23/10/2012, Tuesday, 23.10 Hrs
Today is Nabami. As Bibhuti Express pulls out of Howrah Station, the lights and sounds of Durga Puja is slowly receding in the metronomic beat of the metal wheels. We are headed for Benares (Varanasi), that eternal cauldron of faith, which brews history and lets its flavour drift across the pages of time
24/10/2012, Wednesday, 21.45 Hrs
Have reached Benares today morning.
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain’s comment says it all.
Narrow roads choked with cars, rickshaws, people, pilgrims, bulls of massive proportions weave sinuously through this age old city. Buildings, creaking with age, and with crumbling facades stands shoulder to shoulder with modern buildings with all their glitz and glamour.
The Ganges with its numerous Ghaats and temples abounding on both banks is the overpowering influence in this city. More than 80 ghats, some famous and some not so famous, are situated along the riverbank.
Surprisingly, inspite of being a cornerstone of Hindu religion, this city was never damaged or ransacked by the Mughal and Pathan intruders and rulers. This has only added to the mysticism and legends surrounding the city. With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away, Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu renaissance.
Mrs. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her ‘Theosophical Society’ and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, instituted ‘Benares Hindu University’, one of the biggest universities in Asia.
The portals of history were whizzing through our thoughts as we walked the same pavements as Sant Tulsi Das, Premchand, Ravi Shankar, Bismillah and so many other illuminati.
CHUNAR fort has been our first stop today. Situated on an off-shoot of Vindhya Hills, this fort has a colourful history. Though its origins are shrouded in the mists of time, the latter part of its history in the Mughal period is better accounted. Once a stronghold of Babur, this fort was taken over by Sher Shah Suri, followed by annexure by Humayun, ruled by Akbar to Aurangzeb, and finally captured by the forces of British East India Company. The fort, located on this quiet hill, overlooks and commands the Ganges.
Standing on its stoned ramparts, I could visualize the magnificent Pathan, Sher Khan (Sher Shah) scanning the horizon with his flashing eagle eyes, directing his battery to repulse the advancing armies of Humayun.
From CHUNAR we visited a couple of temples and reached KEDAR Ghat. We hired a row boat here to take us along the river to see the different ghats.
With deft strokes of his oar the oarsman took us out into the mid stream. The waves softly lapped at our bow. The din and bustle receded and the rhythmic creaking of the oarlock was the only sound around us. Softly, our oarsman started his oft repeated pitch about the different ghats, their history & significance, as we floated by gently.
Manikarnika and Harischandra Ghats are the two ends of the section that houses most of the major ghats like Kailash Ghat, Dashaswamedha Ghat, etc. It is said that the funeral pyres in these 2 terminal ghats never dim, probably signifying the ultimate truth of human life and its final culmination. Legends say that King Harischandra had to work as a menial (Dome) in one of these ghats which bears his name since.
The waters near the ghats are thronged by devotees and locals offering prayers, ablutions or simply frolicking around. The vision presents a wonderful kaleidoscope of shifting colours of all hues imaginable.
The sun has set in the horizons and the last rays have streaked waters with splashes of crimson.
Today’s Dashami. Immersion of Idols will start from late evening. That, along with the GANGA AARTI, holds the promise of being spectacular. Our boatsman has agreed to let us watch the same from the boat itself. It will give us a grandstand view.
25/10/2012, Thursday, 06.45 Hrs
Something vastly profound had completely immersed my mind last evening after the Ganga Aarti and the idol immersions at the Dashaswamedh Ghat. Try as I might, I could not put words to my feelings, so stopped trying after some time. I’m not sure I’ll fare any better today, but I have the urge inside to try.
I’m not a religious person. My mind bends to look into the logic and philosophy behind rituals rather than the rituals themselves. Some brand me an atheist. I do not contend such claims. I’ve never bowed my spirit to that supreme entity (some call God). The complete subjugation of mind and soul to an imaginary, unknown element is abhorrent to me. With this mindset, last evening’s happenings created a turmoil within, which I found hard to explain.
As we waited on our boat, the dusk gathered, gentle wind caressed our tired brows. The evening lights came on, flickering like a thousand jewels on the shimmering waters of the Ganga. Slowly, the strains of chanting started, signifying the initiation of the Ganga Aarti. Several saffron clad priests started invoking Ganga, the divine Mother, the source and sustainer of life in these parts of the land. The huge chandeliers they held and waved in rhythm created a mystical pattern of light in the deepening gloom. Their movements were in complete sync with the music playing in the background.
All these time, idols of Goddess Durga were being brought to the Ghat and immersed in the river one by one. Traditionally, Durga Puja has a strong effect on our psyche. We welcome the goddess like a family member and bidding goodbye to her pulls strongly on the chords of our emotions. Centuries of tradition have left their impression deep in us. The pathos of separation, mixed with the elementary, primordial sounds of Sanskrit shlokas ringing in the air created an atmosphere of ethereal brilliance, verging to sublime. The flow carried me gently but inexorably like a gigantic swell to completely uncharted territories of my mind and soul.
I saw myself as a traveller in the river of time which flowed spontaneously, with the ages ranged, as if spatially, along the banks. As I flowed down, I saw the grandeur of the Guptas, I saw the arrival of Gautama Buddha resplendent in his supreme realization, I saw the ravages wrought by the advancing hordes of Mughals and Pathans, I saw the Hindu civilization slowly crumble to dust caught in the crushing jaws of time, I saw the valour of the Rajputs and then the dominance of the Mughals which finally got suppressed under the marching boots of the British, right up to the present day India where corruption rules the roost, mediocrity is celebrated and brilliance is branded as eccentricity. My soul floated free and unencumbered. I saw throughout that, like an anchor, it is our deep rooted values that help us navigate along the headstream, in good ways or bad.
As the crescendo of the music gradually subsided, I felt coming back to ground. Reality resurfaced.
I was not prepared for such a strong emotional force to take hold of me and breach the barriers of my imposed discipline of faculty so effortlessly. This is probably the magic of Varanasi, the city as old as time itself and full of all quirky oddities as one might imagine.
25/10/2012, Thursday, 22.45 Hrs
One hasn’t seen Varanasi unless one walks along its serpentine lanes and bylanes.
In the early hours today we had been to the Kashi Viswanath temple, where some of my fellow travellers planned to offer their prayers to Shiva. Varanasi is also considered to be abode of Shiva and Parbati in the legends.
As we walked down the narrow lanes and dizzying alleys, another face of Varanasi slowly unfolded before us. We saw old widows sitting on their haunches, staring at the world with vacant eyes, a thousand lines of pain etched on their wrinkled faces. We line up in the temples to give offerings to a god, already rich since ages, but seldom spare a thought for these poor creatures waiting for death in this supposedly holy city, seeking salvation in afterlife, suffering a hundred hardships and humiliation in this one.
We heard strains of Hindustani classical music floating timidly in the dew laden October morning air. The signs said that live music is played in the evenings. These are the honeycombs where rampant exploitation of flesh happens.
We saw young children burdened with loads of silk and brocade slowly working their way up steep, crumbling staircases to the Zaree factories. Their sweat etches the dreamy patterns woven on the Benarasi Sarees.
Garbage disposal really needs a makeover here. Almost everywhere, the fetid smell of waste cloys the nostrils and can nauseate even the staunchest.
The lanes also thrive with life but. The tea stalls are all abuzz with the latest gossip over the kulhar of piping hot ‘masala chai’ even in this early hours. The massive bulls, symbolizing Nandi, Shiva’s assistant, all decked up in flowers and brocades of zaree, have started their rounds already, their keepers asking alms and they themselves claiming whatever fruit or vegetable that takes their fancy. No one dare refuse them lest they incur the wrath of Shiva, the destroyer. The milk stalls are also a unique feature of this place. Thick, creamy milk, served steaming hot is really superb if one can digest the same. Raabri is also simmering in the pans. This preparation is made by constantly fanning, heating and stirring the milk. The Banarasi version is without sugar, hence more pure and easy on stomach.
Inside Vishwanath temple things are well organized. Multiple queues flow smoothly and the coffers swell. The brief breaks in harmony are sometimes provided by the apes around. They do indulge into real ‘monkey business’ at times.
The ghats at the morning presents a different spectacle altogether. There is a sense of calmness before the hub bub of the daily business sets in. We saw people exercising on the banks. The barbers have opened shop, waiting for customers. People take dips in the holy waters and offer prayer to the rising sun. The boats lay tied to each other, softly jostling in the current.
Sree Krishna Chat Centre is a definite ‘not to be missed’ destination. They serve chaats of every kind, fresh and tasty. We gorged our breakfast and proceeded to Ramnagar Fort and museum on the other side of the river. This is a well preserved location, although why they do not allow photography is an unsolved puzzle.
We visited the BHU campus. This huge campus of the premier educational institution is nicely planned out and very well maintained. There is a replica of the Viswanath Temple here.
After visiting an endless number of temples and the beautiful Assi Ghat, we have returned to our lodge.
Tomorrow we’ll catch the early morning train to Lucknow, another old city, a city of history, of architecture, of food. But that’ll be another story.