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Stepsons of the Ganga

A fascinating account of the men who ply the emblematic boats of Banaras and embody its very essence

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Wednesday 15 April 2015

imageTHE ETERNAL boatmen of the Ganga. That is how I saw these emblematic figures after a visit to Banaras in May 2014 where the most prestigious electoral battle of the 16th Lok Sabha was fought, won and lost. It was my first visit to the city, and it was the boatmen who distilled its essence for a journalist struggling to assimilate the incredible and, quite often, appalling sights and sounds of this oldest of living cities while trying to understand its modern political undercurrents. From its potted history and sociology to its politics, the boatmen, who daily ply thousands of pilgrims and tourists along its many ghats, were an invaluable source of legend and gossip-ancient, mythical and current.

To Assa Doron, scholar and academic at the Australian National Academy, the boatmen are central to the study of Banaras’ river economy. Doron came to India first as an Israeli tourist fresh out of his compulsory military service in 1992, and subsequently, for the next 15 years, as tour guide and anthropologist. His reason for researching the boatmen was that although Banaras-hardly anyone refers to it by its latter-day name of Varanasi-was much written about, there was hardly any literature on the boatmen. This is an odd omission since anyone who has visited this city most sacred to Hindus and has had a boat ride on the Ganga, has invariably a story or two to relate about the boatmen just as I had (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/modi-s-ganga-sutra-and-politics-varanasi).

There are about 80 ghats in Banaras and both pilgrims and tourists prefer to experience the city’s extraordinary riverscape through one or more boat trips rather than through cluttered and dirty bylanes. Is there a centrality of the boatmen to the many narratives of Banaras? They are accounted to be no more than 2,000 as their numbers and those of the boats (about 800) are strictly controlled by heredity and difficult licensing rules. To the author, though, they are the central characters in the city’s life and economy even if their role is confined to ferrying passengers.

The book gives you insights into the complex dynamics of the ghats and the life and labour patterns of the boatmen, the sociology of their day-to-day lives, caste issues which is a running theme through the book. The boatmen belong to the Mallah/Nishad caste, which the British classified as criminal because of what were perceived as debased traditions. The initial chapter, titled ‘Domesticating the Ganga Boatmen’, is a detailed historical account of the brush between the boatmen, whose activities tended to disturb peaceful trade along the river, and the colonial state. It is a fascinating record of how an occupational caste became stigmatised as criminal.

This is, perhaps, why most boatmen will first remind their passengers that they are a key part of the epic Ramayana in which a boatman had ferried Rama and his wife Sita across the Ganga en route to Chitrakoot. The boatmen prefer to be known as the descendants of the tribal king of Nishada in the Vindhyas who protected Rama and Sita and treated them with great kindness during their exile.

But the present is no less unkind than the past to the sons of the Ganga. Doron portrays boatmen as a historically oppressed and marginalised community and as such, subalterns because of their limited access to education and other public services and also for want of political representation. But he cautions against putting the entire responsibility for the criminal tag on the British alone, noting that “there were also other actors, discourses and cultural categories that contributed to the designation”.


If colonial rule imposed restrictions on the boatmen in Banaras, these resemble to a great degree the limitations imposed by the modern Indian state, says the author. The ban on riverbed sand mining, cultivation and fishing, the traditional occupations of the Mallah/Nishads, has affected them grievously. The Nishads claim that prior to Independence, their community was “considered the backbone of the economy”. They worked in transportation and had the monopoly on water farming and sandmining. But after 1947, “India began destroying their traditional rights with the help of capitalists and the Mafiosi,” says a report in Nishad Jyoti of 2001. The ban on sand mining appears to have affected only the small-time operator while the mafia continue undisturbed. The big change came in the 1980s with the Ganga Action Plan which imposed restrictions on sand mining, fishing and cultivation of the land on the riverbeds. This resulted in further reducing the identity of the Mallah/Nishads to the ‘marginalised boatmen identity’ and to the setting up of caste community associations, which take on the state, according to Doron, by covert everyday resistance and also by collaborating with the state. It is pertinent here to remember the bandit queen Phoolan Devi from the Mallah caste whose remarkable career traversed the Chambal ravines and ended as a parliamentarian in Delhi where she was shot dead in an apparent revenge killing. In 1997, Phoolan was invited by boatmen to Banaras to participate in the annual Nishad Jayanti which urged her to seek restoration of their traditional rights. But Doron notes that their political rallying has been relatively ineffective.

But what of the overriding concerns about the environment and pollution of the Ganga? Are the boatmen engaged on this issue? The boatmen claim that “Ganga has been exploited by corrupt politicians, local officials and powerful Brahmins who siphon (‘eat’) money on the pretext of cleaning the river. In the process, it is the poor, ordinary citizens who suffer, through loss of customary rights, police harassment and caste prejudice.”

Life on the Ganga is engaging because Doron writes less as an academic than as a travel writer, and parts of the book are plain reporting. He is present in most chapters as he recounts his encounters with boatmen, tourists and pilgrims. But the publishers do it a great disservice by the poor quality of the black and white visuals-an anachronism in a colourful treatise.


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