Honestly, I do have these doubts at times that Shakespeare knew the city of Varanasi more intimately than we credit him for it. In fact, his oh so famous quip about the relevance of a name, or rather the irrelevance of it, was actually penned to encapsulate the radiant perseverance of the world’s oldest city. You see, a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, the name is hardly a factor there. But on the other hand, it is the city of Varanasi, or Benares, or Kashi that underscores the temperance and the permanence of things. Through the ages the motley township of a million temples closeted on either sides by two rivers Varuna and Assi, with the mighty Ganga flowing right through the heart of it, has been known by different names at different times, but it never really did matter, because no one name or a single title will ever be encapsulate the true essence of the city, the language that could do so, has not been invented as yet. Little wonder, through the very many ages the city of Kashi has been known by so many other names, Kasika, Avimukta, Anandavana, Rudravasa.
Step into the city at 4 am, you will be transported to another portal in a totally different dimension. A million temple clangs, a billion murmured hymns, the little rush of feet to the nearest ghat, the gentle wave of the serene ganga moving to its own cosmic hum, all this weave a magical blanket that rests over the city where time is of no consequence. Benares is regarded as the oldest living city in the world, it was a part of the original Mahajanapadas, the 16 republic states that dotted this land a thousand years before Christ was born, Athens, Troy or Sparta were mere tiny hamlets back then. Babylon was a thriving trade center, the Pyramidal pharaohs of Egypt were still very much in place, the roads to Rome had not yet been conceived, let alone being built and so on. With the legacy of the grand Harappa behind, the civilisation in the land was taking new shape. The city predates even Lord Mahavira. And not surprisingly a distraught prince confounded by the vagaries of life, death and the entangled cycle, found peace, solace, knowledge and nirvana sitting under a banyan tree in this very city. Kashi had the power to turn prince Siddhartha into Gautama Buddha.
The beauty of Kashi is that you don’t require an archaeologist to dig through the stratified mounds to uncover the passage of time. It is said that it is the favoured city of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, the ascetic, the all-pervading all powerful omniscient simpleton, Bholenath. Legend has it, that the city rests on one of the pointed tips of his trishul, thus protected by the very deity that destroys all. Not surprisingly, Kashi exists in a dimensional space, where time ceases to exist. The passage of time, hours, days, months, years, centuries, millenniums, is merely a statistic. Empires fall, empires created, new beliefs sprung up and old lose faith, the city has seen it all, gone through it all, without being affected or impacted. Kashi has always existed and will always, it has transcended the limitations imposed by of dimensions that we know, time, and space.
From times unknown, legends have it, that Hindus from all over the land would arrive in the city, when they are in the last stages of life. To die in this city is to attain salvation. Moksha-nagari, is how it was known. Every Hindu had just a simple wish, to die in the confines, be cremated on Manikarnika (where it is said that Lord Shiva himself murmurs the eternal truth in each body’s ear on the pyre), and finally immersed in the purest of pure Gangaji. People have thronged this city with immense hope, aspiration, and yearning for salvation. This city has the heart to accommodate everybody, without any bias for a single cultural hue or a racial one. It is a place, where the ancient thrives alongside the ephemeral. A place of everlasting bliss and divinity. To be associated with this city, one needs to understand what makes it so unique, one needs to appreciate that chromosome that resonates through the very heart of it. There are certain definitive traits of Benares that one must know and accept, without which you can never ever be a Benarsi:
Resilience & Assimilation
Being the premier city for Hindu believers on the northern plains, Benares was blessed and accursed at the same time. So, while believers thronged it’s narrow by lanes, so did hordes of charged invaders obsessed with striking at the very roots of the infidel religion, or just in pursuit of gold and riches. Since the time of Aibak from the Slave Dynasty in the 12th century, Benares has been sacked at numerous times, temples plundered and razed to the ground. The last major one was with Aurangzeb, who converted the Vishwanath temple into a mosque and razed many more temples to the ground. And yet, Benares would rise from the cauldron of destruction unscathed, bruised but never shattered. All efforts to destroy its essence were futile. This resilience of taking shots after shots, and then rising to take in more, is unseen in history. No other city has survived such continuous tirade. And even today, the city stands tall, almost just like it did a couple of thousands years back.
The charm of Varanasi lies in the fact that even the attacker could not survive its charms, and got assimilated in the bargain. Adding a little flavour to the culture curry. So, while in the past it was one religion against the other, in the years gone by a prestigious Hindu festival would not be possible without the late Bharatratna Bismillah Khan enthralling all with his shehnai, he even used to play at the temple festivals. Even today, while the namaz duly takes place at the converted mosque at Gyanvapi, a newer temple stands tall just a little away, built by Ahilyabai Holkar and gilded in Gold by Raja Ranjitsingh. There was no confrontation, but mere absorption. In fact, a stroll down the side of Gangaji will give one ideas of India as a nation, with ghats names reflective of how far and wide the culture of city pervades.
Labour and Knowledge
You don’t know how scorching the summers can be, or chilly the winters can be, lest you have experienced them both at Benares. The temperatures during the summers are often on the wrong side of 40 degrees, and in the winters it is on the wrong side of 5. Yet, the people of the city won’t be found grumbling, complaining or groaning. They will carry on their chores with a careless zeal. A gamcha over the shoulder helps wipe away the copious sweat in the summers and the same tied in a circular manner around the head helps fend of the winter chill. The best instance of the laborious lot can be seen from the scores of cycle-rickshaw wallas that ferry people from one end to another end, driving on the craziest of streets full of men, women, cars and yes bovine. Labour is not shunned, at 4 in the morning or at 12 in the night, if you wish for a nice refreshing cup of area, all you need to do is stroll to Dashaswamedh Ghats, and you will surely find a laborious chai-walla serving in the piping hot beverage in a kulhad.
And it is not labour alone that is distinctive, it is knowledge too. Since ancient times, the city of Benares has been a centre of learning and knowledge. From the Jain tirthankaras who walked the ancient by lanes, to Buddha who found nirvana under the Bodhi tree at Sarnath, from Tulsidas who penned the Ramcharitmanas on one of the ghats to Kabir who was abandoned, adopted and grew up at another. From Guru Nanak who paid a visit, to Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya who established one of the largest educational university in the world, the Benares Hindu University or BHU. From pondering over the philosophy of life, to figuring out efficient ways to save a megabyte, one can pursue any answer or quest in the city.
Believe in the fantastic
Mysticism was probably a term invented for, if not in Benares. One just cannot escape the vibrant undercurrent of supernatural in every aspect of everyday life in the city. Tales of ghosts, demons and spirit are told, retold at every nook and corner of the city with am equanimity that will be disconcerting to an outsider. The amazing thing is, that from a Benarasi’s mouth these tales seem not like fiction but a fact, simply because of the passion and zeal, with which they are said. Little wonder the city is home to scores and many scores of babbas who can be found almost everywhere, ever ready to share it for a tenor or a tea. And yes the tales are truly awesome, take the case of the celebrated Domraja from Manikarnika ghat, who is said to wield as much power and influence as Kashinaresh, since a dead body can’t be burnt without his permission. And he could demand anything for that privilege. Then there’s the Pisnarayia bazaar, the only possible gathering in the whole of the world, where you can mostly sell of all the ghosts, witch, souls, poltergeists that might be part of your life. Imagine, you drag the tormentor ghost to the market and sell him to a baba or something, who can make good use of him/her. Then, there is the this tale about Kashi Karvat, an underground tunnel near the old Vishwanathji temple that stretches for miles, and opens bang in the middle of Gangaji. In the olden times, the pandas (temple priests) used to portray it as a way to heaven, take all the belongings of the gullible and the foolish and push them bang into the middle of the river, where inevitably they’d drown.
If you still haven’t had your fill of ghosts and spirits, there is this Kinarambaba Ka Takia. It is said that Baba Kinaram was one of the greatest ascetic of his times, who sitting by the sides of the Ganges could even summon the corpses to do his bidding. To add to the supernatural bit, there’s the celestial bit as well, the Nachi Imli Ka Bharat Milaap, where it is said that every year near the Vishweshwar ganj there used to be an annual fest, wherein there would be a crack in the time fabric and one could go thousands of years in the past and be taken to that day when Lord Rama and his stepbrother Bharat had an emotional reunion, at the onset of the 14 years of exile. The rider is that only the true believer is granted a glimpse of this celestial moment, thus excluding a lot of commoners who are looking for proofs or such silly stuff. To complete the circle, there are many tall tales of superhuman feats too, the most famous one I recall is that of Murkutta baba, which loosely translates to the headless one. The story goes something like this, the brave Raja Chet Singh was fighting a pitched battle, and surrounded by the enemies, who were closing in on him. So, he takes off on his stead, with his consort sitting beside, at the place where the modern Chet Singh ghat is located, the steed takes one very mighty leap with Chet Singh and his queen and crosses the mighty Ganga in it. Meanwhile to stall his pursuers one of the general keeps fighting on, at some point in the story, the loyal general’s head is chopped off, even so, he does not give up and keeps on fighting. The site where the brave general who in spite of being headless and kept on fighting is now a point of veneration. But all these things are at a macro level, even on a micro individual scale, every family will have a pet ghost story if not a pet ghost. The stories of his to summon a spirit through the use of commonplace katori-devi, is as common as eating bhelpuri in other cities. To accept Benares, you have to suspend your beliefs, to believe in the impossible, the improbable, and the improvable.. Everything is on face value here, and in case you are a sceptic, it is your loss itself.
Be a Gastronome
While Kashi offers plenty of manna for the soul, its lacks not in providing amazing food for the tummy as well. The street food in the city is worth dying for. In fact, there are numerous Gallis (or lanes) that specialise in a dish or a fare, so there is the Kachori galli, where you get some good kachori and jalebi. Then there is the Ghunguriya gali, for some yummy ghongni. The kachoris at Ghantaghar are also pretty nice. And then there are the numerous sweet shops at Godolia, like Shiv Bhandar, Ram Bhandar, and Satnarayan Misthan Bhandar, Madhur Misthan Bhandar. Then the bhaang thandai from Mishrambhu is pretty famous. So, is the lassi in a humungous kulhad at Banspathak. Yet the best sweet that you can ever have is the Besan Ladoo from Sankatmochan temple, it is unlike anyother that you can taste.
Chat items like Aloo Tiki, and Pani ke batashe (Pani Puri in Mumbai) is a pretty standard fare and can be had almost anywhere. The Rabri that is available at Godolia in the night on the street is worth dying for. But there is more to eating, the pickle from Benares is often among the best, the red chilli one, and of a fruit that is known as Lisode. Somehow, it is the only place where you get awesome Aloo-papad. In the summers the street will be full of the king of Mango (long before Alphonso came to fore), the Langda. Finally, in all this don’t forget to bite into the Benarsi mitha paan, to know how a paan should actually be. Simple, and not sweet. The paan that are available elsewhere are an abomination in the name of it.
Quest for Nirvana
Varanasi teaches you an important lesson that no other can manage to do, that of acceptance of inevitable and the surrender to the elements. The reason why the city of Kashi has more or less stayed the same way through the passage of centuries is simply because, its denizens are a content lot. Indeed, like any other lot, they too wish for 24X7 electricity and water, but on not getting it they don’t get grumpy. With a loud sigh of “Bhole”, they move on in life, leaving all the mundane things on the lord of Kashi. For many Benarsis material wants are merely a distraction from the real purpose of birth, to be able to break the cycle of it. This muted acceptance is one of the biggest strength and tragedies of Varanasi. So, while the rest of the country has moved on, the city is still more of less stuck in the past. Clinging on to it.
Not surprisingly, it saddens and gladdens one the same time to find the city same even after a decade or two. Yet, in all this permanence, one thing is indeed changing, Gangaji, the soul of the city. The river is getting progressive murky and dirty, and nowadays it is almost impossible to take a dip at Dashaswamedh ghat, simply because of the religious debris that’s all piled up just below the surface of water. In spite of the much fanfare of the Ganga Action Plan, almost nothing has been achieved. The only worry that I see on the faces of Benarsis is what happens when the river turns into a dirty-extended canal like it has in the city of Kanpur. Sitting on the banks, people can be heard telling tales of how pure the water was that, even the British used to take along in large cans because it would not get contaminated. Today, one has to cross the river to take the holy dips on the sandy banks.
But then like all else, this task too has been left on the shoulders of Lord Shiva, “Woh dekh lenge” (he will sort it out) is more often than not the conclusion. Indeed, it is this belief, this acceptance that makes one a denizen of the oldest living city of the world. These traits don’t come easy, but when they do, they make it easy to accept everything.
Coming back to the Bard of Avon, while he did not say anything specific about the city in his works, there was one another literary auteur who did travel to this city, and capture its essence is a few words. Mark Twain, the maverick one summed up the city as follows, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. And that is how Benares, Kashi or Varanasi is, and so it shall remain for the many score centuries to come.
Must-Do things Kashi
|Holy Dip in Ganga to wash away sins|
|Visit to the Ramnagar fort, especially the museum|
|Boat ride at dusk, just before the ostentatious Ganga Aarti starts|
|Spending a day at BHU,going to Birla temple and various libraries and courses|
|Visit to Sarnath and learning about the ancients|
|Eat, eat and eat|
|Finally, not to miss the night Shayan Aarti at Vishwanath Temple at around 10 pm. With the temple bells clanging, and people singing in unison, it is an electrifying experience.|
PS. The only real manner in which to arrive in the city, is through a train from the south. Ideally, in the very morning, when the dawn is breaking out, as the trains clambers through the grand Malviya bridge, making a clambering sound with the passing iron rivets, and then you see the calm serene Ganga floating underneath. With almost no thought your hands will be conjoined in joyous celebrated and sigh will escape your lips, har har gange. It is at this moment that you truly arrive, all the rest chattered plane, helicopter, etc., can never give you a perspective, no matter what.