The next stop in our itinerary was Goleria Kothi, a heritage property on the ghats of the Ganga, where we would have our lunch and witness Ganga Aarti, a time-honored tradition of worshipping Mother Ganga every evening with fire lamps. It was a sort of fire worship offered to the deity by the priests on the bank of the deified Ganga. To reach the Goleria Kothi we would take a boat from Rajghat, the northern most ghat of Varanasi and later take the same boat back after our lunch and Ganga aarti.
As we descended the steps of the ghat from where we had to start our boat ride, I noticed how clean the ghats were. Clean and painted with murals. And oh, were the murals beautiful! This was a new Banaras, cleaner and much more beautiful than I thought I would be able to see in my lifetime. The spirit of the city remained the same, but the layers of grime and dirt from years of disuse and neglect were being whittled away to reveal its former pristine beauty. The city presented herself to us in her new avatar, and we fell in love with her once more.
The boat rocked in the water as we ascended it. The wooden boat, we had hired a pair, had two stories and was powered by a small diesel engine deep inside its belly. It could easily accommodate 60-70 people on its top floor, which was in the shape of a wooden platform, with a small iron railing acting as the boundary, where guests could either sit or stand while taking the ride. Both the boats had been prepared for seating the guests by laying soft cushions, carpets and clean sheets on their top floor.
There was some humdrum as the group took some time to decide who will board which boat, but soon we were neatly divided into two groups and the boats pushed off from the bank of the river to begin their journey. One after the other the boats chugged into the waters of Ganga, its occupants talking, laughing, clicking pictures or, in my case, just admiring the view. For a moment, as I looked at the ghats of the immortal city lining the celestial river Ganga, I was lost in my thoughts. It had been so many years since I had last taken a boat ride in the Ganga in Banaras. The river’s ghats, and the time I had spent there, had haunted my memories ever since I had left Banaras. It was difficult to imagine that I was here again, reliving those memories, making new ones and sharing them with my children.
The water was clean, I had never seen it cleaner, and there were birds. Oh, so many birds; I had never seen so many birds on the Ganga. It meant only one thing – the fish had returned to the river now that the pollution was less. Mother Ganga, nearly on her deathbed from years of abuse by her own children, had been given a new lease of life and, in turn, she was going to give a new lease of life to our civilization.
‘Let’s play antakshari’, the girls of our batch intoned in one voice. Antakshari was a singing game where one had to start singing a song from the last word of the song sung by the opposite team. Whoever ran out of songs first, conceded defeat. This game had been a favorite pastime of children and adults alike ever since I could remember. It was a good game.
‘Let’s do it,’ I thought.
And thus, our teams were aligned. The girls of our batch on one side, well, almost, and the boys, aided by their spouses on the other.
‘This is going to be fun,’ I thought, looking over my team which consisted of myself, Vaishali, Sudeepa, Mouli, Swati, Somanath, Monashish, and Srabani and her husband. On the other side were Amita, Payal, Ruchi, Monica, Rajul, Meenakshi and, strangely, Sutanu. And thus, our competition started. The girls of our batch had a fantastic knowledge of songs and could remember them at the drop of a hat, and though our team outweighed them in singing talent – me and Somu were on the same team, and Logani was on the other boat – we soon started to run out of songs. This was when we got help from our women warriors. Swati, Sudeepa, and Mouli started belting out songs like a machine. On and on the competition went. All the common songs were exhausted, people were running out of options on both sides but Mouli kept going on and on and on. She had an inexhaustible store of songs and an amazing ability to summon them within split seconds. Before the other team could even finish their song, she would guess the last word and be ready with a song. Her ability amazed us all, and I had an inkling that she was just getting warmed up! It was getting embarrassing and one sided. Soon we ran out of songs and I got tired of singing; it had been so many years since I had done any consistent singing. So, we said quits and the group broke up. Mouli, however, had been the find of that event. Vaishali and Swati and Sudeepa were excitedly chatting with her when I turned away to click a few pictures again and enjoy the ride while it lasted.
As I turned, I saw the opposite bank of the Ganga across the river on the other side – deserted, desolate, unpopulated. The eastern bank of the Ganga in Varanasi was devoid of any habitation or construction since ancient times. Till date, there was no effort to populate it, and in fact it was even devoid of vegetation, being covered only by endless sand for as far as the eye could see. In the nighttime, if one were to sit on the ghats on the western bank or take a boat ride in the river, one could sometimes see fire flickering at a few places far away on the opposite side. These were the ‘aghoris’ or the ‘kapalis’ practicing their occult faith at nighttime when spirits roam free. It was forbidden for people to go to the other bank at nighttime, lest they disturb whatever went on there between the spirits of the night and the ones who communicated with them. Even at this time of the day, the opposite bank looked eerie, being covered by a bank of mist which played hide and seek with the winter sun and cast strange shadows which could easily be mistaken for impatient spirits flitting about, waiting for the night to descend so that they could meet their friends, the aghoris.
An involuntary shiver went down my spine as I forced myself to look away from that bank.
‘We are here,’ someone shouted, and we all looked westwards to see where ‘here’ was.
The boats were now moving towards one of the ghats called Ganesh ghat which lay adjacent to the Goleria Kothi. Everyone was hungry and awaited their lunch at Goleria Kothi eagerly.
To be continued………………………………….
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