Banaras ka Boatwala

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From politics, movies, spirituality to mythology, the boatmen of Varanasi are great storytellers and floating encyclopedias of knowledge, as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find out.

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‘Na zameen pe, na aasmaan mein, na pataal mein, Varanasi basta hai Shivji ke trishul ke nok pe,’ said Gorakhnath. Elaborating on Varanasi’s mystical position on Shiva’s trident, the boatman explained that as Visheshvara he rests on the middle fork, as Omkareshvara on the north fork and as Kedareshvara on the south one. ‘Which is why, be it earthquake or the end of the world, Kashi will always remain stable’.

Mayan doomsday be damned, with every trip, Bangalore seemed choked, Mumbai felt like it would explode and Delhi would surely crumble under the weight of its sins. Yet, such blind belief in one’s city was heartening to see. Not that Varanasi was Venice. The city of ghats, gallis (streets) and temples crammed with shops selling banarasi paan, sari and peda was as chaotic as they come. But Gorakhnath the boatman was an optimist. ‘Agar netaon ki rajdhani dilli hai, bhagwanon ki rajdhani Varanasi hai,’ he added, reposing faith in the country’s spiritual capital.

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We were on an early morning cruise along the ghats on India’s holiest river. A Japanese artist was busy painting from his precarious perch, pausing now and then for the boat to stop rocking due to the mild waves. Some shot the red sun rising above the waters. Seagulls that had migrated in winter danced around boats eliciting squeals from children. Indian tourists were being over-charged while buying gangajal containers, beads and trinkets from floating shops. Larger crafts fitted with TV screens beamed Ganga arti as foreigners with benign smiles sat gingerly on red plastic chairs listening to anglicized mantras by Jai Uttal or Prem Joshua blaring from cheap speakers. The slow dance of humanity bobbing on the waters was a sight to behold.

‘How many boats are there in Varanasi?’, we asked Gorakh. ‘Easily 4 to 5,000’ he replied. ‘Maybe more! There are only four points in Varanasi where the roads reach the ghats – Dasashwamedh, Harishchandra, Assi and Raj Ghat. Since all the action is by the river, plying a boat is good business, be it ferrying goods or tourists. I am a manjhi, a traditional oarsman, but these days, pandits, lalas, yadavs, baniyas, every other community has turned to this trade. While our own children shy away from it… Such is life!’ he shook his head.

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‘That’s Meer Ghat, associated with Meerabai. That’s where Shabana Azmi’s English film was going to be shot… but they were chased away,’ said Gorakh referring to Deepa Mehta’s Water. ‘Why?’ ‘Arrey, it was on a sensitive subject – Indian widows. There is a widow house right there… below Ganapathi Guest House. You have to keep in mind local sentiments.’

‘It’s only a film and eventually they shot it… in Sri Lanka’, we countered, defending artistic freedom. ‘Hardly surprising, Ravana’s evil lair! Who says not to shoot here – Arjun Pandit, Yamla Pagla Deewana, Laga Chunari Mein Daag were all filmed at Man Mandir ghat. That’s the boat in which Ram Teri Ganga Maili was shot. There’s Pradeep Kumar’s riverside mansion. But anything ulta pulta…’ Gorakh shook his head.

We floated past Man Mandir Ghat where Raja Man Singh had erected one of his famous observatories. Nearby, two tiger sculptures on the terrace announced the house of Kallu Dom, who tended to the cremation grounds and had employed Raja Harishchandra. The first five logs of wood for the funeral pyre are provided by the doms who take a payment for every body burnt, according to a person’s status. Over the years, Kallu Dom’s family had amassed untold wealth. ‘Is liye kehte hain Kashi mein do raja, ek Kashi Naresh doosra Dom Raja.’

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Soon, we floated down to Manikarnika Ghat where Parvati had lost her ornaments (mani means jewel, karnika are earrings) incurring Lord Shiva’s wrath, who cursed the ghats to be the haunt of the dead. It was strange hearing about one boatman from another. Shiva as boatman helped dead souls cross the Vaitarni, river of the underground and offered salvation by whispering the taraka mantra. The coin placed on the eyes or forehead of the dead was the fee of passage.

Gorakh continued, ‘You know five types of bodies are not cremated – babies, sadhus, pregnant women, snake-bite victims and lepers.’ We wondered how Ganga maintained her purity, not just cleansing the sins of millions in their lifetime but offering salvation after their death. Pat came the reply ‘It’s flowing water, never gets dirty!’ And to prove his point, Gorakh dramatically gulped down a handful, sprinkling the rest on his head. ‘Now you must offer me gupt daan (secret donation) for my services!’

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‘Is that temple sinking due to a weak foundation?’ we asked. ‘Oh that’s Bhimeshwar, built by a young man for his mother to repay her doodh ka karz (debt of her milk). The lady scoffed at his facile attempt and the temple turned lop-sided and was hence known as Kashi Karvat. ‘And that building?’ ‘Umm… don’t know,’ he scratched his head. It was the first admission of ignorance in a long boat journey, for there was nothing the boatmen of Varanasi didn’t know.

We thanked Gorakh and got off at Guleria ghat to investigate and realized it was the newest heritage hotel in town. A 200-year-old Yadava haveli had been renovated by WelcomHeritage and reincarnated into Jukaso Ganges. No wonder it was beyond recognition. Built out of Chunar sandstone, an alfresco café was located on the banks and an open-to-sky terrace restaurant overlooked the placid river. After a luxurious meal, as we got ready to head back to our lodge, the Manager Mr. Manish Kumar Singh said ‘Please don’t walk. Our boatman will drop you. His name is Dipu manjhi and he’s full of stories…’

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April, 2012 issue of JetWings magazine.  

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