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A Ride Up the Ganges

Upon returning to the Ball Ashram from my first outing in the city of life (or perhaps the city of death, or even of the dyeing…), Nikhil and I found Scott to be in much better health. He had been transformed powerfully by the mellow yellow rice which had been so lovingly made for him. We began to pump him full of fluids and Nikhil went about arranging for a boat to take us on a ride up the Ganges. This seemed to be little trouble and the boat was to leave from the ghat at the foot of the Ball Ashram. A Ghat is a sort of a landing which consists of stone steps extending down to the banks of the Ganges. Ghats are used for a variety of spiritual purposes, one the most important being the cleansing of ones soul in the river’s waters.

Our Boat Driver

We met our boatman, a lean and wiry fellow, with a mustache any 19th century field colonel would have envied, who held his well tarred wooden craft steady, while we climbed in. When we were some way from the ghat, he asked whether I wanted to give rowing the thing a shot. So I took his place and grasped the two bamboo oars.

Woody Taking the Oars

They were of drastically different lengths and widths, with the paddle portion constructed by means of a board hammered onto the bamboo. Needless to say, i rowed only in circles. The practice it must have taken for him to learn to row in a straight line with these must have been substantial. But after all aboard had had their laugh at my expense, the oarsmen moved to the rear of the boat and began to use a spare oar as a rudder. Then we all got a chance to row, doubling up Ben Hurr style.

Scott and Woody in Ben Hur

We were quickly back on track cruising towards the ghats as the sun set over Varanasi.

As night fell, we cruised by the main drag: ghat after ancient ghat. All around us the fragrant smell of incense filled the air, and funeral pyres burned on shore. We must have passed 10 or 15 cremations taking place right there in the open, so that the ashes could be scattered (or set afloat in a little vessel) on the dark and glittering surface of the ganges.

On two ghats, elaborate festivals were taking place, involving the burning of even more incense, the swinging of large racks of candles, intense drumming, on a variety of unique drums, and the blowing of conch-shell horns.

Ghat from the Ganges

On our way back, we idled in a giant cluster of similar rowing boats (these are the same boats that can also be seen fishing during the day), all filled with tourists watching the dueling festivals in one giant bobbing hoard, held together by the hands of boat wallas and passengers grasping the adjacent boat. The night brought us back to the ashram for a light meal of roti and an exquisitely spiced thin vegetarian stew.


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