It’s 5 am. The Ganges River tour along the waterfront of Varanasi starts from the bathing ghat directly in front of the guest house, just as the sky to the east begins to lighten sufficiently to reveal the steps down to the water’s edge. The air is calm. This morning, there is a layer of clouds just high enough to be picking up a diffuse pink glow.
The disk of the sun is still below the dark horizon formed by the broad, flat flood plain hundreds of yards away on the other side of the river. The only sounds are the rhythmic chiming of temple bells further up the river and, from within a nearby temple, the faint, repetitious chant of a melodious voice, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna . . .”
There are two 20-something couples, plus a red-bearded computer guy from the US midwest who “ran away from home” more than a year ago, and one fat old man from Jersey City with bad knees. I let the youngsters board first so the wide, tired, heavy wooden boat will be more stable as my weight rocks it. By luck, that puts me on the side facing the shore.
The oars are long bamboo poles with flat paddles tied to them with what appears to be woven palm fronds or maybe it’s thinly sliced bamboo. The oar-locks are sodden hemp ropes. The rower is short, perhaps 5 foot 5 inches, totally without fat, as hard and wiry as a suspension bridge cable. Every muscle and bone is so clearly defined, you could use him as a teaching-aid in medical school. As he starts to row upstream, against the turgid but palpable current, the source and upkeep of his physique are obvious.
A light breeze comes up from the north, adding to the rower’s burden against the current. I am facing the ghats. The passengers opposite me must turn to see what I can see directly in front of me. We are no more than 20 feet off shore. First there is a bathing ghat; then, only a few feet further, a burning ghat.
Slowly, slowly, stroke by stroke, the blunt prow making gentle slapping noises, we move past the first bathing ghat. It is lined with people on the steps that extend out below the surface. Some are only knee deep; others up to their necks.
A young woman stands calf-deep, dipping a brass bowl until it is full, raising it ceremoniously with two hands to her bowed forehead, pouring the bowl’s contents back into the river, rinsing the bowl three times, then refilling it and repeating the ritual. All the while, I can see her lips moving. The breeze carries her voice in small gusts. She is chanting gently and fervently. Her voice is clear and rich.
As we move past one of the burning ghats, there are three pyres, one of them so low that it obviously has almost finished its work. The sun is still down. The “doms,” the untouchables who tend the fires, are outlined against the flames. One uses a long pole to move the logs along the edge of a pyre, sending up a sudden cloud of sparks. A spirit is moving to the next life or maybe freedom from reincarnation, carried on the holy fire.
A tourist stands up in a boat that has moved within an oar-length of the wall of the burning ghat. His stance is wide for balance. He raises a video camera. Men in robes, standing beyond the fire, facing the brighter sky at our backs, raise a chorus of sharp complaint, “No photo, no photo, no photo.”
The tourist puts down his camera and bows his head in a tardy apology, hand raised with a placating palm facing the men. However, there can be no doubt he was defying the caution he had already been given, as all tourist are, that such blatant photos of sacred funerary pyres are intrusive. I keep my own camera low and hidden, trusting in hip-shot aim and auto-focus. Hence some are blurred.
Again we chunk upstream. The word “chunk” is Kipling’s and he got it right. The current is slow but it clearly is hard work for our small rower. He pauses, letting his oars drift down and float against the boat. From his pocket he pulls out a packet made of a folded green leaf, pinned shut with a sliver of bamboo.
From my reading I know the leaf is betel, a fast-working, caffeine-like stimulant activated in saliva when chewed together with an alkaline powder. It leaves a red ring around the mouth and stains the gums. I wonder if there is a billboard somewhere, asking “Got Betel?”
He removes the pin revealing the greyish, lumpy powder within. He pops the leaf and the mixture into his mouth. After a few vigorous chews, he smiles redly at me. His energy revived, he picks up the oars again and takes a long pull that moves further away from the shoreline.
He catches my eye and jerks his head sharply to draw attention to the hard-edged disk of the sun that is just climbing into view at our backs. The low haze from the pyres, like a a gauze curtain, glows as red as the flames from which it came. Cameras come up. Photos of the rising sun are not proscribed.
As we drift, a boat just like ours, rowed by a boy who cannot be more than ten years old and 60 pounds, pulls alongside while our oarsman holds it against our side. Souvenirs. Statues, candles, beads, junk. No takers.
On and on we go for more than an hour in an awed, unbroken silence. When something or someone on shore is noted, none of our party speaks. The scene demands our absolute silence. Attention to something specific is directed with a touch and a discrete gesture or with a look, a lift of the chin and a roll of the eyes.
Some ghats are virtually empty while others are so crowded there are backlogs of people, individuals and families, waiting high up on the steps for their turn of access the river’s edge.
My normal instinct would be to look away out of respect for the privacy of the worshipers. But I consciously will myself to overcome that, recalling the blatant, rude stares I have encountered everywhere in India. If they can do it, so can I, but it takes a consciously, uncomfortable effort.
Were this the “A” line, or any line, on the NY Subway, such persistent staring as I have seen here in India many times, every day, by people of all ages and genders, would provoke an angry, perhaps even violent, confrontation for the invasion of privacy. By the time I left India I was returning the stares with little guilt and only small discomfort.
Each bathing ghat is different, yet all are alike in purpose. The plazas above some are buried in hard mud that has been excavated only just enough to show it is more than a yard deep. On ghats that extend any distance back away from the river’s edge, the piles of mud left after the last monsoon flood stage are at least 50 feet above us down on the river. In other places, muddy high water marks on sturdy buildings confirm that recent history.
After more than an hour, and having reached a point where a river of brilliant yellow sewer water made a waterfall into the river, the boatman lifted his oars and let the current carry us back to our starting point. It is so far away I can see only the small white speck of a one-hundred-foot-high temple spire near the hotel. It’s been almost an hour since we started out in the dark.
As we drift downstream towards our starting point, the ghats we passed only a short while ago are even more crowded. Where there had been silence, there now are untuned bells clanging a doleful disharmony. Bursts of firecrackers send up huge clouds of startled birds wheeling overhead, screeching complaints. Far above them, hundreds of feet up, larger birds move in circles, wings extended, never flapping, riding the first warm air currents of the day.
I am reminded of the final stanza of a Shelly poem . . . “Turning and turning in the widening gyre.”
I have come this far, on this morning, to see what a gyre looks like.
We’ve been gone almost two hours. Because of the way the boat is snugged to the shore, I am the last one off. I notice that no one tipped the rower. I gave him one that I hoped would make up for the others.