Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Going with the Ganges flow

The haggling starts well before sunrise on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

I've joined forces with a group of backpackers from all around the world to negotiate with some rowing boat owners.  

The scene is mirrored dozens of times over along the river bank: groups of tourists trying to get the hire price down and boat owners determined not to budge.

As the sky begins to lighten, we become desperate that we won't make it onto the river in time for sunrise, something we're assured will be stunning.  

The boat owners also become worried that they might miss out on a deal if they hold out too long.

The sun makes an entrance at Varanasi

We're not alone: a flotilla of boats cruise down the Ganges
Eventually our mutual greed sees a deal struck and we embark onto the Ganges on a large row boat big enough to seat eight.

Amid the crush of boats on the river, we first head upstream as the sun begins to peek over the horizon.  

Could all of this really be worth it?

It seems both locals and tourists of all persuasions think it is.   Nearby, boatloads of nuns with shaved heads cruise by, cameras at the ready.

A group of nuns who had travelled to Varanasi
Those tourists who haven't made it onto boats join locals on the river bank waiting for the sun's show.

And while I wasn't keen to let any of the river's water touch my shoe let alone my skin, some locals have begun having a wash in the murkywater.

Why let a good sunrise get in the way of the washing?
Not too far from the bathers, piles of wood are smouldering at the cremation ghats, reminding me that some people's journey will finish here this morning when their ashes are swept into the river.

Heading towards one of the cremation ghats at Varanasi
Our rower finally decides to stop fighting the flow and sits back.    

It almost feels like we're in some kind of limbo as we begin to gently float down the river; the sunrise is on our right, the crowded Varanasi river bank on our left, and we're in the middle.   

For possibly the first time since stepping foot in the polluted, crowded and crazy city of Varanasi, there is peace and quiet.

Sunrise illuminates the Ganges river bank
Hive of activity on the Ganges river bank
The colourful Ganges river bank
Ganges river bank scene
Everyone has their eyes fixed on the sun as it is climbs into the sky.

And it is spectacular.

Sure you can watch the sunrise anywhere in the world, but for some reason it does feel especially special here. 

It's not hard to see why the Hindu devout regard the river as such a holy place.  

Perhaps something as natural, fresh and beautiful as the sunrise appears even more so when viewed amid the surrounding chaos and cremation.  
Looking east on the Ganges

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