Slow Boat Down the Ganges Update 43
Today was Diwali, the festival of lights. This was the day of the new moon in the Hindu month of Kartik, the day when the mythical Lord Rama came back to his kingdom after spending fourteen years in exile. The entire kingdom came out to greet him and the whole town was lit up with lamps, and people burst crackers to welcome him home. That tradition continues to this day and Diwali has transcended all barriers of religion, with everyone celebrating it with equal gusto. Did I want to be camped out in the middle of nowhere, on a sand bar, or did I want to be among people celebrating Diwali. The answer lay in whether I wanted to move to Allahabad in the canoe, or would I rather get transported there? No one was giving me a medal for doing this journey, and the answer was simple. I chose to get transported.
I had already been invited by the Commanding Officer of the Ganga Task Force to stay at his unit location. I sent him a message that I was reaching Allahabad via public transport. A phone call happened, and he told me that he was coming to pick me up from Gokuna Ghat where I was. I thanked the taxi that I was negotiating with, and waited for Col Sandhu to arrive. There is no reason why he would have sent a vehicle, or indeed why he would come himself. But such is the camaraderie in the Armed Forces that even a person like me, who despite being the son of an officer who passed away over twenty two years ago, people still lent a hand in help and support. Despite a lot of people criticising the Army for various ills, I will never ever be able to overlook the kindness extended by the Services. They are one of the last truly great institutions in the country.
By the way, Col SPS Sandhu is the only Terrorial Army officer to have been awarded the Sena Medal for gallantry. He has been entrusted with raising the Ganga Task Force, to ensure that the plans and programmes implemented by the Government towards cleaning the Ganges, are implemented.
While I waited for Col Sandhu to arrive at Gokuna Ghat, I walked about the ghat soaking in the mystic of the holy river and watching the reverence that people hold her in. People of all ages, regardless of gender of class, congregate at ghats like these, every morning and evening, to take a ritual dip. The Ganges is considered not only a holy river, but a Goddess. A dip in her waters ensure that sins are washed away. Dying, being cremated, or even even having the ashes from the pyre immersed in the Ganges is supposed to be a ticket to Heaven. Such is the faith that people have in her. This faith also adds to the pollution thanks to religious items that are also immersed in the river, in the hope of bonus points. The Ganga Task Force is tasked with raising awareness about the ills of trashing the Ganges needlessly. It is a tough ask, it touches on people’s faith, and the desired behavioural change is difficult to bring about. But, there is a visible change. Trash is all around, but the pollution in the river itself is markedly lower compared to what it used to be even a few years ago.
Col Sandhu arrived, and we reached Allahabad around lunch time and went straight to his house for beer and lunch. I was feeling guilty at the way I looked and possibly smelled, and I am sure my father, looking down from the Heavens, was shaking his head in disbelief and calling me a street urchin ... once again. The evening was spent in another officer’s house, the children revelling in bursting crackers, the gents paying tribute to Bacchus. Dinner was awesome and I felt so good to have taken the decision to move to Allahabad, instead of being somewhere between here, there and nowhere.
Another piece of information I received at Allahabad was that there was scheduled to be a team of NCC (National Cadet Corps) cadets who would be rafting down from Allahabad to Varanasi. Their journey is expected to commence from Allahabad in the next couple of days, and the details are expected tomorrow. I will be so nice to join that team and paddle down to Varanasi together. I am hoping that it fructifies in a manner that I can travel with them. Tomorrow the details will be much clearer.
I plan to spend a couple of days at Allahabad in any case. A historic city, its name has been changed to Prayagraj after the commencement of my expedition. It is supposed to be the original name of the city, something that was changed to Allahabad by Emperor Akbar. The reason given by some is that the old name has been brought back, while others opine that the change has been been made to remove the association of the term Allah with the city. Still others mention that Allahabad is actually Ilahabad and named after Ila, the daughter of Manu, who wrote one of the important Hindu scriptures, the Manusmriti. Emperor Akbar was a secularist and named the city Ilahabad after the daughter of a Hindu saint. In any case, whatever the story is, the name of Allahabad has changed to Prayagraj and in the middle of the paddle, my GPS changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj.
By the way, my primary GPS that has started misbehaving, miraculously came back to life ... and promptly went back to playing dead once again.
There is so much to see in the city and I hope to visit as many spots as I can tomorrow, and maybe even the day after.
This journey has been a study in contrasts. From sleeping under the stars, to camping with cows, to joining villagers sleeping on cots, to being extra comfortable in an Army Mess, this journey is an education in humility. I feel privileged to have had so many facets of experiences, and I doubt that a lot of people get the opportunity to experience as much as I have. I am truly grateful to have been given the opportunity to conduct this expedition.
By the way, Happy Diwali to all.