A sunrise boat ride on the Ganges is one of the things to do in Varanasi, and I understand why; it’s nice, tranquil and peaceful. As the dawn breaks and the sunlight glimmers through the haze the steps of the riverbanks (known as ghats) come slowly to life with the faithful making their way to the waters edge to pay respects to the sun and to bathe in the holy river. Its gentle bob on the river adds to the boat being the most serene place to be in town. The chanting and music from the river’s edge, the splash of the oars, the rhythmic whack of the washermen washing clothes and hotel linen in the river create a lovely chorus with which to greet the dawn.
Watching people dunk and wash themselves in the river is a discomforting experience. I’m holding onto the desire to not touch the water, or to be splashed by it in any way. Let alone to let it into my ear, nose, mouth. The washermen and women bash clothes (questionably) clean on the riverside rocks, adding the soap scum directly to the already polluted water.
As the boat bobs our guide explains snippets of Varanasi’s history and about the religious symbolism visible on the waters edge and the significance of it to the faith as a whole. We talk about the monsoonal floods and the subsequent annual cleaning of the ghats, after 20 meters of silt is deposited on the steps each year.
Exploring the 82 ghats (one for each type of life apparently) on foot is quite easy; traversing the interconnecting steps requires a bit of care but it’s easy enough to do. It’s quite nice for the most part, although the boat men constantly accost you for a ride, the beggars aren’t too persistent if you ignore them and the touts aren’t too pushy. There is plenty to look at and it’s quite photogenic, plenty of scoured and faded art work on the walls, marigolds floating at the rivers edge, holy men to gawk at, and bathers to try not to gawk at. There are a few temples too and many commanding views – to the far side of the Ganges, up and down river from some of the higher steps and of course the urban livestock.
It is also relatively peaceful on the ghats; away from the peril and cacophony of the roads, although the honking from the street is part of the city’s sound tapestry and impossible to be without completely.
At night when the prayers are uttered to the setting sun the two main ghats are alive with throngs of people, ringing bells and religious music filling the night air. It’s an interesting spectacle to see once, and worthy of a set of ear plugs; it’s really quite loud.