Sailing on the Ganga, headed for Banaras

A cruise along the Ganga in the Tarangini not only allows you to have a close look at migratory birds and Gangetic dolphins but also spend nights camping on sandbars
Dawn breaks over the ghats at Banaras
Dawn breaks over the ghats at Banaras

The Pleiades were out above Tarangini, Aldebaran was blinking right above the pole that tethered the boat to the sandbar &mdash I&rsquod forgotten how large and finely-etched the night sky can be, smack in the middle of the Gangetic plains. The haze of ambient light that smothers our views in the city had been washed clear and a bone-thin crescent moon had just risen above the southern bank, as gigantic as the orange sun that had set a couple of hours ago. The river was silent for a while, and a slight smell of decaying fish wafted in from the dark, gently lapping river. This was soon drowned out by the rather more delicious smell of the dinner that Rajesh was rustling up below decks. He, along with Deepak, the captain of our little bajra, old hand Rajkumar and Dashrath, the eager kid, made up our crew. Sailing from the pontoon bridge at Mirzapur, we had been drifting towards Banaras all day, before settling in for the night on a massive sandbar in the middle of the river.

For two days we floated down the lee lines of the visible river and its invisible currents, and many stories emerged from the grey flood of the river and sank back into its mysterious depths, much like the three dolphins that followed us for a good hour downstream from the fortress of Chunar. But that first night on the sandbar will stay with me a long, long time. For sheer mystique and gran&shydeur, the river that night was peerless. Puneet and I had walked down the sandbar &mdash the white sand shimmered in the starlight, and seemed to stretch away into infinity. Every step we took seemed to lead us away from the real world of dusty, noisy, babbling UP into a timeless one where the Ganga always flowed thus, past village verges and tiny streams coming down from the Vindhyas one-cow villages with a tiny temple and a mosque, and rough-hewn ghats with giggling, splashing chil&shydren, brown in the sun, hanging from the roots of a banyan growing close to the water. We were on an endless, vast stream where the horizon seemed to meld with the river seamlessly. The river had become a &lsquoSoft Place&rsquo, a space marking the meeting of the real and the ethereal, where time and space warped and weaved.

The magnificent fortress of Chunar was an arresting sight, hulking down on the river from atop a great cliff, brooding and ominous, guard&shying a major turn in the river where it swept up north. Since time immemorial, whichever political power held Chunar had also held the fate, and river trade, of northern India. So important was it that the would-be emperor Humayun laid siege on it, and demanded that Sher Shah give it up if he wanted to keep Bengal. Sher Shah agreed, but promptly recaptured the fort once Humayun marched east. It was left to Akbar to win it back for the Mughals. The fortress as it stands now was built by him, in the signature red sandstone of all his great building projects. That the fortress commanded a great view of a large swathe of the river was evident when we climbed up to it from a small fishing village beside it. The southern bank of the river is hilly, geographically a part of the Vindhyan range and central India. The northern bank is as flat as flat can be. A busy pontoon bridge connected the two banks just north of the fort. The river is often uttaravahini (flowing to the north) here, changing direction in gigantic sweeps, like a lazy python. Immersed in history as it is, the hills around Chunar are equally famed for the sandstone quarries, which have been mined for more than two thousand years to create some of the most famous monumental heritage of the country &mdash &nbspfrom Ashokan columns to the stupa at Sarnath, and the many Buddhas of Nalanda.

The British too controlled this strategic fort for over 150 years, under whom it was a convalescent centre for suffering Englishmen. Just below the fort, by the river, lay a graveyard to their memory, with names of men, women and children who lived and died here over 200 years ago. In the afternoon sun, large goats dozed and little boys ate fried crabs in the shadow of menhirs, large crypts, el&shyegant marble arches and sundials. The fort itself is used by the UP police as a training centre for rook&shyie cops, while the central Mughal-style kacheri is a shrine dedicated to a Vaishnav saint. Within the walls of the fortress lay an impossibly giant, and deep, pit, ringed around by ancient stairs wind&shying down to a sunless bottom. Walking around it, while trying to contain our vertigo, we met a Ben&shygali family, chattering and taking photographs. I asked them if they were tourists. One man smiled and said they were, but from Mirzapur, &ldquoWe&rsquove been living there for many generations,&rdquo he said, &ldquo we hardly feel Bengali any more.&rdquo

The adventurer and painter William Hodges had sailed down the Ganga in 1781, headed for Calcutta on a bajra just like ours. He wrote of the river, &ldquoThis immense current of water suggests rather the idea of an ocean than of a river&hellipThe rivers I have seen in Europe, even the Rhine, appear as rivulets in comparison with this enormous mass of water. I do not know of a more pleasant amusement than sailing down the Gan&shyges in the warm season the air passing over the great reaches of the river many miles in length, is so tempered as to feel delightfully refreshing.&rdquo I&rsquoll admit to such feelings of comfortable languor as well, seated on the open-top deck of the boat on fluffed up gaddis, sipping tea and watching the green shores flow by. Vast flocks of migratory cranes circled up in the sky. Sometimes, smaller groups would break away and come close to the river in elegant parabolas. They&rsquod fly about for a bit, and then suddenly, on some signal, would whirl away and rejoin the main flock and fly away, following the waterway from wetland to wetland.

Drifting on the central current (Deepak, known to his deckhands as Captain, called the currents sutas, literally, strings) while eating halwa, we&rsquod occasionally hear the howl of a distant train, or maybe the honk of a car horn. I&rsquod be reminded in a flash that, yes, there were railway lines on both sides of the river, not to mention state and national highways. But for the most part, it would be the sounds of birds out for an early worm, the splash of Rajkumar feeling out the depth of the river with a long pole, or the distant ringing of a bell in some small riverside shrine. Pontoon bridges, like the one at Chunar, served as bridges for vehicular traffic across the river, but mostly people used small rowboat-ferries at designated ferry stations &mdash nothing more ostentatious than a small shed and a smaller bamboo ramp with one or two people with an umbrella and a cycle.

I was continuously amazed by how rich and empty of apparent filth the river still is when it&rsquos passing through the hinterlands. Although heav&shyily cultivated for at least four thousand years, the good Ganga silt seemed to encourage a never-end&shying fecundity. The fields were overflowing with ears of corn, some of the holdings coming all the way down to the river. But the river took as much as it gave, and we constantly heard large splashes as bits of the bank keeled over and dived into the water. You forget how very alive the river is, with its muscular currents on which bobbed little dhows with one or two fishermen pulling in nets alive with fish. You could spot a particularly suc&shycessful catch by the Gangetic gulls that hovered, screaming and diving. Sitting in my low cabin below-decks, I considered the somewhat matronly portrait of Ganga as goddess that Deepak has painted on the partition between the cabin and the kitchen. Ganga always rides a makara (gharial), and it was no different in this painting. Gorgeous sandstone statues of Ganga made in UP, from the Kushana, Gupta and later eras can be seen in any museum in the country. In this painting, wearing a demure sari, she wasn&rsquot the nubile beauty of yore, but seemed more suited to her present condition &mdash shackled by the very worldly pressures of develop&shyment and diminishing horizons, she was getting unfit, shy and retiring her age was beginning to show, but at least for now, she remained a god&shydess, sustaining millions of people in an unending circle of life. The closer we got to Banaras, tranquil riverine sights grew rarer. The unending green&shyery of cultivated fields and woody groves started giving way to ugly urban structures. No amount of holiness can wash away the taint of effluents and illegal sand mining, both of which was becoming more conspicuous with every kilometre we sailed.

After running eastwards for a while, the river took yet another giant turn, running north yet again &mdash and the grand palace of Ramnagar and the famous old bridge connecting the latter to Banaras swung into view. The Mughal-style fa&ccedilade of the palace&rsquos prettily trellised arcs was shining majestically in the light of the setting sun. We stopped for a while, chatting with an itinerant sadhu on the palace ghat, while the crew prepared the bajra to cross the pontoon bridge up ahead. This was the first time I was seeing the process, and it was quite fascinating. The gaddis and the railing of the upper deck were dismantled, as were any other appendages that stuck out. Then with the help of the pole and the swift current, the bajra was pushed towards the bridge. This time of the day, it was very crowded with cycles, bikes, scooters, pedestrians and cars. The bajra aimed for the space between two pontoons, and till the final moment it seemed as if it would not be able to squeeze through. One gentleman had stopped his scooter to try and fill some Ganga water in his plastic jar. As we passed under, he beseeched us to help him. Dashrath leapt up, caught the container, and as the boat went through, ducked and scooped up some wa&shyter. As soon as we cleared,the others temporarily moored the boat while Dashrath clambered up, and handed the jar back to the very grateful man. A stiff breeze was blowing up the river, and there, finally, was the fabled arc of the eternal city rising in the distance, seemingly from the river.

We docked again, on another sandbar, directly opposite Assi Ghat. But it might have well been another world, another river. Crassly loud bha&shyjans were booming across the river, bright neon lights beat down upon a sluggish river choked with cast-off garlands and plastic. Fighting off the mosquitoes that were breeding in the muck, I chose to think of the other Ganga, the one we&rsquod seen the night before. If this night was aggres&shysively religious, that night was gently spiritual, where the howl of a distant dog, the low hum of a passing flight, the faint tinkling of a small bell, the eerie cries of night birds, the low crescent moon, the starlight and the swish and plop of the flowing river and crumbling sandbanks were the only sounds, when the river seemed joined at the hips to her celestial twin up in the sky.

The information

Getting there
The Ganga cruise has two starting points &mdash Allahabad and Mirzapur. For Mirzapur, take the train to Banaras. You&rsquoll be picked up at the station and ferried to the starting point of the cruise.

The cruise
The brainchild of French eco-entrepreneur Laurige Boyer and Banarasi boatman Deepak Sahani, the owner and captain of the Tarangini, the cruise not only gives you unforgettable riverine experiences like nights camped on massive sandbars and tracking migratory birds and Gangetic dolphins,but also helps you explore the arts and crafts of villages by the river, not to mention historical sights like the Chunar fort and the Ramnagar palace. A dawn slow-boat ride up and down the length of the ghats of Banaras is also thrown in. Local cuisine and snacks make for delicious meals, not to mention innumerable cups of tea. Banaras is, of course, a great place to eat and shop.Tariff From Rs 28,000 for two people for a two-day/one-night cruise. The longest cruise is for a duration of six days. Contact Laurige (91- 9899020227), Deepak (9839873664) or mail deepak

Top tip
Mosquitoes come out in droves in the more polluted parts of the river. Carry repellent.

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