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Floating on the Ganges

India, Day 21 – Varanasi

I’m now a resident of the Hotel Ajaya on Kabir Chaura Road, Varanasi. It’s fine. In fact, its the closest in style and standard to a bog standard western hotel of any I’ve been in in India. Also the cheapest at 300 rupees (at least, that’s what I was told yesterday – I should check this again, just to be on the safe side (which is where I like to be)). One problem – you might call it a quirk – is that the bathroom has no mirror; I’ve just shaved in front of the bedroom mirror.

At quarter past six this morning I went on the boat trip organised by the other hotel up and down the ghats of the Ganges. It was cold. Bloody cold. Colder than it really was – sitting on a rowboat in the middle of a river at dawn is not a good way of generating heat.

We – we being myself, three Japanese lads and an Israeli man – were led down to the river under the grey dawn sky by the guy from the hotel who was my guide yesterday. Once there we were left in the care of a boatman. We were to have no guide for this – other than a few limited comments from the rower. The boat was a simple wooden rowing boat, big enough to seat maybe eight people comfortably.

The boatman pushed off, but a moment let let a girl onboard who gave us all paper cups filled with orange petals and a small candle. She told us to set the cups on the water saying our own names, and then again saying our family names, for luck. I didn’t hear any of us saying anything as we did so, and I didn’t even think about any such names, but otherwise we were obedient. Then she wanted 50 rupees from each of us. We ended up giving her 20 each.

We travelled south for a way. On the left, the sun slowly became apparent through the haze. As we went on, it rose and grew brighter and brighter. On the right, on the near shore, the ghats – the steps leading down to the water were dotted with a few Indians bathing or beating clothes against paving stones and the occasional tourist taking in the sight.

The other main purpose of the ghats – of couple of them, anyway – is the cremation of the dead (as opposed to the cremation of the living). We passed a smaller on on the way down. There were one or two bodies wrapped in brightly coloured fabric lying near the water’s edge. On the way back north we passed the main cremation ghat, Manikarnika Ghat. Bodies were less in evidence, but we weren’t as close; there was smoke rising from a number of places and several large stacks of wood. You’re not supposed to take photos of this latter ghat, but we all did – from a respectable distance, anyway.

There were plenty of other rowboats of various sizes on the river. The vast majority being tourists – small groups like ours, a few couples, the occasional single photographer, and quite a few parties of twelve, fifteen or so. Other rowboats were operated by sellers of flowers, postcards, necklaces, little pots of Ganges water and other tat. One of these struck up some banter with the Japanese lads – in Japanese – which they seemed amused and a little irritated by.

One ghat – I think it must have been Dasaswamedh Ghat – was pretty lively for this time of the morning. No huge crowds, but a number of people, stands, sunshades and boats, and music playing.

The whole experience is not nearly as special as its reputed to be – mainly for being so frigging cold. But the scene – even in the orange light of the early sun – is pretty drab. On the other hand, you can’t really come to Varanasi and not do a dawn boat trip.

Back at the hotel, we had breakfast, and I chatted a bit more to the Israeli guy. He found the hotel in the 2004 Hebrew Lonely Planet and was paying 150 rupees for his room – one third of what I was paying (he had no TV, though). He also recommended going to Rishikesh, which – now that I’ve looked where it is – might be a bit on the cold side for my wardrobe.

Then I checked out. As I’d expected, the hotel man wanted to know why and wanted to make a deal with me, but I refused to elaborate further than ‘I’ve changed my mind’, and eventually he gave me the money back for the other three days and I left. Hotel Ajaya doesn’t require money up front – just another reason to be here and not there.

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