If I am asked to choose the most scintillating experience in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India, it would be difficult to choose just one! Nevertheless, the most clearly etched out memory is the morning ride I had on a Bajra watching the sunrise over River Ganges.
Bajra boats need an introduction of their own merit. You may find slight similarities with houseboats in Dal Lake of Srinagar Kashmir or the houseboats of Alleppey in Kerala but they are a lot different in the concept. These boats come in different sizes that can cater to groups of just four people to a group of 30. Because of its strange shape, it is called Bajra, meaning thunder. It has a roof covering, well-laid-out seating arrangements, decked with flowers and musicians with tabla and sitar on board.
Zamindars (rich landlords) of yesteryear entertained themselves in this manner. What was their privilege once has been reinvented and remodelled to suit tourists, pilgrims and travellers' wishes and cravings today! Ghats are a broad flight of steps leading down to a river. Varanasi has approximately 300 ghats on the banks of the River Ganges. Each ghat is unique in its buildings, history and character. A boat ride along the complete stretch takes about two to three hours. A well-planned itinerary to tour Varanasi caters to this wonderful journey. It provides a glimpse into the traditional ways of India.
On our second day in Varanasi, we took the Bajra ride from Assi Ghat, after witnessing the morning Ganga Aarti, to Dashashwamedh Ghat. The ride was of almost 40 minutes duration, and the route spotted scores of important ghats. Besides the sights of the ghats, there were innumerable small but enriching experiences which made the journey very pleasant and cherished.
A small ladder led to the top of the Bajra boat. Instead of chairs, there was a huge cushioned mattress spread across, with bolsters placed along the railings. Our group of thirty people comfortably settled along the railings. There were some chairs too that catered for those who couldn’t sit down cross-legged. Two musicians, one on the table and another on the sitar, sat in the centre. They played several tunes of classical music while we had tea and snacks; it is a part of the boat trip deal/package.
The charm of the River Ganges is its jade-green water surface, disturbed now and then by the ripples of crisscrossing boats, the rising sun and its reflection. Add to this the mesmerizing skies painted by the light of the sun's first rays. The Hindustani classical music notes floating in the air enhance the entire experience to another level. One can only wish that time would stand still.
As the sun rose, the facades of temples and buildings that lined the ghats reflected the first rays of light. The outlines of the buildings of Varanasi, a city said to be more than 5000 years old, took a definite form. Banaras ghats have changed a lot compared to what it was a decade back. They are neater and cleaner.
The ghats are lively, happening and peaceful. ‘People watching’ is a great activity, since you can do it from a distance without making them uncomfortable. People involved in daily chores, like washing clothes, and vessels, are a common sight. It is their way of living for years. Now with more tourist inflow things are changing.
Taking dips (not bathing), an act of cleansing before proceeding to the temple for darshan is a common practice here. Some meditate to the rising sun oblivious of the surroundings. They manage to find peace amidst all chaos around them. It is that time when you can see rituals performed by Hindus on the ghats during sunrise. Ganga aarti can be done not just by the temple priests but also by any individual who wishes to do it. They are sometimes assisted by the local purohits.
The interesting thing to note here is that the ghat is the place of livelihood for several local people of Varanasi. While some sell items meant for puja offerings, some are involved in selling tea and snacks for them after the rituals are over. During special festive seasons, devotees float several lit lamps and it is a sight to behold. If you thought only humans are catered to here, let me add that you will find vendors selling bird food too. They come in small boats, shouting out for attention to sell the bird food in packets. Once you throw a handful of the bird feed, it is an interesting sight to watch the seagulls scoop on them in flocks. Yet another subject for photograph enthusiasts.
Some tips to plan a Boat tour in Varanasi
- Plan the trip in advance; tie up with a tour organiser. The price depends on the duration of the boat ride and the boat's capacity. In case you are on your own do bargain the rates. They won’t hesitate to fleece so have a fair idea of the rates. Private row boat tours will always cost more.
- Take your camera along, especially a DSLR, if you have one.
- Take a guide along who will explain the history of the establishment of each ghat, its prominence and more related information. You get English-speaking guides too.
- Stay close to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, that way you are closer to the several temples and important sights around. There are several hotels to suit every kind of budget.
- Winter mornings can get really cold, so prepare your clothing accordingly.
- Some take the evening ride, in that case, you will miss sighting the sunset, miss all activities related to sunrise but you will get the views of the biggest evening Ganga Aarti on Dashashwamedh Ghat and the long stretches of ghats bathed in colourful lights. Try to do both, but in my opinion, a morning boat tour of Varanasi will be the best experience.