Oct 11 2013
A city as old as mythology, steeped in a spiritualism imbibed from the river it stands on, Varanasi is for every theist and atheist
Actually, Varanasi is as old as The Mahabharata. This erstwhile kingdom of Kashi, from where Bhishma had abducted princesses Amba, Ambika and Ambalika, to marry them to his brothers, is the oldest surviving city in the world. Here, history hits you at every turn of the road. So does the ubiquitous bull.
From Godowlia, famous for its chaats and golgappas, a short walk leads to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple with one of Shiva’s 12 Jyotirlingas in India. Post a puja, which should save us from rebirth, we join the crowds surging towards Dashashwamedh ghat, in time for the Ganga aarti.
From chaos to calm, it takes but seconds. Those sitting on the well-lit steps of the ghat are quiet, disciplined, expectant. The daily evening ritual of worshipping an ancient, sacred if soiled river is done by five priests in bright, silken attire, with undiluted concentration and perfectly synchronised movements. Beyond the wide circle of light, the dark river bobs with a hundred heads, silent watchers on numerous boats. It is a magical half hour for the theist and the atheist alike, filled with the sound of the bells and the hymns, and the warm smell of burning ghee from shining brass lamps. It is an eternal connect between a river and a people.
Nine km away, Sarnath is as peaceful and spacious as Varanasi is chaotic and congested. The stupa looks friendlier than the smudged photo in our school textbook. Under a peepal tree born of the branches of the original tree under which Gautam Buddha had preached his first sermon, now sits a sculptured Buddha with his first five disciples. A moment to soak in the peace, as the new pink leaves of the peepal whisper gently overhead.
We cross the Raj Ghat Bridge to visit the 18th century Ramnagar Fort, the residence of the king’s descendants. Its museum has vintage cars, silver and ivory palanquins, howdahs, and an exquisite ivory collection. The way to the Ved Vyasa temple is a dark, stone corridor, once the queen’s private passage to the Ganga. It opens out to a magnificent vista of the river.
Varanasi stands at the confluence of Varuna, Asi and Ganga, and one must take a walk down the ghats, or a boat ride. Courtesy the Internet, we know about Bhomi, the boatman with a gifted voice. But he has gone to work on his fields, so we settle for another boatman. Dusk leads to a pitch dark night on the ghats, and the only sound on our boat ride is the rhythmic splashing of the oars.
Suddenly, from the dark steps of Nishadraj Ghat, a tall figure in a white dhoti breaks into a song in praise of Shiva. Casual, effortless, the melody wafts across the waves. Bhomi — the magical voice can be no one else’s — sings a while before the darkness wraps itself gently around him and the ghats look deserted once more.
Varanasi grows on you, a friend had said. After all the haggling with cut-throat rickshaw pullers and smart-talking shop owners and priests at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the heat, the dust and the dehydration, and the night-long wait at the platform for the train back home, Varanasi is a city I am glad to get away from. Or so it seems.
Deep within, though, the pink peepal leaves still stir suddenly as a hot wind blows, and dark, sultry nights bring back the haunting voice of Bhomi. Behind my tired eyelids, a hundred little lamps float on a gently heaving river.