Brass Pots and Mammoth Temples

Sunset on the Ganges, near the ISKON Temple at Mayapur, India. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Monday, March 6, 2017

This morning, our cruise along India’s Ganges River with G Adventures anchored just off the small brassworking village of Matiari. Like most of the other villages we’ve visited, my attempts to further my research have been futile. Type “Matiari” into Google, and you get Matiari, Pakistan. Adding “India” to it at least brings up a map, and several links with almost no information on them at all.

In other words, I can’t sound all smart by rattling off facts and figures about Matiari. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you about another adventure we were treated to this morning – and more adventures that were to come in our afternoon.

Morning coffee aboard G Adventures’ Varuna…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…as the sun rises over the Ganges. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Once again, I started my morning out on the Varuna’s Sun Deck, where I enjoyed a cup of coffee and watched as we began sailing from our overnight anchorage downstream to Matiari. The reddish haze from the pollution that blankets this area of India makes it possible to stare straight into the amber ball that is the sun as it comes up over the horizon.

After breakfast, we set out to explore Matiari. This is an industrial place, and its crumbling colonial architecture hints at a past wealth that seems to escape the town now. Not that Matiari is unprofitable: brass is big business here, with vendors and manufacturers lined up along the narrow, winding streets.

Coming ashore. Nearly all the gangplank walkways we’ve been on have been constructed of bamboo. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The bustling brassworking town of Matiari, India. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

What the…?! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

There’s also evidence that the government is paying attention to Matiari. A small water tap has been installed along the city’s main drag, dispensing clean water for four hours per day. There is no spigot, so the water runs freely onto the ground. When asked why there was no spigot, our guide responded that someone would likely steal the spigot, prying it free of its mounting so that it could be melted down into something else. Or sold.

After a brisk walk through the town, we’d arrived at our first brassworking factory. Here, workers clad in sandals (and sometimes barefoot) work with molten-hot brass, moulding it into its proper form, and then pounding it into shape.

Here, brass pots, plates, and more are still made in the traditional way: by hand. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Molten brass is poured into a mould…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and then removed in its new form…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and cooled in a large barrel of water. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Although out on the open, the temperature inside this workship is stifling. The heat comes in waves, and a thin layer of perspiration quickly formed over our group as the men worked. Health and Safety regulations here are apparently nonexistent. I had to wonder how many people have dropped a glob of molten brass on their feet, or touched a hot pot. A glob of molten brass to the foot would be a death sentence, if not a full-fledged amputation. And yet, the entire system works like a charm, with skilled (they have to be, really) workers going about their jobs as you or I might go about doing the dishes.

The finished product, on-sale. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Once again, I absolutely adored the locals, who followed us around as we visited one brass factory after another. We even took a stroll through the local market, which wasn’t selling brass at all, but rather children’s backpacks.

Strolling through town…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…we encountered markets…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and plenty of smiling locals. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Rejoining Varuna…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…for more scenic cruising on the Ganges. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

After our visit, we rejoined Varuna for four hours of scenic cruising along Mother Ganges. Lunch was served in the dining room, with plenty of excellent Indian cuisines once again on offer. If you came here not liking Indian food, you’ll leave here loving Indian food. This is the real deal, and it’s delicious if not overly photographic.

This afternoon, we went ashore in Mayapur. Our destination: the massive ISKON temple that towers for kilometres over the horizon.

The ISKON Temple at Mayapur, under construction and seen at dusk. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The headquarters of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – or Hare Krishna – this imposing, under-construction building has become a sort of Mecca for Hare Krishna followers, many of whom have shaved their heads except for a small patch of hair at the back, and many of which walk along in groups, singing.

After days of avoiding the waters of the Ganges (and being warned of the dangers of Westerners so much as putting a finger in it), our first sight was not of Indians bathing in the Ganges, but Westerners. A toddler was being covered head-to-toe in mud from the Ganges by two blonde teenage girls. Up the muddy embankment, an angry-looking five year old with a shaved head waved a stick back and forth at us, shouting in a language I’d peg as Russian or Ukrainian. His speedo-clad father finally came, muttered an apology, and led the young one away.

Coming ashore at Mayapur…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…the main center of the Hare Krishna movement. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Now, I’m not here to say whether this religion is right or wrong or whatever. But the whole thing seemed kind of cult-y. Our local Indian guides seemed particularly unsure about what to make of all of this, other than to state that most Indians don’t take it all that seriously. Still, this new temple – which towers over one like the Duomo in Florence – is an imposing reminder of the ISKON movement that began in New York in the 1960’s and has been plagued with a number of controversies.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

The massive new ISKON temple, still under construction. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Cameras weren’t allowed it the temple. We had to leave our backpacks, cellphones, cameras and the like with several guards from our ship who looked after them while we entered the current temple. People – mostly Caucasian – would throw themselves on the floor in front of us, lying face-down in the pavement. Some would see the Deities positioned on either side of the room and collapse, as if their legs were kicked out from under them. They’d hit the deck with an audible thud. This, while music and chanting echoed throughout the chambers, reverberating off the concrete walls and wrapping around the harshly-lit vendors selling books and literature.

To the uninitiated, it’s all a little bit overwhelming – and unnerving. That the exterior grounds of the place are constructed in much the same fashion as Disneyland, with wide walkways and parks dotted here and there, doesn’t help.

Cameras weren’t allowed inside the temples, but the grounds were fair game. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Still, I’m glad I saw this place, which is obviously of great importance for Hare Krishna followers. I’m also glad G Adventures includes it as part of its river cruise tours along the Ganges.

Once again, we rejoined Varuna as the sun went down over the horizon. Hare Krishna followers bathed in Mother Ganges as we did so, looking on as we boarded our Country Boat to take us back to the ship for more conversation and cocktails up on deck, another evening briefing, and the fantastic dinners I’ve grown to look so forward to.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Only two more days of our Ganges river cruise are left in this trip, and it’s hard to believe the time has gone so quickly. As one guest remarked tonight, “I feel like we’ve been here for two weeks already.” It’s a complement: G Adventures is packing so much into each day that I feel like I’m really getting the most out of my eight days in India.

Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our Voyage Report aboard G Adventures’ Varuna along the Ganges continues tomorrow as we visit Kalna & Chinsura, India! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog.

On the Ganges with G Adventures

March 1, 2017Arrival in Kolkata, India
March 2Train to Farakka and embarkation of Varuna
March 3Guar, West Bengal
March 4Barangar & Murshidabad, West Bengal
March 5Plassey, West Bengal
March 6Matiari & Mayapur, West Bengal
March 7Kalna & Chinsura, West Bengal
March 8Barakpur, West Bengal
March 9, 2017Disembarkation in Kolkata

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