Houseboats on Ganges

Thursday 3rd September

No after effects from last nights gastronomic delights. We spent an hour at the railway station making a reservation to Delhi for Saturday night. I still don't have the hang of the up trains and the down trains.

We saw a ferocious row at the ticket office. If the grill hadn't been down I'm sure the two men would have come to blows. Oh so slowly, slowly grinds the Indian administrative system; paperwork in triplicate; needless details recorded.

Out into the heat of the day. The familiar touting of the many rickshaw drivers. Surrounded as always.

They know better than we where we want to go. "Tourist bungalow" I say. They know better it is 3km they say, places much closer. "Rubbish" I retort and lie that I've been there before. It works. The tourist bungalow is less than 1km from the station, but somehow we book into the hotel Amar and get a roof top room for three. Sounds good, it's OK, but very basic and we share facilities with the hotel staff.

We breakfast, shower and rest and then like all mad dogs and Englishmen arise to venture out into the midday sun.

We had trouble getting a rickshaw. Ben is determined to pay minimal amounts. OK, he has to stop us getting ripped off. We aren't very well off and need to be very careful with our money, but sometimes maybe we don't know what is fair. This time no-one would accept his lower offer.

The town centre was disappointing, photographically at least. I had hoped for plenty of photo opportunities now that the light was bright enough for my slow film. But everything is starting to look familiar and I am wary of having hundreds of pictures which all look the same.

It was hot. Fresh orange drinks; fresh sugar cane drinks. Then we were picked up by a young man who wanted to practise his English, and no doubt earn a few rupees, by offering to provide a guided tour. We didn't want a guide, but he came along anyway.

We walked down to the Holy River. A few people were swimming, some washing themselves, others merely standing there, children playing. Cleansing themselves in the holy waters of the Ganges. This is a very holy place for Hindus.

Children playing on banks of GangesChildren playing on banks of Ganges

Holy men sat on the steps and under large straw parasols reading to women.

Holy men reading prayers under straw parasols on banks of GangesHoly readings by the Ganges

Street sellers sold petals and other items suitable for offerings at the many temples. We sat on the steps. Our "guide" sat down too. We didn't intend to do much today, but -was it fixed by the guide? - a boatman offered us a trip on the Ganges. An hour for Rs30/-. We were tempted but couldn't afford it. We said we could only afford Rs20/- which he seemed happy enough to accept. Surprise, surprise! the "guide" came too.

Boatman and guide rowing us up the GangesBoatman and guide on the Ganges


It was cooler on the river, but the conducted tour got off to a slow start. All the palaces seemed to have belonged to the same man and the architecture, at least from the outside, soon began to look like more of the same. Although impressive enough, architecture was not our main interest.

Palaces along the edge of the Ganges seen from the waterPalaces on banks of Ganges
But I was pleased about the guide. He pointed out the yellow markings on the walls and explained that they were the high water level during a particularly severe flood. It was impossible to imagine so much water. How much of the town was submerged I asked? Almost all of it, was his reply.

high flood marks painted on building along Ganges many metres above current water levelFlood markings on walls along Ganges

After traveling less than a quarter of a mile up stream we then went downstream to see the 24hour burning ghats. Varinassi is the place to die for Hindus, and definitely the place to be cremated. The guide told us that the elderly and sick will, if at all possible, travel from all over India to die here. The burning ghats on the banks of the river Ganges are always very busy. We were asked not to take photographs, at least in close up of the funeral parties.

We returned to our starting point, disembarked and paid Rs20/- to the boatman. Ben wanted a closer look at the pyres. So did I, I suppose, but I hadn't said anything. We were directed up a short flight of steps and emerged into a room directly overlooking the burning places. About five funeral parties were taking place. From our vantage point we could see the partially burned corpses. One of the corpses lay in an awkward pose with his legs sprawled; another was mostly consumed by the fire but the remains of his lower legs with his feet protruding struck me as slightly comical.

How could I think this? There was dignity in the families and this was an extremely holy and religious experience for them. They were providing the perfect send off for their loved one. I excused myself by deciding it was not comical but different; a completely different culture, an openness with the rituals of death I had never seen before. I had only lost one close relative, my grandfather, and his cremation had taken place behind the scenes at the local crematorium, after we had said our goodbyes and left - but in essence the same, except here the families, at least some of them, stayed until the end.

All around, on the steps, were bodies tightly wrapped, ladies in coloured shrouds, men in plain shrouds. While we watched another lady was carried on the back of a bicycle to her pyre. Ben was tempted to take a photograph and some of the Indians encouraged him, but we didn't think it was proper and we stopped him. We left the room overlooking the ghats and were followed by our guide. The guide wanted to show us many more temples, but we were not really interested. No doubt we missed some really interesting places and failed to learn about the history of the city that the guide could have imparted. He did seem reasonably knowledgeable and genuine. He was frustrated by our disinterest and tried to insist he could show us great places. But we were ungrateful and eventually, angry and annoyed, he left us. Looking back I am sorry we did not show more appreciation or tip him a few rupees.

We stopped for some refreshment and then Jane and Ben headed back to the hotel. I set off in search of a new pen and a book. I found a pen but not a book. All the bookshops displayed the books in such a way as to make it difficult to scan titles and find suitable holiday reading.

I walked for what seemed like a long way and having turned down a side street soon got lost. After an age I eventually emerged onto a main road, found a rickshaw and returned to the hotel.

The wind had started to blow strongly and it was soon raining heavily. There were more power cuts but thankfully our hotel had its own, working generator.