The airport is located in Babatpur, a slightly funny name but when you see the airport name displayed in bold letters as Lal Bahadur Shastri aiport, suddenly it gains stature and you feel a connection, a long lost memory jogged. And you remember a story of young Lal bahadur swimming across the Ganga for his studies.
We are in Varanasi, the most revered, the most sacred of the lands! The land where Kabir walked and the banks of Ganga where Guru Nanak meditated. The ancient land of Kashi Naresh, the mighty, wealthy lineage of kings and later the land which Gautam Buddha visited and moved forward to Sarnath, the birth place of Parshvanath the 23’rd Jain Tirthankar. The Land of faith and devotion, the place,Shiv Shankar has chosen for his eternal stay, a city of lights known to us as Kashi, Varanasi, Benaras….
Varanasi is the name derived from Varuna and Assi rivers which meet Ganga on this northerly bend in her journey due east. Varuna merges in the north and Assi joins in the south. Varuna, still a good sized stream, Assi is now no more than a nullah/gutter. The craggy hills of Vindhya try to reach out at Mirzapur to get a glance at mighty Ganga. But overall the character of the land is flat till horizon and with millennia old deposits of alluvial soil, the bounty of nature is overflowing. The huge trees, banyan, peepal, mangoes and the green sugarcane fields, interspersed with mustard and wheat all nourished to the core by the rich waters from heaven.
Varanasi as a city finds mention in Upnishads, Mahabharat, Pauranik literature, Jataka tales, Budhist and Jain literature. It was also known by different names in different ages e.g Surundhsana, Sudassana, Ramma, Molini etc. According to Mahabharata, Divodas founded the city of Varanasi. From the known history, Varanasi belonged to Kingdom of Kashi during the time of Buddha which is 6’th century B.C.
No other city has this ‘advait’ – non duality of river and city. Every time someone says Varanasi, one imagines the vast expanse of daughter of heaven, Ganga and when you think of Ganga, Varanasi forms the most fitting backdrop. We started the day in Varanasi with the morning boat ride. No doubt it was the most serene and scenic experience. After some tough negotiations with the boatmen, we embarked on a modest boat and the journey began. Silken green waters of Ganga maiyya giving way to us, golden rays of emerging sun playing with the light waves on the surface, It was a pure delight to watch the banks of Ganga coming alive with daily chores as the sun progressed slowly in time.
The boat ride although started at Kedar Ghat, which is almost the midpoint, took us to the southern end which is Assi Ghat. This is the only Ghat which does not have the stone step structure of other Ghats of Varanasi which were built in 17’th or 18’th century.
All along there are 80 Ghats spanning from Assi in the south to Rajghat and beyond in the north covering a distance of 3-3.5 km. It is a delightful ride sailing in soft waters and watching the Varanasi panorama enfolding in the front of you slowly. The bright colored steps of Kedar Ghat, the clean and wide Raja Ghat, the ever crowded Dashaswamedh Ghat, spot for evening aaratee, Man-Mandir and Digpatiya Ghat, adorned with beautifully carved massive Havelis in red sandstone, The Lalita Ghat that takes you to the precious Kashi Vishweshwar temple and gives a glimpse of Nepali style Lalita devi temple.
The boat moves on effortlessly and I watch with fascination the sky lamps at Man-Karnika Ghat and ever burning funeral pyres , the artistic temple shikhar, all ash-black, stacks of wooden planks and priests moving swiftly and people standing still, helpless and grieving for their dear ones, the soul in search of salvation, liberated with the blessings of divinity. Kashi the eternal city is assumed to be the perfect portal which ensures relief from the cycles of birth and death, in case you breathe your last here. The belief is so strong that pilgrims travel here and wait for that moment of Moksha. Man-karnika Ghat has several beautiful temples, but what captures everyone’s eyes and imagination is it’s burning Ghat. However it was only in 18’th century that this Ghat was used for cremation. Earlier the Harishachdra Ghat was the main burning Ghat, where cremation is still in practice.
Moving ahead, we pass the sinking temple on Sindiya Ghat, a beautiful piece of architecture, now in ruins and damaged beyond repair. At the Panchaganga Ghat, one can imagin Jagannath Pandit reciting a chant from Gangta Lahari and Ganga waters rising step by step to open the doors of Mukti for him. The Alamgir mosque is the prominent presence as we sail ahead. Tavernier, the Italian sailor who visited Varanasi in 16’th century noted down among several other things, a huge ornate temple called Bindu Madhav built by Raja Man Singh of Amber. This mosque stands on the destructed temple, built specifically so tall to tower over the skyline. But cultural memory being stronger, the mosque is still refereed to as ‘Beni Madhav ka Dharhera’. The end of this Ghat yatra is at Rajghat, the oldest site in Varanasi.
Beyond Raj ghat, there is still Varuna–Sangam and Adi Keshav Ghat, however Raj Ghat’s importance is un-paralleled. It is the site of some exquisite archaeological findings which date back to 8’th century BC. The ‘Lal khan ka Rauza’ is the place where one can a see large area excavated and showing the signs from ages old enough to make Kashi , the eternal city that it really is. According to the findings, Kashi was a thriving center of trade and religious activities from pre-Buddhist times. This site has recorded artifacts from Mauryan, Kushan, Gupta and medieval era. The famous Sher Shaha Suri road or the Grand trunk road which connects Kolkata to Delhi and beyond passes through this Rauza premise which is built by a Mughal noble in 1773 AD.
The next stop was visit to the lord of this place, the country and universe, the temple of Vishwanath. Being one of the 12 Jyotirlinga sites, it also stands as the example of resilience and harmony. Being demolished several times by Muslim fanatics, it still stands where it was. The exterior has changed but the place, the mark on the ground remains. And the harmony comes from intermingling threads of life that creates a co-existence between Hindus and Muslims, where both worship in the same premise. The Gyaan Vaapi mosque exists across the lane from the Vishwanath temple, and it was not many years back when the melodious shehnai of Bismillakhan, filled the temple sanctum with divine music. The temple now is a modest structure which is approached through a maze of famous by lanes of Varanasi.
Lanes of Varanasi is topic of study and experience both. A small lane lined with row of shops selling everything and anything can accommodate cows, bullocks, motorcycles, corner shops, garbage carts, beggars and people and more people. The main roads of Varanasi can put the most crowded inner town of very crowded cities like Pune to shame, because it was almost like fusion of various eras all somehow time traveled into one place at same time. There were cycle rickshaws, motor cars, bikes, cycles, buses, walking public, some representatives from animal world which showcased the variety to the extreme. An ornate wall of a dilapidated house would stand bravely next to a brightly lit Lee vise showroom, the sea of people flowing around has people coming in from all over India and abroad and not to forget, Sadhus and sansayis and the nonchalant locals. The street food was everywhere, the ghugani, samose, malai and paan. It was a vibrant scene, chaotic and assault on senses but somehow I felt at ease.
Back to Lord Vishwanath, the temple has a very strict security which I think is more tightened post the bomb blasts in 2007. Vishwanath here is Jalodhar, which means the shivling is submerged in water. The current temple although small, has very beautiful carvings. This one was rebuilt by Ahilya bai Holkar and the golden encrusting on the pinnacles was gifted by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh. Sitting at the temple corner, quietly watching the constantly moving people-scape, it was not the peace that came to us but an over brave monkey who had eyes for Prasad packet who took it away and had a quick breakfast on the temple tower.
The evening aaratee is a splendid event on Dashashvamedh Ghat. This Ghat is famous because king Divodas performed 10 Ashwamedh Yadnya over here. The Arati takes place at 2 Ghats, however one over here is slightly more elaborate. It is a well-rehearsed, well-choreographed performance determined to soak the listeners in Bhakti Ras. The seven priests standing on pedestal facing the Ganga, use various instruments for the Pooja ritual of the River Goddess. Brightly lit Ghat gradually starts getting footfalls as the evening progresses, people quietly find a place and get mentally ready to submit to the experience. The music starts, the lamps are lit, the agarabatti incense takes over and fills the air with fragrance and the ringing bells somehow create that feeling of devotion, Bhakti and joy and serenity and the ever flowing Ganga keeps watching you silently , softly and deeply. It is one thing to understand why Indians flock to Kashi. Being a religious and cultural mid-point it attracts pilgrims and non-pilgrims in vast numbers. But why would the people of different faith, creed and belief system would come here, stay here and get enchanted? I wonder if it is the ‘exotic’ feel of this place or the spiritual fame that acts as a magnet. What is it that holds the charm of Varanasi for foreigners, I am not sure of the answer.
Slowly out of the spell of devotion, the next morning took us to the modern India’s new ‘TeerthaKshetra’, the Banaras Hindu University. Founded in 1916 by Pandit MadanMohan Malviya, this university astonishes you with its expanse and scale. With numerous streams of knowledge ranging from medicine to engineering and Sanskrit to Biotechnology, this center of knowledge has produced some of the most illuminating gems of new age India. The clean, wide roads, lined with trees, the buildings structured like medieval palaces, away from the hustle and bustle of main city, ride in BHU was delightful. And more satisfying was the visit to Bharat Kala Bhavan, primary BHU attraction for history lovers. A museum of great value with emphasize on preservation of Indian art houses some of the key sculptures, potteries, miniature paintings and textiles. Bharat Kala Bhavan has the biggest collection of miniature paintings in all styles and dating from 11’th century AD. It was an instant connection to the past as we walked past the famous Banarasi silk weaved in 17’th century, and the Radha Krishna paintings in Kangra and Rajput styles, glancing at Indus Valley gallery with huge pottery and then entering the hall which has sculptural extravaganza such as dancing Ganesh and bust of fasting Buddha on display.
The museum, although a boring place for many, this time turned out to be enjoyable especially because of a gallery dedicated to Varanasi, the city. James Prinsep ( 1799 AD- 1840), who is known to many of us for his discovery of Brahmi script, here he comes across as a painter par excellence. The beautiful paintings of Banaras Ghats and villages by Prinsep, transport you to couple of centuries back.
Prinsep’s body of work is humongous and he had excelled in several fields in a short life span of forty years. A mere worker in a mint, he deciphered Brahmi script and was instrumental in first reading out King Ashoka’s rock edicts.
Thanks to him, today we can read several thousands of inscriptions found all over the land. He was an accomplished architect, numismatist, secretary to Asiatic Society, painter and writer. His depiction of early 19’th century Varanasi is precise and skilled. The Ghats look so elegant and skyline looks more defined and less cluttered.
Finally Varanasi is a city which makes no attempts at making you feel at home nor does it tries to hide the filth and decay. But even then it has captured a promise from me, unknowingly to me to come back to this river of life and city of lights again and again.