clark

More Images

Our two oarsmen on the Ganges
Our two oarsmen on the Ganges
Worshippers at Varanasi
Worshippers at Varanasi
The river is so swollen by the monsoon rains that the funeral pyres burn at the highest steps.
The river is so swollen by the monsoon rains that the funeral pyres burn at the highest steps.

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