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.
It’s believed that at the beginning of creation, Lord Brahma was looking for a sacred spot for a sacrifice. He chose a piece of land on which the three holy rivers, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati, flowed into a confluence (sangam). That land, blessed by the Gods, came to be known as ‘Prayag’ (from Pra-Yagna or ‘The Place that is holy for sacrifice’). Talk about auspicious starts.
The transfer from Allahabad station to a hotel for a quick breakfast and the subsequent drive to the boat jetty is the most difficult part of the journey. An impatient mind tries to conjure up different images of boats, of how exactly the boat ride will be. The starting point was Lakhia, also known as Lakshagraha or Lakha Mandal. The story holds that the place is linked with the Mahabharata legend of the lac house in which the Pandavas were nearly burnt down. But then, anything gigantic is ascribed to Bheema and you just have to see five peaks, five rocks, five caves and before you can say Pandava, people have made the connection. Lakhia however, has a mud fort with tunnels.
We alight at the ghat and catch our first glimpse of what will be our vehicle for the next couple of days. The boat sat on the waters like low-slung hipsters; 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 generation of Natey & Manoj rowed our boat, the older duo of Hari Chacha & Nanhe grappled with the oars on the other boat. We lolled forwards at a leisurely 5 km/hr. 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 120 km distance 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 15 km by evening. We spent the sunset watching Slender-billed Gulls flapping over the water surface and changing angles acutely to dip down 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. Night was in the company of howling wolves, crying terns, chirping crickets and the waters of the Ganga gently lapping against the banks. We slept in our A-shaped tents with visions of our first major stop, Sitamadhi.
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 travelers. We caught a glimpse of the Gangetic dolphin. Natey the boatman educated us on the first of our boatman learnings: If you see a jal pari (water fairy or dolphin), it means waters are very deep.
We soon docked at Sitamadhi, the legendary place where Maharishi Valmiki had his ashram, where Lakshmana had forsaken 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. That was until Sita decided to jump into the earth. The place was named Sitamadhi (Sita’s place) in her memory. 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.
Back at the riverbank, the wrinkled Hari Chacha was transported to another era as he spoke in detail about their most famous passenger. Misty-eyed, he recounted the incident where the King of the kevats (boatmen), Nishad-raj had met Lord Rama on the banks of the Ganga. He helped him cross the Ganga in exchange of a promise that in the afterlife, the Lord will help the boatman cross the Great Ocean to Vaikuntha Lok. The boatmen of Prayag trace their lineage from the same Nishad-raaj and the celebrated event took place at Singverpur (30km upstream from Allahabad).
The impish Natey continued where his uncle had left off. ‘Sir, pata hai aapko, Sangam pe ek nariyal dus hajaar ka bikta hai aur roz sawa kilo sona barasta hai’. He elaborated later, that a coconut is sold for Rs.10, but after being offered to the Ganga, it is retrieved from the waters and resold to pilgrims. The same coconut does many rounds and a new one is not bought till the old one rots. By the time it does, it has made Rs.10,000. That’s why in Allahabad, they ask you not to break the coconut and veil it as a mandatory religious code of conduct. As for the gold shower, a lot of female bodies, bones and ashes that are offered into the Ganga have some amount of gold which expert divers, usually the fishermen and boatmen retrieve. “Oh look”, Natey squints in the distance, “a dead man’s body.” I was zapped. Telling a dead body a mile away is mad enough, but how does one tell the gender? Boatman Logic #3 – A male dead body lies face down in the water while a female one floats face up. No one knows why and a dead man tells no tales.
We crossed Mirzapur, the town famous for its 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 eating only air and water while the Ruddy Shelduck is called Surkhab, a biggish duck whose meat is a local delicacy though very hot. 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.
While I was scouting for birds the next morning, Natey said that the best way to sight birds in the foggy dawn, is to shit on the riverbank. I decided to decline his thoughtful suggestion as we had the luxury of a mobile, tented lavatory. 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. Tucked away from this mess of organized religion, 3 km inland was a temple on a hillock with a story. After Kansa learnt that he would be killed by the son of his sister Devaki & Vasudeva, he imprisoned them and killed their children one by one. The seventh child was a daughter and as he flung it, she landed here and became the main deity at the Ashtabhuja Temple.
By now, there was a gentle breeze blowing and the boatmen’s eyes lit up. It was the Pachhwaar. The wind blew from Paschim (West) to Purab (East) and was thus called pachhwar. The Paal (mast) was raised on the mastool (vertical bamboo pole) and while one person loosened and tightened the Hanja joti (ropes tied at the sides of the boat), the other boatman managed the Patwari (rudder tied behind the boat for direction). The boatman cleverly uses the pachhwar to drift downstream, deftly manouevering through swifter currents and the wind direction. While we were getting our Bachelors in Sailing, Natey let forth another gem of a tip on how to cross the river without a boat. Boatman Logic #4 – Never hold a buffalo’s tail to cross the river. It loves to submerge itself into deep waters. A cow on the other hand is more reliable as it doesn’t like to wet its face and ears.
Shamelessly sprawled on the mattress, seeing the two boatmen toil with the currents almost made us guilty. We decided to give our arms some exercise. And that’s when a perfect leisure cruise became an adventure sport. Five minutes of amateur boating resulted in bruised knuckles and not much progress either in our learning or the distance covered. We camped on the opposite bank of Chunar for what would be our last night. 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.
It was an early start to the final day. Chunar’s history was as old as Satyug. Lord Vishnu reincarnated himself as Vamana the dwarf to check the might of the great king Bali. Vamana begged Bali for three steps of land and on seeing an imp ask for such a meager grant, the haughty king agreed. Wish granted, Vishnu assumed his virat-roop (massive form) and with one step covered the earth, with the second spanned the sky and threatened to place the third on Bali’s head when the king realized his folly and asked for forgiveness. It’s believed that Vamana’s first step landed on the hill of Chunar and left an impression of his foot. Consequently, the hill came to be known as Charan-adri (Foot hill?), then Chunar-Adri, which over the years got shortened to Chunar.
Around 56 BC, Sage Bhartrihari, the half-brother of Vikramaditya of Ujjain, became a hermit and wandered to the holy rock of Chunar by the Ganga and chose it as his final resting place (samadhi). Through the vision of the holy saint Baba Gorakhnath, Vikramaditya traced his brother’s hiding place and on finding no proper shelter for him, built a fort for him. When Aurangzeb came to Sage Bhartrihari’s samadhi at Chunar, he raised a call and on not getting a reply, deemed it a hoax and asked his soldiers to ransack it. No sooner had a soldier cleaved the ground with his sword that thousands of bumblebees emerged from the hole and started attacking the soldiers. Aurangzeb had boiling oil poured over the bees but instead of singeing them, the oil flowed quietly into the Ganga. Aurangzeb then issued a firman, deemed the place sacred and urged subsequent visitors not to wage a conquest. His decree is still preserved at the samadhi and so is the bumblebee opening.
The legendary fort was fought over by everyone from Babar, Humayun, Shershah Suri, Akbar to Sir Warren Hastings and earned the name Chunargarh. It became an Ammunition Depot, then a reformatory for juvenile delinquents, then a jail for Indian political prisoners, currently is 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 acts as the local cow pat depot.
Ramnagar, with its beautiful river-facing fort also houses a museum, which we skipped through quickly before reaching Kashi, The City of Light just as the daylight was seeping away. The essence of Hindu religion and culture, the ancient Varanasi is the world’s oldest living city, continuously inhabited for the longest period. Little wonder that Mark Twain described Banaras as “Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and twice as old as all of them put together”. The city, bracketed by the Varuna to the north and Asi to the south, is thus called Varanasi. According to a legend, after slaying the demons Shumbha-Nishumbha, Goddess Durga threw her Khadag (sword) and at the place where it fell a big stream gushed forth that became the Asi river. 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.
Primary among Varanasi’s 84 sacred ghats are Dashashwamedha Ghat (where Brahma performed the ten-horse sacrifice), Harishchandra Ghat, named after the legendary king who had worked as a ‘dom’ (a low-caste who burns dead bodies) at the cremation grounds. The present-day doms trace their lineage from the same Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra. But the Maha-Samsana or ‘The great cremation ground’ is the Manikarnika Ghat, named after the earrings of Lord Shiva, who dropped them here while performing his transcendental Taandav dance.
It all fit 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 ear of the dead. To the spiritually inclined, the journey is a crash-course in Hindu philosophy and to a non-believer, a chance to become one.
The route: 180 km over 4 days from Prayag – Lakhia – Sitamadhi – Murdaghat – Vindhyachal – Mirzapur – Chunar – Ramnagar – Varanasi
It’s just enough to get yourself to Allahabad and the tour guys will do the rest. You can either start the boat journey from Sangam or a car will take you to Lakhia (Lakhamandal) 35 km away from Allahabad. Sitamadhi is 25 km away and Murdaghat further 10km downstream. Vindhyachal is 25 km away and Mirzapur 20km from there. Chunar is 42 km from Mirzapur, until you hit the final stretch after to Varanasi, 50 km away.
Food & Acco:
Food isn’t what you expect in the middle of a river. Buttered toast, eggs, pancakes and honey for breakfast, rice, dal, sabzi for lunch, soup, pasta and salad as continental dinner and caramel custard for dessert. If you bring along your own fishing tackle, you can even fish, though some can even be procured from fishing boats.
Stay is in tented camps (A-shaped 2-man tents), set up on isolated riverine islands. In warmer months, you can even sleep in the boat.
Things to do:
With someone else doing all the hard work, there’s little you can do other than loll on the gently bobbing sea-palanquin. A dip in the Ganga is a must and the only exercise one gets is the walks from the river to the various places you go by. An interesting feature of the trip is the Birding & Wildlife.
Great for aquatic birds like terns, gulls, cranes, storks, egrets, swallows, kingfishers, all species of cormorants and ducks like Red-crested Pochard, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Common Coot and Ruddy Shelduck. Because of the burning ghats, you also find raptors like White-rumped Vulture and Egyptian Vulture. Other exotic species you can see in and out of the water are Pallas’s Fish Eagle and the Gangetic Dolphin. Serious wildlife enthusiasts can extend their wildlife itinerary from Mirzapur, by going towards Robertsganj. The Chandraprabha And Kaimur Wildlife Sanctuaries are not that exposed to visitors and are hence in a decent state of preservation.
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2:35 am Boat from Lakhia (Lakshagrah), 35 km from Allahabad
6:30 pm Night halt at Tela Mandra
7:45 am Set off for Sitamadhi, 15 km away
12:10 Alight at Sitamadhi and visit Valmiki Ashram, Sita Sthala
7:30 pm Night camp on opposite bank of Vindhyachal
7:45 am Leave camp and cross Ganga
8:30 am Visit Vindhyavasini temple on the other side
12:00 Cross Mirzapur
8:30 pm Night camp on opposite bank of Chunar
8:00 am Leave camp and cross Ganga to Chunar fort
2:30 pm Visit Ramnagar fort
4:00 pm Alight at Assi Ghat, Varanasi
Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the February 2004 edition of Outlook Traveller as part of the cover story on Incredible Journeys.