Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

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A float down the Ganges

New fascinations stud the path of the ancient river

The timeless Nile was the first of the great rivers to invite the world for a cruise, and the rivers of sophisticated European culture followed: the Rhine, Rhone, Seine. Then the New World upstarts: the Amazon, Mississippi and Columbia. And more recently, the beguiling rivers of Asia — the Mekong, Yangtze and Myanmar’s Irrawaddy.

The latecomer to this floating party is India’s Ganges. Riverboats promising palatial trappings and services worthy of maharajas now ply an 874-kilometre stretch of eastern India between Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) and Patna. This is untouristed territory and it might give you a giddying sense of being one of the first.

Our boat was the ABN Rajmahal, a smartly appointed river cruiser built for Assam Bengal Navigation, the British-Indian company that pioneered Ganges cruising over the past decade. The Rajmahal’s 22 cabins come with air-conditioning and floor-to-ceiling picture windows. The canopied upper deck and bar is for devout river-watchers, and for boisterous performances from local troupes of dancers and musicians. There’s also a civilized library bar (domestic whisky is serviceable; wine is not) and a small spa facility.

Where have all the spices gone?

The dining room’s centerpiece is a phalanx of chafing dishes (or to be uncharitable, a trough) and there were 36 meals at it. The fare is western — Waldorf salad, anyone? — and Indian.

Indian cuisine is, uniquely, a blessed symphony of spices, but not Rajmahal Indian. This is Indian purged of its spices in order, according to the management, to prevent a mass outbreak of diarrhea among the geezers (which was all of us). So one sees the Ganges fuelled on cuisine geriatrique, and when you see the steam table no more, it feels like a gastronomic prison break.

The itinerary, however, compels: 15 days of prime discovery, 12 on the Ganges and its tributary, the Hooghly, and three days overland to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya and the holy city of Varanasi.

Kolkata was our starting point. Founded by the British East India Company in the late 17th century, it was the toehold that became the Raj, and the capital of British India until 1911, when London moved the capital to Delhi.

Today, with a population of 21 million, it ranks as India’s heart of creativity in art, literature, poetry, music and film. Raj-fixated British tourists run off to stately imperial glories embodied in the Victoria Memorial. But the city’s great vitality, as with so much of India, lies in the streets.

Demonstrating this point is Manjit Singh Hoonjan, whose enterprise is Calcutta Photo Tours. Erudite, insightful and amusing, Manjit is a man in love with his city. His walking tours, which start at six in the morning, pack years into four hours.

One such tour immerses visitors in that most vibrant of Indian institutions, the market. This includes the rambunctious flower market, the largest in Asia, afire with the yellows and oranges of hundreds of thousands of marigolds. Another takes you to the potters’ quarter to see craftsmen shaping voluptuous, bug-eyed and even grotesque sculptures to enliven Bengali Festivals, and then to be tossed in the Ganges.

Dirt on the Ganges

And the river, the sacred Ganga, worshipped as a goddess by Hindus, is far from wholly holy. It’s a deluge of filth. George Black, author of a forthcoming book on the Ganges, estimates 17 million tonnes of industrial and human waste is dumped into the river every day, surely no way to treat a goddess. Ambitious clean-up projects are announced regularly, and the nation yawns.

Yet the river is far from unpleasurable to look at. Vast tracts of jute and pampas grass form wavering river banks as the Rajmahal penetrates the West Bengal countryside. Cantilevered fishing boats dart about like dragonflies. Passengers frequently spot Ganges river dolphins, which are blind, and among the world’s most ancient creatures.

This India comes studded with fascinations, and the Rajmahal’s shore excursions miss none: an ancient Buddhist university; Hindu, Sikh and Jain temples; deconsecrated mosques of golden-age elegance; remnants of the Nawabs, Muslim governors who ruled the east until the British colonization. It is much to the credit of the Archaeological Survey of India that they are excellently maintained.

Original architecture is rarely associated with Hindu temples, usually festooned with riotous gods and goddesses. But the Kalna 108 Shiva Temples in West Bengal is a rare beauty, built in 1809, two concentric rings of 108 temples, each containing a Shiva lingam (the phallic signature of the god). Lingering here — perhaps envying the certainty of the faithful — proves one of the unforgettable pleasures of the journey.

Time is spent at a crumbling manse in the state of Bihar. This fabulous old house once belonged to the Nawabs of Bengal. What romances the eye are its curiously un-Indian pastel hues stunning even in their faded beauty. You might think you’re on the Mediterranean and that the house painters were Impressionists.

The catalogue of wonders swells with the 14th-century Adina Mosque, its Bengali, Persian, Arab and Byzantine flourishes a magnificent cross-section of Indian history. Nalanda University was a centre of learning when Buddhism prevailed from the 5th to 12th centuries. The 18th-century Katra Mosque entombs a Nawab under 14 flights of stairs. (When you’re a senior, it’s all too easy to have an affinity for ruins).

We were taken to Matiari, a brass-making town where a man with a work space the size of a coffin is called an “industry.” But Matiari is as vibrant a symbol of everyday India as any, in which its inhabitants accept their place in the scheme of things and wear it with the easiness of a favourite dhoti or sari. Westerners do not get this.

So welcome to Village India, home to millions of human beings whose future comes defined — and denied — by the monstrously exploitive caste system. India’s villagers are dirt-poor by our standards, and they’re also kind and welcoming.

Deer Forest is a fishing village on an island. It has a single public toilet provided by the government, (and it looks unused). But we have the sense these humble, smiling villagers are at least as happy as we might be, just as we wonder about the human capacity to find meaning within the narrowest of parameters.

Places of faith

Then the voyage ended, we left behind the boat’s nursing-home food and bussed to Bodh Gaya, which is to Buddhists what Jerusalem is to Christians and Mecca to Muslims: its most sacred place of pilgrimage. It was here, so it goes, that the Buddha achieved Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, liberating his soul from some of humanity’s most defining traits: delusion, greed, lust, hatred, the works.

Bodh Gaya’s heart is the ancient and beautiful Mahabodhi Temple. Thousands of pilgrims from the Buddhist world — Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam and many western countries — arrive to circle the floodlit stupa clockwise, carrying candles, prostrating themselves, chanting, praying, lost in faith. Even the skeptic may be dumb struck at such intensity.

Last there is Varanasi. The most sacred city in India, it feels older than the Pyramids, older than China, older than Nineveh. Perhaps it has squatted, crumbling and tumbling on the edge of the Ganges since the beginning of the great river itself (or even before there was a Ganges). The Hindu millions come here to save their souls. Mysticism infuses its oxygen.

If Varanasi is India’s holiest city in which to live, it is also the holiest city in which to die. The Marikarnika is Varanasi’s main burning ghat, steps leading down to the Ganges. More than 200 corpses, wrapped in saffron-hued cloth, are publicly cremated every day.

To be cremated here, and have one’s ashes flung into the sacred river Ganges is to have all sins expunged and to go straight to Nirvana. Even lawyers and mass murderers get a free pass to eternal peace and happiness by dying in Varanasi. At the burning ghat, you can almost hear the turnstile to heaven spinning.

Every dawn, by the thousands, the faithful arrive at the river to cleanse body and soul in water that is both vile and so desirable, it is bottled and sold on Amazon. On festive days, women bathe in their most shimmering and colourful saris, a Technicolor fantasia.

Varanasi, with its beauty, mysticism, chaos, thousands of years of history and enough contradictions to overload the Internet, is India’s signature. I have been to India 10 times and can say with some authority that if you feel the need to escape your own privileged skin and plunge into a reality more different than Jupiter, there is no better or more exhilarating place on earth.

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