It is a city with many names: Avimukta (अविमुक्त), Varanasi, Banaras/Benaras, and Kashi (काशी – luminous).
I have heard different bits, all pointing to a Pauranik story that there was a pillar of light in the center of the city. The city as we know it today has been destroyed by a number of invaders and aggressors, and has been rebuilt each time. You can never leave it once you live there – that is why the name Avimukta.
I like the name काशी the best. I got lucky at 50 that my work took me there. I find it impossible to believe that any Indian would not have an image of Kashi, colored by something or another – myths, religions, architecture, studies, even food and what not. One may not have seen air, but we grow up feeling it around us. Kashi is also a bit like that for those who grew up listening to stories from Indian Mythology. Writing about it reminds me of how Kalidas humbly speaks about the foolishness of his project to write an ode to the kings of Raghu Dynasty (रघुवंश):
क्व सूर्यप्रभवो वंश: क्व चाल्पविषया मति: ।
तितीषुर्दुस्तरं मोहादुडुपेनास्मि सागरम् ॥ (१:२)
[These descendents of the Sun on one hand, and my severely limited intellect on the other — it seems I have an ill-informed desire to cross the limitless ocean with just a humble boat.]
I am enamoured too, and promise myself to revisit with more time and better preparation next time. Yet, this one note I shall write.
Ironically, this scene of a village near Kashi – where they have their airport – invokes the impression of the Shire (you know what I mean, you read Lord of the Rings, right?):
Varanasi is another name forged out of the fact that the city lies between the two rivers Varana/Varuna and Asi. Of course, the first thing one wants to do once in Kashi/Varanasi is to meet, get a glimpse of, to set sight on the river of rivers – Ganga.
If you really want to get the feel of Kashi, don’t indulge in any excesses that prevent you from rising early in the morning. Better still, don’t sleep at all and at 2 am get ready to line up for the Mangala Arati at 3am at Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. The locals just call him “Baba Vishvanath” – the Lord Shiv is the father figure of the city, Annapurna the Queen and Kal Bhairav is the “कोतवाल” – Sherrif, you can say. Even today, some people take their deeds and deal papers to Kal Bhairav temple before finalizing, the locals say.
Take it slightly easy after lunch and catch a wink. Finish work and then rush to meet the city.
Do you realize which place is that? Have you heard the story of the king Harishchandra, who never lied? This is the Ghat where he found a job to sustain himself, and as part of an extreme test of his commitment to truth, a snake-bite killed his son. His wife, Taramati, who had to become a servant in the home of a merchant, brought him to this Ghat for funeral rituals, but because she did not have money to pay, Harishchandra refused to do the funeral rites of his own son. The story goes on, and thinking of how committed people could be, about death, about post-death rituals and above all, life itself, I walked closer. Five bodies were burning – with the close relatives standing close by, and some more sat with anxious, serious or sad faces a little away. Somehow I could not stand there for more than a few minutes – may be three? – and I turn around to go back.
Another day is another story. Go again to Ganga early in the morning. Unfortunately, when I went there, the sky was little overcast from last night’s rain, and the sun could not be seen rising. But I felt the river, its banks and the life around it wake up.
Of course, as the day goes by, you see people taking it easy:
It may be just mid-morning, but the boatmen have been busy since day-break, and they sit at the ghats gambling:
Walking around in a city that his home to ‘every single deity in the Hindu faith’ as the locals say, you will stumble upon grand, intricately carved, sumptuously decorated buildings way past their glory. My eyes feast on those sights of once-glorious facades and my heart burns.
An excursion to Sarnath is equally rewarding. It is the place where Bhagawan Buddha gave his first Upadesh to his disciples. Later a monastery was built there and there is also a modern temple constructed at the behest of Dalai Lama. The Ashoka Stambh was also found here, in a broken form. There is a museum nearby, of artifacts found from the site. The Buddha statue – which is in the left gallery is one of the most quietly and profoundly impressive one. It is huge – unlike some of the beautiful Chinese, Japanese, Eastern or North-Eastern icons you see in museums. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited in the museum.
Once again, a stroll along the Ghats:
Someone plays what looked like a clarinet (without staring), and his partner has an exotic instrument. I nod in appreciation and he nods back.
There was a large, blood moon on the rise, as if in collusion with the colors of the night at the ghats. I stare at it with enchantment. I try to take pictures, but they are not worth posting.
The Ganga Aarati at Dashashwamedh Ghat is a must! I watched it from the boat as well as from the Ghat. Enjoyed it much better from the Ghat. It felt like I was a part of it.
In the morning, the campus I was at was slowly waking up. Someone was reading under a huge banyan tree. The department of engineering across, looked enchanting in its old-fashioned look:
Upon crossing the river at Rajghat, I found some tombs associated with Lal Khan. I don’t know who he was. When I went inside the campus, I found this building with three nice Jharokha-like structures and a nearby small excavation of what looked very similar to Sarnath.
I know there is a lot of history, mythology and geography that I have to learn before grasping what is Kashi. I agree with what many people say. Kashi is much like its Lord, Shiv. A combination of the auspicious and not, beautiful and ugly, powerful and without a care in the world, conscious and drunk, divine and dirty. I ask myself to know it better and visit it again – as much as it would allow me to.