Waiting for Sunrise
The sky was grey, and the dull light was loathe to leave and hung around for Sunrise as we stepped out of the car and walked to the Dashashwamedha Ghat the next day. Tubelights blinked far away. This was our last day in Varanasi/Kashi/Banares and we hadn't done the beautiful Boat ride on the Ganga, nor had we checked out its famous ghats. "Do you want to see the ghats by boat?" I turned towards the young man and nodded. "It will cost you 1800" he said. A colleague had said it costed 200 per person for this and I turned away from him shocked. Boats were anchored 4 deep all along the Ganga. People were everywhere, on the steps and in the boats. Prayers to the departed relatives are performed on this ghat and preparations were on at several places. A man was having his hair shaved while a man sat in front of a priest intoning mantras on the platform that had been used for Aarti the previous night. It was a starkly different ambience and was shorn of all glamour and glitz compared to the previous night. The boat which had offered a ringside view of the Aarti looked like a skeleton now with a stray chair facing the ghat. "What do they do with those lamps?" I asked knowing fully well the young man was following us. "They set it afloat on the river" he replied hoping to land me as his first customer that morning.
I wanted to look around as well as check the price with others before I got into a boat. We stood and looked around. A man was sketching the early morning scene. Some people were having a quick bath before some rituals. I saw a policewoman helping a woman drape the sari. I went to her and asked about the price of a boat ride. The young man walked past me and stood opposite us alarmed. "They charge 20 rupees to ferry you across" she replied. "He is asking for 1800!" I gasped. She looked aghast and then said, "maybe you should ask around?". I nodded. "This boat is only for the two of us?" I asked the young man as we walked towards another end. "I will pay 1200 for it" I tried to negotiate. "I will take 1600" he dug in his heels. I walked to another boat and as I started talking, I saw the boatman distracted and turning back I saw the young man gesturing don't take her. I walked away. This was beginning to look like a cartel. A group of men were being shepherded into a boat by a man. I walked up to him and asked the price for the ride. "Mam I cannot disclose it. It is sponsored by the company" he replied. Frustrated I narrated my ordeal to some men on the steps. One gentleman gestured "please sit down for some time and don't speak in English. He will know you are from outside". "There are no boards, no standard rates. Maybe we should give this feedback to the govt" I grumbled. I sat down but time was running out. In the midst of all this shenanigan I had checked with two foreigners the cost of their ride and they had replied 200 per person. I now saw them in a boat. I walked towards it and the young man now sprang on to the boat and stood arms folded on the stern daring me to get in. He reminded me of Johnny Depp in "The pirates” now. But by then he was being watched by a whole lot of people. I stood undecided and as the boatman approached me, the man looked around only to see a lot of eyes on him. He realized he had lost me and walked away, and we got into the boat. People filled up even as the Sun rose turning the sky red. And the boat set sail.
The ghats line up
We moved away and the ghats all lined up and were suffused by the golden glow. Temples submerged in water and on land appeared. "The ghats are supposed to be very beautiful in the early morning light" I pointed it out to the foreigners. They stared hard at it, but I felt they didn't get it. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder! The whole riverfront was crowded with buildings and the edge was crowded by boats. The river was placid and clean. Was the cleanliness because of the clean Ganga Project? Soon we had reached the other side and the boat was anchored. A senior couple got off and headed to a priest who waited to perform the rituals to the departed. A honeymooning couple got off and went for a walk hand in hand. A happy family got off and jumped into the river. They had so much fun playing and splashing water over each other. The prayers to the dead were being performed in an open shack after the mandatory bath. And my mom was not keen on getting off. So, we sat and watched everything along with the foreigners. An hour later the boatman began crying out for all of them to return. The family reluctantly walked to the shore and began changing their clothes. A closed shack was the women's refuge while the men just changed a little away. The honeymooning couple ran into the boat after a ride on a horse.
The far side of the ghats
The boat cut a wide arc and one of the boatmen began pointing out the different ghats. We couldn’t hear anything due to the sound of the engine and we just stared at them. Now I feel I should have made an attempt to hear him. I might have missed out some local stories. Manikarnika and Harischandra ghat are were the dead bodies are burnt. The bodies are actually burnt next door at the Jalasen ghat where we saw stacks of firewood and smoke from a pyre. I had been very concerned about this even before we left and didn't want to bother my mother about it. I kept quiet not talking or pointing at it. Hindus believe that by dying in Kashi they attain Mukti, salvation. Hundreds of dead bodies are brought here every day and old people come and wait here for death. In the course of our three days stay we had seen so many dead bodies. Manikarnika ghat has a Shakti Peetha and the earrings of Sati are supposed to have fallen there as per one story. According to another story Goddess Parvati hides her earrings and tells her husband Shiva they were lost on the banks of the Ganges. By doing this she hopes Shiva will stay around. So, every time a body is burnt here, Shiva asks the soul if he has seen the earrings. I like this story better.
Raja Harishchandrawas Lord Rama’s ancestor. And in a cruel twist of faith he gives away his kingdom, sells his family and agrees to be a slave – all to fulfil a promise he had made to the sage Vishwamitra. He is renowned to be truthful under all circumstances. Sage Vishwamitra continues to test him and at one-point Harishchandra’s son dies and his wife brings the body for cremation where he is working, and he refuses to let her until she pays the fee for cremation. Vishwamitra now relents and appears in front of him along with all the Gods. They invite him to heaven but Harishchandra wants his loyal subjects to be allowed too and they all go to heaven together.
Hotel Brij Ram near Kedar ghat
All the ghats
Old and new buildings sat cheek by jowl all along. Repairs and constructions were happening on the Manikarnika ghat. We saw "Namami Gange" on the walls every foot or so. It is the clean Ganga Project. The steps of Kedar ghat were wide and it was topped by temples and Tamil signage. Wonder what it means! Ah there it was hotel Brij Rama sitting right beside the Munshi Ghat. I had checked it out when I was searching for hotels. There were so many hotels on the riverfront. Scindia ghat was built by the Scindias. We saw a temple half submerged here. It has sunk due to the weight of the ghat it seems. I am thinking every rich person built his own private ghat here. Wikipedia lists 88 ghats. We had seen so many, Kedar, Darbhanga, Manmandir, Lalit and so many more. Kashi Vishwanatha willing, someday I am going to walk through all of them. This riverfront was so different from the riverfront in San Antonio. As we neared Dashashwamedha ghat the boatman extended a closed palm in front of each one asking for "kivatiya daan" claiming to have descended from Kevat who ferried Lord Rama across the Ganga. The story goes that Kevat doesn't let Rama climb the boat with his dusty feet because all the wooden slats would turn into women like Ahalya and he cannot take care of them. So, he washes Rama's feet and offers his hand as a step to climb. And later refuses to charge for the ride saying we both belong to the same profession; I ferry people across the Ganga, and you ferry them across the ocean of material life. This leads to Ahalya's story. Ahalya is the wife of sage Gautama and is cursed by him for her infidelity. She turns into a stone and is liberated by the touch of Lord Rama's foot. Don't ask me who sage Gautama is. One story leads to another and we will end up reading the Ramayan together. Coming back to my story, the foreigners looked at me questioningly at the boatman's request. I told them what he was asking for and left the decision to them saying we will never know if what they are saying is true. I gave him some money and they let it pass.
The red grill door in front of the Warahi devi temple door
The red grill door in front of the Warahi devi temple door
As we climbed up the steps, I looked at the silver coin the foreigners had given me when we said goodbye. It was from the Sochi Olympics and they had been Russians. A friend had recommended we do the Warahi temple near Meer ghat. Notice the spelling? Warahi instead of Varahi. Varahi is the feminine energy of Varaha and was created from him. She is one of the Sapta Matrikas. Sapta Matrikas are a group of seven mother Goddesses who are always depicted together. Legend says Warahi Devi is the caretaker of Varanasi town. And she leaves her temple at night and goes around the city and returns at 4:30 AM. That is when the temple opens and closes at 9:30 in the morning. The Goddess then sleeps until nightfall before stepping out that night. A couple of enquiries and we found the temple easily. It was close by. Women were walking out as we entered a small 10*10 room where a young man in shorts sat before a rectangular hole. Shorts wearing priest in a temple! Horrified! There were just a handful of ladies inside. The slit was perhaps just a foot long and they took turns peeping through it. I could see a pair of silver feet and lots of red flowers. But this is all we get to see of the Goddess. My mom struggled to bend down and see it. She later remarked the flowers were red Hibiscus. Only the priest enters the temple which is underground and performs the Puja. People say she is a rather fierce Goddess and we cannot withstand her gaze, hence this mode of worship. As we walked out a priest offering the tirtha [sacred water used for libation of the God] pointed to a plate where donations were expected saying it costs a lot of money to decorate the Goddess. Didn't like that soliciting. A dark red grill enclosed a black wooden door to the temple. This is how the priest enters it. As we walked out a woman asked, "Aren't you going to the Vishalakshi temple? it is close by" We replied we finished it yesterday. It then hit me we had come this close yesterday and we could have seen this temple. Sad. A set of steps were visible in a clearing and boats were anchored at the bottom. This was the eureka moment when I realized ghats were nothing but steps to a river. And I guess this was the Meer ghat! Very nice.
BHU Main gate
Ladies college setup in 1929
A police officer was brushing his teeth at his post in front of the Dundiraj gate, the gate through which we had gone for Mangala aarti, and another was sipping tea at the pushcart as we crossed them in a cycle rickshaw. They are such an ubiquitous presence here we would miss them I thought. I am sure the locals were their friends by now. We reached the hotel for a final breakfast and the checkout as usual was delayed and we waved goodbye to the women who had appreciated my mom's spirit in having made the journey and set out. There was no way we were leaving Banares without seeing the Banares Hindu University and so we drove through it. Banaras Hindu University was setup in 1916 by Madan Mohan Malaviya. It is a 103-year-old University and setup way before Independence! And we were in it. It is a sprawling campus and we just had time to drive through and stop for a couple of pictures inside. I got a long shot of the University's main board with Goddess Saraswathi as we stopped in front of the Women's college setup in 1929. I had looked forward to a walk through it, but we had no time for it.
The boat ride had taken way too long. Maybe we should have taken the 1800 rupees private ride only for the two of us, then we could have saved a lot of time. Mantosh was very chatty now as he raced through the traffic and spoke amidst the din of his Punjabi songs. There was a playlist he kept spooling and I would return home humming them and hearing them in my head! I love the driving from place to place as well as the sightseeing. The terrain, the crops grown all interest me. And GPS on the phone makes it more interesting. I keep turning it on to see where we are, what places we cross, the bridges,the rivers we cross, the crops that are grown, the hills, valleys, deserts all interest me. My idea of India geographically, historically socially and its religious diversity is all enriched.
I got in touch with the gentleman who would take us to Allahabad fort and sat back looking out of the window. Allahabad fort is out of bounds for commoners since it is occupied by the army. But we would see it and we would ride on the Yamuna along the fort to the Triveni Sangam as well. That is the next blog.
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