Early in the morning, before the first rays of sunlight have painted the sky, the boatmen of Varanasi walk to their rowboats at the banks of River Ganges. In short time, the ghats will be crowded by locals and pilgrims performing their morning prayer (puja), brushing their teeth and bathing in the holy Hindu river.
The boatmen are waiting patiently when the first tourists appear at the ghat steps behind them. “Is it 500 rupees for a boat ride?”, the first costumer asks, but the boatman shakes his head and looks the other way: “1,000 rupees”, he replies. The costumer pffs and walk to the next boatman where the exact same argument repeats until the tour is settled on 700 rupees. A tour that should have costed him 120 rupees ($2) or less.
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MORNING BOAT TOUR
The rowing boat tour at dawn is one of the must-do’s in Varanasi, as it gives you the best view of the town, a look into local life and front row to the stunning sunrise that bathes the sky and river in dazzling nuances of yellow. River Ganges is the heart of Varanasi, and this is where life and death converge.
Before take-off, we bought two floating candles (Rs 10 each) to lit and let float in the water along with hundred others. When the sun began to rise, the scenery was just amazing. While the boatman slowly rowed us from Assi Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat, we passed women who washed clothes by hitting it against a flat rock repeatedly. They dried the clothing in the sun by folding it out on the ground.
The further we got, the more people were at the banks of the river, washing up, praying or playing badminton. We got to witness morning rituals ‘the Indian way’ which was truly interesting.
When we reached Manikarnika Ghat at the end, the boatman tied the boat to a motorboat that towed us back. It was still in a slow tempo so we got to enjoy the scenery and watch the people.
EVENING BOAT TOUR
Later that day, we booked a boat tour in the evening to see the Ganga Aarti, which is an evening ritual with fire and music. It costs the same as the morning tour, and I would definitely recommend you to do them both. If you only have time for one of them, opt for the morning tour.
On the evening boat tour, you’ll get to watch the many night colors of the city. It truly is magnificent, but the squeamish must be prepared to see cremations at Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat.
You can get the trip for $2 per hour, but you’ll have to bargain for it. We booked it through our hotel, Hotel Ganesha, and they arranged for everything. FYI: The boatman expects a tip upon return.
WHAT TO BRING
- A warm sweater – During winter, it gets chilly in Varanasi, so bring a jacket to stay warm.
- Pants – Both because it’s chilly, but also because of the mosquitos.
- Mosquito repellent – These insects are most active at dusk and dawn, so come prepared.
Have you ever been to Varanasi? What did you think?
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