This story is about a boat. Hop aboard, it’s a good one.
Everyone has a travel story they like to tell. Their ‘go-to’ story if they are asked to tell a travelling tale. A story that will keep the attention even of someone stricken by ADHD. I have a few: the Serbia episode; the Korea World Cup game; the Thai mafia tale; the crazy 24 hours of Beijing. But up to now I wouldn’t have said wholeheartedly that I have anything resembling an epic tale from India.
Potential epics? The World Cup final day would certainly be up there on the list, as would having to clamber over cliffs in darkness in Gokarna. Holi would rate highly as well, but there is no standout saga. I guess this means that I’ve had several superb experiences here, but I do now have another adventure to add to the shortlist.
Context is needed at this point. After all, you don’t even know where I am at this juncture. I left Khajuraho, the place showcasing the events that instigate the creation of life, and arrived in Varanasi. The place of death.
Well, not entirely true. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and is a particularly auspicious place to die or for the process of death to be completed. The reason for this trickles gently along the banks of the city. Varanasi sits on the Ganga – the River Ganges. The water that flows along this waterway is revered by Hindus. They wash clothes in it. They wash themselves in it. They drink it. No matter that some of it is so filthy that some areas are classed as septic. Devotion to religion surpasses and trumps logic in Varanasi.
The aura of Hinduism and its characteristics is omnipotent here. The sense of spirituality is best encapsulated in a ceremony at one of the ghats (the steps leading up to holy water – but I told you that in Pushkar, remember?) called the ganga aarti, which is held every evening as night encompasses the river. What many are told – even The Bible says so – is that the best way to witness this is from a boat on the Ganges. My hostel provided a free boat ride for this – perfect!
After spending my first afternoon in Varanasi relaxing and avoiding the stifling heat, three of us hopped onto a rickety wooden boat and were introduced to our rower and guide, a genial and plump man called Sanjay. Motorboats cost money and only worsen the pollution of the already gunky river. Our vessel lazily follows the current down past the fumes of the burning ghat, past the dead dog in the water that resembled a stuffed toy, past a swimming lesson.
The problem with the free boat ride- as with most things – is that it wasn’t ‘free’. We had arrived over an hour in advance of the ceremony, so we were given the choice of being taken back to the hostel or chucking Sanjay some rupees and being taken around other ‘sights’ before returning in time for the main event. We opted for the latter.
The first location on our extracurricular boat tour was the beach. You may have noticed that one side of the river is built-up, and the other seems to be a barren wasteland. The reason for this is the monsoon. Simply put, that barren wasteland – known locally as ‘the beach’ – doesn’t exist during the rainy season. When we were in Varanasi, however, it did exist, and was an alternative place to wash from the more densely-populated ghats.
It was when our little boat meandered across to the beach that the elements seemingly began to change. The heat and humidity was very much present, but other, darker forces started to emerge. What had been a bright, happy sky began to blacken. Ominous clouds drifted speedily above. The wind, benign up to this point, started swirling menacingly. ‘I think it’s going to rain’, I stated matter-of-factly. ‘No no’, Sanjay enthusiastically responded.
I’ve made this seem like a gradual change in the climate. No. What concerned the British trio of passengers, at the whim of a cheery local captain, was the speed of the change. Re-read the last three paragraphs again. The changes happened in the time it took you to read it. Don’t believe? The girl took a 360’ video, at the bottom of the blog, lasting around a minute. When she returned to her starting point, the sky was a different colour, and the ghat much less visible. Rapid.
The atmosphere in the air was thus rather surreal as we disembarked on the beach. The mugginess was still prevalent, but was soon displaced by a cool, strong gust violently rocking our boat, which seemed to be shrinking with each passing minute. The increase in the wind’s velocity had another, arguably more pressed effect. We were on a beach, after all. Within seconds, our vision had been greatly reduced, and we were shielding our eyes from a vicious sandstorm.
A low, dull haze had now concealed many of the ghats across the river. ‘A storm is coming’, the other British man announces. Rather obviously, except that Sanjay refused to believe the obvious. Instead, he decided to take a dip in the river whose gentle movements had become jerky from the muscle of the wind. He motioned for the girl to join him. She said maybe, but naturally refused when pressed on the matter. Septic, after all. If your religious and karma views are particularly strong, you may suggest that this rejection lead to what happened next.
Rain. A deluge of rain. A giant angry cold tap turned on over the holy city. Not something you prepare for when you leave your hostel looking at a pastel-blue sky with only the occasional cloud dotted within it. Even the few locals on the ‘beach’ dashed to cover under the temporary women’s changing stalls. They were temporary. The wind howled and some of the material offering protection started to soar into the stormy sky.
Not that the irrepressible Sanjay would have allowed that. We were gently rocking in our small ship, making idle conversation as the raindrops penetrated our clothes. Wind swirls. Eyes are shielded.
Crack. Flash. Boom. Crackle.
Now it was a serious storm. A flash of lightning and a crack of thunder led even Sanjay to accept that. Boom. Strange – that came from behind us. Another boom to the side. A flash in front of our eyes. I’m becoming disorientated with each sheet of light and each roar of sound. Then the realisation slaps us viciously in the face. We are smack bang in the centre of an unrelenting storm. And we are on the wrong side of the river.
Clothes are saturated, so the whipping wind is making us shiver. In the distance on the beach side sheets of white light proliferate the sky without rest or abandon, making the skyline resemble a Libyan battlefield. Looking south down the river and across to the ghats, which have become more visible as the murky clouds have slightly lifted, the sky is illuminated by both sheets and spectacular forks of lightning. At times it was like a pen was drawing squiggly lightning bolts across the sky. The forks seemed to last an eternity in the air.
The storm was also proving to be eternal. The other pilgrims on our side took the substantial risk of crossing back against a strengthening current, but they had one advantage that we did not possess – a motor boat. We were now alone, soaked, stranded. I checked the time. We had been moored in the same spot – hunched in the same boat – for close to an hour. We were getting cold, and the storm above us was motionless.
Yet suddenly there were bursts of warm air trying to resuscitate us from the numbness. And suddenly the rain stopped. And suddenly the Ganges becalmed, and we were able to move. The problem was that, whilst we could move, the boat…wouldn’t. It had wedged into the sand. It needed to be pushed, and that needed us to step into the moving septic tank. It’s…warm. Uncomfortably warm. The merciless wind started to strengthen once more as we crossed the river, but Sanjay summoned some inner strength of his own and dragged us towards the ceremony.
The ceremony! It had been delayed by the storm, but was about to start. Did we watch? Like hell we did. We were soaked and shivering. We went straight home, and negotiated a heavy discount from our eccentric oarsman. We hadn’t seen any ‘sights’, after all.
What struck me as we were rowing back under the flashes of lightning (they continued all night) was the atmosphere that was generated by the weather. What we witnessed from the beach was haunting; yet also incredibly alluring and spiritual. It felt like a supernatural force was at work. We were helpless, at the whim of the elements; yet it also brought Varanasi irreversibly into my heart. I felt Varanasi’s power; it’s aura.
It was at times a scary, surreal and overwhelming experience. But it was also phenomenal and other-worldly. It’s not something worth explaining. Words can’t explain it. If you come here, you will feel it too. Though I hope you don’t have to go knee-deep into the Ganges to find it.
Love you all