I left Varanasi two months ago and have come back to find things looking a whole lot different. For one thing, Onkar Giri’s hair and beard have re-grown to a respectable length (he dramatically shaved his five-year-old beard and dreadlocked hair off last time I was there). For another, the Ganga has risen more than I could have imagined. What has happened to the numerous steps leading up to the akhara? Only one is still visible. Where are the ghats where the laundry dried, the boys played cricket, the people did puja? Where is the little temple in front of which the young artist would sell his watercolours each day? All have been submerged within Ma Ganga’s ever-increasing depth.
And what is this fierce-flowing muddy brown mass of water? Is that really the gentle, caressing Ganga that I dipped my feet into before. She is both intimidating and awe-inspiring now. I have seen bodies (cows, buffaloes – even I’m sad to say a human form) amongst the debris caught up in her ruthless flow. (It makes me smile to think how the rain I experienced each day in the Himalayas has re-joined me here). I stood on a boat to take this picture – which two months ago was moored several feet away. But generally I just watch in wonder from the vantage point of the high akhara walls. There is still at least a month of the monsoon to go, so I’m sure the water will rise further – but how high can it possibly go? Will this beautiful ancient akhara too be flooded like the one next door? Its walls and more steps within have kept generations of holymen safe and dry for five centuries, so I think it will survive another year.