Barry O'Brien discovers a wealth of history and culture as he travels down the Ganges.
We were in a tiny village on the banks of the Ganges in northern India. Many of the residents had never seen Caucasian people, houses had no running water, many had no electricity, but nearly everyone had a mobile phone. And we felt like film stars as there was a line-up to have selfies with us.
Sari-clad women carried tubs of dried cow dung on their heads for burning in the stove. Water buffalo were milked by hand and green feed was fetched from the paddocks. The entourage that followed our every move was just as interested in everything we did as we were fascinated in seeing how they lived.
My wife Pat and I were on the 40-passenger Asam Bengal Navigation vessel Rajmahal, one of the few passenger boats on the river between Varanasi and Patna and only cruising this stretch of river in August and September when the Ganges is at its peak after the monsoon season. The company is in its 15th year of cruising in Indian waters.
First impressions of our home for the next seven days were mixed. The wind, on the tail end of a cyclone, was fierce and the water very choppy. A rickety old tender was waiting to take us to the vessel anchored on the other side of the wide river. The crew battled to hold the boat steady as a thin gangplank was lowered.
But we came to love that rickety boat that took us to a new adventure every day. After our rough introduction, the Ganges was like a millpond. Quays and landing stages were virtually non-existent, and access to the bank was always across muddy flats.
Every meal was a new sensation as we discovered tastes never before enjoyed. And there was plenty of it. Even good old shepherd's pie had a spicy zing to it.
This was a fascinating adventure to locations rarely visited by tourists. I don't remember seeing another white person, even in the bigger cities of a million and more. We got many quizzical stares and requests for photos. In one of the larger towns, we were greeted and interviewed by a reporter and photographer from the local edition of a national newspaper, such was the importance and rarity of our visit.
Cruising was only done in daylight hours. As the river recedes, channels can be hard to follow and sandbanks appear. On one occasion we came to a dead stop while cruising at speed, sending dishes flying.
Our cabins had full width French windows, giving great views of the ever-changing, ever-interesting scenery and activity on the banks.
Cruise converts: Falling in love with the romance of the seas
We drank and cleaned our teeth with bottled water on our Indian visit and made sure not to eat vegetables and fruit that couldn't be peeled. But we were quite comfortable eating vegetables on board, as all were washed in bottled water. By being careful we escaped the dreaded Delhi Belly.
A cooking demonstration was followed by a delicious tasting; another day a sari-wearing demonstration on how to wind the up to eight metre piece of colourful material around the body. For men it was the dhooti, a length of cloth wrapped around the waist, passed between the legs, and tucked in at the waistline, worn by Hindu men. The women fancied wearing the sari, but men hesitated at the dhooti. Nevertheless, all joined in and tried them on with mixed reactions. We watched a Bollywood movie over a number of nights — they tend to go for three hours or more — and the Indians beat the dastardly British in a game of cricket amid much song and dance.
Varanasi in northern India is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, dating back about 3000 years. Our guide gave us a small vision of life behind the ghats — riverfront steps leading to the banks of the Ganges. Hindus from all over the world believe they must bathe in the holy river at least once in their life to facilitate the remission of sins.
Walking around the little alleys dodging "land mines" — cattle, dog and even human poo — we were confronted by a huge sacred cow blocking the narrow walkway taking us through the heart of this city, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism. As we carefully stepped over its legs, the beast chewed happily on its cud, unperturbed.
On our small boat excursion next morning at dawn we observed the religious ceremony as many bathed and prayed in the soft glow of the early morning sun. Sari-clad women completely immersed in the river in joyous ceremony. Bottles of river water were filled to sprinkle around the home.
Dating back to 1700AD, 86 of the ghats are used for bathing and puja rituals where a lamp, candle or incense stick are lit accompanied by a chanted prayer or hymn to show reverence to a god.
Two ghats are used exclusively as crematorium sites, and two of the departed were undergoing the journey to the next world as we passed.
The crematorium owner, once an untouchable in the caste system, is one of the richest men in the city. Hindus bring the bodies of the deceased from all over India — we later saw one being transported on the roof of a car. The funeral pyre is lit with a flame obtained from the crematorium owner — an ordinary match doesn't cut the mustard.
The ashes, and any part of the body not com- pletely burned, are floated into the Ganges. A huge pile of ash was being washed away with the current. A little further down a man was dipping in his toothbrush to clean his teeth.
Those not permitted to be cremated are pregnant women, children under 12 years, anyone affected by a visible skin disease and those bitten by a cobra. The women and children are wrapped in banana leaves, weighted down with a large stone, taken to the middle of the river and lowered into the water. The snake bite victims are laid out on a bamboo cradle with a pillow under their head and floated off downstream. Sadhus (holy men) and those of high office are sat upright in a chair, weighted down and gently lowered.
In the evening as the sun goes down, thousands of Hindus attend the spectacular Ganga Aarti ceremony — trainee Brahmins or young priests performing a choreographed devotional ritual using fire in the form of burning lamps as an offering to the Goddess Ganga. From the best possible seats, in the front row of a first-floor balcony, we observed both the ritual and the ecstatic crowd.