On The Ganga Mail
The Ganga is like a train. It starts from a station called Gangotri, up in the Himalayas, and, after chugging through the plains of North India, terminates at the mouth of Bay of Bengal. Everyday, millions board the train at various stations, hoping to get to a place called Salvation. Nobody has ever seen the place; they’ve only heard about it. Yet, they undertake the tedious journey.
The notable difference between the Ganga and the regular train is that the Ganga doesn’t have any classes — no second class, first class, 2AC or 3AC. It has only one class — faith. And the notable similarity is — well, to find that you’ll have to take the Ganga Mail. It’s like taking, say, the Kalka Mail from Delhi to Kolkata. When you board the train, you find your compartment tidy, the toilets clean enough and there are no ‘unreserved’ passengers squeezing you in your own seat. But as soon as the train rolls into the plains of Uttar Pradesh and then into Bihar, the journey threatens to become a nightmare. You should be grateful to God if you reach Kolkata in one piece. But when dacoits strike in trains in Bihar, even Gods seem to look the other way.
The same is the case with the Ganga. The further it flows, the more corrupted it gets. So while at one place it looks spectacular, at another it looks — rather is made to look — ugly. Here’s a look at two such places: one inspiring awe, another evoking anger. And even while you read this, Ganga’s eternal journey continues.
The April sun shone brightly the morning I walked out of the Haridwar station, all set to take the Ganga Mail. But it wasn’t hot: a cool breeze was wafting down the Himalayas which overlook this holy town. It was the wrong — or perhaps the right — time to be there. The Ardha Kumbha Mela was on and Haridwar was a sea of people. They were trooping in from everywhere, with the sole purpose of bathing in the river on that auspicious day and be blessed.
Traffic was restricted because of the mela and I walked more than a kilometre before I found a cyclerickshaw to take me to a hotel. Which hotel, I had no idea. I left the choice to the wisdom of the rickshawpuller. I was glad I did that. The hotel was not only good but it also gave me a discount that journalists in North India either extract or are entitled to, officially or unofficially.
After a shower I decided that I needed a drink, for the simple reason that Haridwar is a dry place; and dry places and dry days make you more thirsty. So I pulled out the hip flask from the rucksack along with a guide book on Uttaranchal.
All these years, Uttar Pradesh boasted of Haridwar and Gangotri but today these places belong to Uttaranchal. Uttar Pradesh is left with the part of Ganga which feeds millions, which has sustained many cultures, which has inspired hundreds of folksongs and Bollywood songs, but which you would not like to go to as a tourist. Unless you are one of those hardened travellers who draws a beautiful picture even in an ugly setting.
In Haridwar, the Ganga is not just a holy river. It’s an event. It’s like watching a movie. Every swirl of it has to be watched to understand the whole story. And this is one movie for which you always reach late: even before you see the river you hear its gurgling sound, and by the time you take your seat by its banks, there is already a crowd of a thousand people watching the show.
I also arrived late after strolling through the narrow streets around Har Ki Pauri, the main bathing ghat. The streets are lined with shops that sell everything required by an average, God-fearing Hindu family. And most music shops seemed to play the same song, all the time, Maano to main Ganga maa hoon, na maano to behta paani — If you are a believer, I am Mother Ganga, and if you are a non-believer, I am just flowing water. Either way, the river, fresh out of the Himalayas, is spectacular here and now I was going to witness the spectacle. I deposited my sandals (no footwear allowed) and walked into Har Ki Pauri. It has steps constructed on either side of the swiftly flowing river and a couple of temples jut into the water. Iron chains run along the embankment — in case the current is too strong for you.
Thousands were frolicking in the chilly water. To me they looked more like one huge family out on picnic. While they took the dips, making joyous cries, hundreds of others were busy changing for the bath, unmindful of the onlookers. And there were hundreds more towelling themselves and changing into fresh set of clothes, unmindful of others. A strange paradox struck me. Indian women are a modest lot. They would not imagine wearing bikinis at the beach. They would rather labour under the weight of a wet saree. But here, they change as if they were in the privacy of their bathrooms: the shame is yours if you run into them. Perhaps the holy atmosphere is expected to act as a curtain.
Finally, the sun went down and it was time for aarti (waving of lights). Loudspeakers urged bathers to clear out and take their place on the steps. Religion enforces discipline more effectively than anything else, and soon a mass of humanity was seated on each side of the river — in total silence. Many people stood on the banks, holding leaf-bowls that contained flowers and an oil-lamp. The lamp was to be lit and the bowl released in the water.
At the appointed time, the bhajan, Jai Gangey Mata began playing on the speakers. Bells in the temples rang and priests came out with huge brass lamps, waving them at the swirling black waters, now illuminated by the hundreds of tiny, floating diyas. Har Ki Pauri resembled a stadium witnessing the closing ceremony of an Olympic Games — only that this stadium was linear, not oval.
Faith, they say, moves mountains. And when the collective faith of thousands of people is at work, something is bound to happen. Well, the Himalayas stood still. But the Ganga, with all those floating lamps, suddenly began to look like a bejewelled goddess. One of those lamps was lit by me.
Those pirates struck in the high seas, these pirates strike in the river, rather the confluence of the two great rivers of India which makes Allahabad famous. They glide their boats alongside yours and even before you realise, you've been persuaded into performing an expensive, boat-to-boat puja for the well-being of your near and dear ones.
Since all this happens in the middle of the river, you can't even walk out. All you can do is console yourself watching other would-be victims getting rowed into the trap of the priests and the pandas — as the middlemen between God and mortals are called — who throng the river.
I saw it coming even when I was long way off from Sangam (that’s what the confluence is called). It was 7.00 am but the sun was already merciless and I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for — myself or the rickshawpuller who was carting me to the riverbank. Sangam must have been still a kilometre or two away when a man on a bicycle pulled alongside.
“Sir, I am boatman. You want boatman,” he asked in English. He looked too healthy for a boatman. I told him that I was a local guy, and that I did not need him or his boat. He was undeterred. He kept pace with my rickshaw and soon reopened the conversation:
“So you are from Kanpur. We used to make our boats there. It took three days to row down to Allahabad.” I merely nodded, hoping that my silence would shut him up and send him way. But this man had smelt a prey.
“Sir, you are one of our own. I will show around like no one else will do. I will show you the exact spot where the Ganga meets the Yamuna,” he pleaded. I knew I was trapped. I will spare you the details about what happened from then on till the time I sat in the boat. But he had still not said how much he was going to charge. “You are our guest, sir. Money is not at all a problem,” he kept saying.
Only after he had untied the rope and stepped into the boat, followed by an emaciated old man, he said: “Give me Rs 400.” As I had suspected, this man looked too healthy to be rowing a boat. He was just a pimp. The old man rowed the boat.
From the boat I could clearly see the green waters of the Yamuna meeting the muddy waters of the Ganga before the two, together, head eastwards towards Varanasi. A few metres away from the confluence is a spot where water is only two feet deep and which is surrounded by dozens of pilgrim-laden boats. That's where people bathe and wash away their sins and immerse the ashes of the dead.
Before I could reach there, the pandas attacked. A boat came up from nowhere, and in a flash I found myself holding three shrivelled coconuts. I was also giving out my father’s name, my mother’s name, my gotra and was soon repeating mantras that the pirate was chanting. Reality struck me only when he asked for the money: Rs 501. Once again I’ll spare you how I extricated myself, but not before shelling out Rs 100 (saving of Rs 401!).
“This is nothing. They extract thousands of rupees from people who come for pind-daan (a ritual for the soul of dead relatives),” the pimp on my boat said with a grin.
If the pandas make their living from the departure of souls, there are people who make a living —and occasionally a fortune — from the ashes. They are the gotakhors, or divers.
I saw a man, his head freshly shaven, leaning from a boat and emptying an urn into the river. Suddenly two gotakhors swooped in on their boats and plunged iron sieves into the spot where the shaven-headed man had just finished emptying the urn. They were looking for ornaments of the deceased but all they could net was tiny, sparkling pieces of bone. Salvation, even for the dead, does not come without the humiliation of their bones being sifted for gold.
A sense of disgust overcame me. I wanted to return to Haridwar. But then I remembered that the Ganga is a Down train: it does not make a return journey.