Riding a Canoe Upstream on the Ganges from Varanasi (and some other fun too!).
Varanasi is famous for a few things. One is the Burning Ghats, where people come to cremate their loved ones in the hope that by sprinkling their ashes they might receive salvation. Another is the Ganges River, one of India’s sacred rivers, where people bath and perform Pujas (prayer rituals). Finally, it’s also famous for a special drink, Bhang Lassi, a yoghurt based drink flavoured with something extra special to help you relax and enjoy your stay.
During my stay, I experienced all three. Many people are cremated here, it’s true, but the number is disproportionately large compared to the population as many people come here to die as it’s also considered a blessing to take your last breath in Varanasi.
The Burning Ghats of Varanasi
Personally, I felt a little uncomfortable peering out over the walls into some of the 80 plus Ghats knowing that I was intruding on families’ last minutes on earth with the physical bodies of their friends and family. At one or two points, you can actually observe quite closely for the payment of a few rupees. Otherwise, you do whatever your conscience allows you. Two things hit you here. One is the smell of burning flesh, which is none too pleasant, and the second is the sweeter smell of sandalwood, the fuel of choice for the cremations.
As for the second reason for being in Varanasi, bathing in the Ganges was one of those Bucket List ideas that I had, way before the term “Bucket List” had been thought of (I think). I watched many people, from Indian families to Religious people to local folk all bathing and eventually I took the plunge. Not literally, of course, as to jump in would be absolutely crazy. You have no idea what’s in the river so it might be dangerous but I suppose if you’re going to injure yourself, it might not be a bad place to do it. No, I watched how people slowly walked in, up to their waist and then duked under the water and when nobody was looking, I did the same. One thing I understood was the importance of not opening your mouth when doing this. You really, really, don’t want to drink this water.
A Family Trip to the Local Bath House.
Not only is it sacred but also it’s used for ablutions, scattering ashes, disposing of waste and plenty of other things. My plan, mouth shut, under the water, surface, shake hair and get out. That was it, ticked off the yet to be invented “Bucket List”.
Finally, ‘twas an evening spent on the roof of our guest house, the Yogi Lodge. Some of the guys sharing my dormitory had gone out to a sitar recital, which really wasn’t my scene. I met a couple of guys from New Zealand who were chilling with a lovely lassi drink. They seemed quite jovial so I joined them. It was then I discovered the secret ingredient; a little dose of bhang. (If you don’t know what this is then Google it!) I believe, according to a diary I wrote, that I had three glasses. It must have been pretty good as the discussion was lively. I’m sure you know the sort of chat we had, especially sitting overlooking the sacred Ganges River. Never being one for in depth philosophical nattering I left to have a shower and sleep. Nothing to do with the lassi but I slept for 13 hours!
Now don’t get me wrong, the Burning Ghats, the ritual bathing and the lassi were all good fun but the thing I enjoyed the most was the following day when I was offered a chance to paddle a canoe up river to a small town on the opposite bank of the Ganges where there’s an old Maharaja’s Palace. Going upstream, the short journey took over an hour with both my guide and I working hard to move at all. I was a little disappointed in the Palace although it did have a very good museum. On the way home I paid the guide to do the work but he smiled, sat back and watched us speed home using just the river’s strong current for power! The trip was made more memorable by landing on the home side and jumping out next to a dead cow’s head covered in rather mean looking vultures. As always, it was a pleasure just to have crossed the Ganges, to have bathed in it, to have seen the cremations and to have tasted the famous Bhang Lassi. Another tick on the Bucket List.