Do Allahabad to Varanasi by road and you are likely to encounter nothing but bumpy potholes, congested traffic and ill-mannered cows. But leave the highway to take the river, and you’ll find new meaning to life. Two of the holiest cities in India strung together by the holiest of holy rivers in one incredible journey. It’s not every day you do a boat-ride on the Ganga from Prayag to Kasi.
The transfer from Allahabad station to a hotel for a quick breakfast, and the subsequent drive to the boat jetty, was the most difficult part of the journey. An impatient mind tried to conjure up images of boats, of exactly what the boat ride would be like.
We alit at the ghat and caught our first glimpse of what would be our vehicle for the next couple of days. The boat sat on the river like a low-slung hipster, the water level alarmingly close to the edge. There was a canopy in the middle with a thick mattress and pillows stacked on one side. It was a sort of desi prototype of the luxury liner. There was also a support boat with a kitchen, cook and provisions. With a holy incantation and a silent prayer, we were off on our magical journey.
While the younger Natey and Manoj rowed our boat, the older Hari Chacha and Nanhe grappled with the oars on the other. We lolled forward at a leisurely five kilometres an hour. At lunchtime, Tirath the cook let out a call and the two boats were tied side by side. The swift currents twirled the boats around and we had a Floating Rotating Restaurant with an ever-changing landscape.
Thanks to the twists and turns of the Ganga, the 120km between Allahabad and Varanasi by road is stretched to 180km by river. Within the first hour, it was apparent that the trip was perfect for observing aquatic birds. We were constantly accompanied by the ki-ki-ki-ki cry of the River Lapwing, the odd Pallas’s Fish Eagle and the Pied Kingfisher, which is the Zebra of the Waters. Its striking black-and-white coloured body flies low over the water surface and when it has to fish, it darts up to a height, hovers for a few seconds and then dashes down into the water to surface with its catch. It has a peculiar habit of tossing up the catch and grabbing it again in its unerring beak.
After other such discoveries, we had done some 15km by evening. We spent the sunset watching Slender-billed Gulls flapping over the water surface and changing angles acutely to dip for small fish and insects. The sun was like an Orange Cream biscuit slowly being dunked by an invisible hand into the large coffee spill that was Ganga. The first night’s halt was on a deserted island, where we set up camp. The landscape was a mix of sand dunes and crusty topsoil, parched and broken by the sun to resemble a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. We passed out that night in our A-shaped tents to a lullaby of howling wolves, crying terns, chirping crickets and the waters of the Ganga gently lapping against the banks.
The next day, we set off for Sitamadhi in the early morning mist. Sticking to the river bank made it easy to navigate. The sun came up and lit up the beautiful sand formations and ridges on one side, while mustard fields carpeted the slopes of the other bank. The river, meanwhile, had stopped its meandering course and was now a broad superhighway on which we were the lone travellers. We caught a glimpse of the Gangetic dolphin. “If you see a jal pari” (water fairy or dolphin) said Natey the boatman, “it means waters are very deep.”
We soon docked at Sitamadhi, the legendary place where Maharishi Valmiki had his ashram, where Lakshmana forsook Sita on the instructions of elder brother Rama, where Luv-Kush were born, where the two brothers captured Rama’s ashwamedha horse, where the young duo fought and defeated Rama’s army, where Lord Rama almost went to battle with his sons and where Valmiki finally revealed the identity of the twins and reunited the family. Sitamadhi had a tirtha sthal for each event – Lav-Kush Janam aur Shiksha-Diksha Sthal, Sita Vat, Shri Samahit Sthal, Shri Ganga Tatt and a kitschy gigantic statue of Hanuman.
We crossed Mirzapur, the town famous for carpets and some remnants of British architecture. We encountered common coots by the thousands. The boatmen have their own vocabulary, which reflects their amazing grasp of the environment. While the coot is called Ledi for no apparent reason, the Cormorant which is an excellent diver is Pandubbi (submarine), the Swift is called Hawapini, because it survives on air and water, while the Ruddy Shelduck is called Surkhab, a biggish duck whose meat is a local delicacy. We camped for the day at Vindhyachal, and the boatmen announced that if the wind was right the next day, we might raise the sail.
The next day we crossed the width of the Ganga and docked at Vindhyachal, famous for its Vindhyavasini temple. The narrow lanes were crammed with shops selling flowers, coconuts and religious finery. When we returned to the boat there was a gentle breeze blowing and the boatmen’s eyes lit up. It was the Pachhwaar, the wind that blows from Paschim (West) to Purab (East). The Paal (mast) was raised and while one person loosened and tightened the Hanja joti ropes, the other boatman managed the Patwari, or rudder). And while we struggled to attain our Bachelor’s in Sailing, Natey told us how to cross the river without a boat—and how not to. Never hold on to a buffalo’s tail. It loves to submerge itself in deep waters. A cow on the other hand is more reliable, as it doesn’t like to wet its face and ears.
Seeing the two boatmen toil with the currents while we sprawled on the mattress made us feel a little guilty—eventually. And so we exchanged a perfect leisure cruise for a spot of adventure sports. Five minutes of amateur boating resulted in bruised knuckles and not much progress either in our education or in the distance covered. Our labour done, we camped on the bank opposite Chunar for what would be our last night on the river. After days in the boat, your mind starts playing games at night. You think your tent is a boat gently swaying and rocking in the breeze.
We had an early start the next day to take in the legendary fort. In its day it had been a prize for everyone from Babar, Humayun, Sher Shah Suri, and Akbar to Sir Warren Hastings. In decline it became an Ammunition Depot, then a reformatory for juvenile delinquents, then a jail for Indian political prisoners, and is currently the training centre of the Provincial Armed Core (PAC) and an interesting stopover. It has an old British cemetery where the oldest tombstone dates back to 1796. Today, it serves as the local cow pat depot.
Further downriver lay the more beautiful river-facing fort at Ramnagar, which also houses a museum. We skipped through it quickly before reaching Kashi, The City of Light, just as daylight was seeping away. The city, bracketed by the Varuna to the north and Asi to the south, is thus called Varanasi. The place where the Ganga intersects Asi is called Assi Ghat and a dip here is equivalent to the punya of visiting all the Tirthas. This is where we alighted, ending an epic journey.
For a true sense of journey’s end though, there’s nothing more final than the Maha-Samsana or ‘The great cremation ground’ of Manikarnika Ghat, named after the earrings of Lord Shiva, who dropped them here while performing his transcendental Taandav dance.
It all fits in beautifully in the end. A river that emerged from the matted locks of Shiva, a journey that drifted down to his favourite spot on the Ganga (Varanasi) and the Cosmic Boatman Lord Shiva, as Tarakesvara, who whispers the Taraka mantra (Prayer of the crossing) in the ears of the dead. To the spiritually inclined, the journey is a crash-course in Hindu philosophy and to a non-believer, a chance to reconsider.
The route: The boat journey can start from Allahabad or from Lakhnia (35km from Allahabad). The river then follows a winding course that takes you to Sitamadhi (25km). Another 10km gets you to Murdghat, followed by the temple town of Vindhyachal and then Mirzapur. It’s worth stopping for the night on one of the small riverine islands opposite the Chunar fort. The journey from Chunar to Varanasi is usually done in a day, with a stop at the Ramnagar fort. The journey ends at Varanasi’s Assi Ghat.
Food & accommodation: Food isn’t what you expect in the middle of a river: toast, eggs, pancakes, honey for breakfast; rice, dal, sabzi for lunch; soup, pasta, salad and caramel custard for dinner. If you bring along your own fishing tackle, you could eat fish... Stay is in tented camps, set up on riverine islands. In warmer months, you can sleep on the boat.
Things to do: There’s little to do on the boat other than loll on the gently bobbing sea-palanquin. The cruise is an ornithologist’s delight—look out for terns, gulls, cranes, storks, egrets, swallows, kingfishers, cormorants and ducks like the Red-crested Pochard and the Cotton Pygmy Goose. Exotic wildlife includes the Pallas’s Fish Eagle and the Gangetic Dolphin. Wildlife enthusiasts can extend their wildlife itinerary from Mirzapur, by visiting the Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuary at Robertsganj (80km; 2hrs by car).
Booking and itineraries: Shikhar Travels (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.shikhar.com) organises the 180km cruise, and offer two itineraries. The six-day trip includes overnight stops at Lakhiya, Usmanpur, Murdghat and Mirzapur. The itineraries are flexible.