An unholy row: Varanasi water taxis disrupt age-old Ganges boat business

Up to 10,000 boatmen who ferry Hindu pilgrims across the Holy River have halted services in protest

Boatmen protesting against water taxis in Varanasi. Tarushi Aswani for The National
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At the crack of dawn, Pramod Manjhi, a fifth-generation boatman, begins his day by dipping his cupped hands in the Ganges river and splashing his face with holy water.

Each year, at least 20 million people visit the river, one of Hinduism’s holiest, Varanasi city, also known as Kashi.

The city in Northern India wakes up to saffron-clad priests praying, chanting mantras and hymns in a mystic fashion of faith. Golden sunrays light up the ghats, steps that lead down to the Ganges, the city’s focal point.

The river, and the ritualistic bath of Hinduism, attracts domestic and foreign tourists all year round.

But for Mr Manjhi and thousands of boatmen like him, the river is not only a matter of faith, but of heritage and livelihood.

“We, the boatmen community, are religiously ordained to facilitate the purpose of pilgrimage," Mr Manjhi, the president of Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Nyas, the organisation representing the boatmen community, told The National. "But the government is turning this pilgrimage site into a tourist attraction. We oppose this."

Varanasi is revered as the city of temples where at least 1,500 country boats have ferried tourists over the river for decades.

But recently, the local government has introduced a new water taxi service with modern motorboats that locals say will adversely affect the livelihood of the traditional boatmen.

Last month more than 10,000 boatmen who ferry Hindu pilgrims across the Ganges halted their services in protest. At least 500 of them remain on strike.

Huddled in their boats tethered to the shore, boatmen refused to work until the local government reversed its decision.

The manual rowers have no fixed income and competition with the new water taxis would make earning even harder, they say.

Ten water taxis have been brought from Gujarat already to transport larger groups of pilgrims in a shorter time. While the traditional boat carries a maximum of 15 people at a time, the taxi can transport almost 10 times that number.

According to Mr Manjhi, the new service would charge $18, while the boatmen are allowed to take only $1.50 for the same ride.

"The administration here is trying to convert a holy pilgrimage into a tourist attraction," he said. "This is an insult to the city itself. They need to respect the idea that the boat ride is a part of the pilgrimage experience and expediting a pilgrimage is no way to perform it."

Prakash Nishad, 34, has been ferrying passengers across the river for years. He comes from generations of boatmen and feels the issue is more personal.

"Water taxis would rob Varanasi of its historical and religious meaning" he told The National. "The boat ride is also part of the struggle Hindus must make, when they come for obeisance at the Ganges. Even us boatmen as a community, this is the only skill we have inherited from our ancestors, it is a part of our heritage, culture and past as Hindus, the government is trying to modernise our pristine culture."

Mr Nishad, 34, also highlights the fact that while their boats run on motor fans, the taxis run on diesel which could harm the environment.

While boatmen's protests continue to stall movement of pilgrims, Varanasi’s district magistrate, S Rajalingam told The National the administration had offered the boatmen a solution, which they refused.

“We have no issues and we ourselves offered the boatmen the chance to drive these motorboats, since they were worried about their livelihoods being attacked,” Mr Rajalingam said.

The municipal government of Varanasi claims the water taxis will help pilgrims reach the temples without facing traffic hazards.

Three weeks have passed since services were halted, with no sign of the dispute being resolved.

"The stakeholders have not been communicated with,” Lenin Raghuvanshi, founding member of People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights, a local NGO told The National. "Boatmen are important to this scheme of change. Foreign tourists come here to explore religion and the whole mysticism around it."

Water taxis now stand still, without drivers or passengers.

The Ganges, a confluence of greys and greens, of faith and tradition, is unwittingly the scene of a row over will help the pilgrims make their journey of faith.

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:00 PM