We are running sufficiently late that our guide for our boat trip on the Ganges is already in the hotel lobby waiting for us. Staff deposit our bags upstairs, and we come back down to join our guide. We walk down many steps to the river bank, getting a short description on the activity around us, but there are cricket matches, hawkers, sadhus, people offering massage, and offering boat rides. The guide finds our boatman, off he rows. We cover the main stretch of the Ganges, as it relates to Varanasi, maybe around two kilometres, with many of the features of the different ghats explained to us. This includes the ‘burning ghats’ where bodies are cremated around the clock. Huge woodpiles are stacked adjacent to these ghats. Women do not attend the cremation. It is auspicious for Hindus to die in Varanasi, possibly offering liberation from the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth. IndianInterlude will need to check that however.
At dusk we sidle up to many other boats with people watching the Aarthi ceremony from the river. It seems there are more people watching from boats than there are on land. Two ceremonies are held at two different ghats, not far apart, with one starting two minutes after the other. Later, we think we had the lesser of Aarthis. The Aarthi is a prayer ceremony for the Ganges itself, and given what goes into the river, Mother Ganga needs all the help she can get. The ceremony is full of music and fire and ritual movement. Our guide seems keen to move on before it ends, and whilst IndianInterlude is reluctant to leave any performance before it is over, this one doesn’t mean a lot, and the guide has now asked three times if we would like to leave, saying the main part of the ceremony is over. Our boat maneuvers its way out of the parking lot of boats, and takes to the open river again.
Disembarking we go for a walk through the narrow winding alleys which make up this part of the city. We take a land-based view of one of the burning ghats, pass the Government bhang shop, as our guide leads us to the Blue Lassi Room. Whilst all of these alleys have names, none are signed. The alleys are perhaps wide enough for three to walk abreast, however they must also accommodate motor cycles, cows, and carts. Businesses have their names painted on walls with directional arrows, however one could walk for some distance before actually finding the business one is seeking.
It has been a hectic day and both members of IndianInterlude feel worse for wear as we return to our guest house for dinner. The sight of his meal does nothing for the male half of IndianInterlude, and he can barely chew a mouthful of naan. Was it the banana lassi at the Blue Lassi Room? High fever, chills, sweats, nausea, and diarrhoea confine him to bed for the next thirty-six hours.
Sunday finds the well half of IndianInterlude setting forth with the guide to further explore Varanasi.
The guide confidently negotiates the labyrinth of alley ways off the main road and we find ourselves in a West Bengali part of the city. We visit a local temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali, a fierce black faced creature with an apparent lust for blood. We move on to a South Indian area – the South Indian women can be clearly identified by the way they wear their sari – then to a Muslim section. It is a warm and quiet day – being a Sunday many businesses are closed – thankfully there are few motor cycles terrorising local pedestrians.
It seems impossible to imagine confidently negotiating my own way back through these alleys. Once back at the river we walk along the numerous ghats or sets of steps and take photos of key ghats (they are all individually named) – possible sari shops and packing/postage merchants – so that we can revisit them tomorrow when the other half of IndianInterlude is hopefully back on his feet.