Varanasi - the "Timeless City"
While some reckon Varanasi is the filthiest Indian city, for devout Hindus it is a 'Timeless City', the holiest of holy place to secure moksha (release from the repeated cycle of birth and death – a Hindu belief). My own interest in the city was aroused by the view I once got of the ghat (river bank) on the western bank of the Ganges while flying to Bhubaneshwar from Delhi. As the plane, banking to the left flew along the bend of the river after a touchdown at Varanasi, I saw them bathed in the brilliant morning sunshine, with the dark, placid waters of the holy river quietly flowing by. It was a spectacular sight and since then I had nursed a desire to visit Varanasi
When my wife and I did make the trip some years ago it was by no means a pilgrimage but an un-structured visit, with no 'temple-crawling' on the agenda. Soon after arrival, we were on our way to the ghats atop a cycle-rickshaw. As we alighted at the end of Luxa Road, we got sucked into a veritable mela (fair). Everyone seemed to be on a high, moving either towards or away from the ghats. The mystery was solved when we came upon a lane that led to the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple – the sacred temple which every practicing Hindu aspires to visit at least once in his/her lifetime.
It was a 2-ms-wide claustrophobic alley, full of shops selling everything, from wooden artefacts to bangles, jewellery, saris and eatables. It was packed with people; some buying or browsing, others rushing about holding floral offerings avoiding the bulls in attendance, still others just hanging around, or seeking alms. As we moved nearer the temple, we were jostled by some men asking us to follow them. We followed one who assured us he would keep our footwear for free. Later, after visiting the temple, he put pressure on us to buy prasad (edibles offered to the deity and later consumed by the devotee as the former’s blessings) of dubious quality at a steep price. I suspected perhaps it had never seen the insides of the temple.
The temple itself is no architectural wonder, having been rebuilt several times and last in the 18th century by Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. Nonetheless, it inspires amazing devotion. It shares a complex with the holy Gyan Vapi well, literally the well of knowledge, as well as with Aurangzeb's Alamgir Mosque. Later, for proceeding to the ghats, we were headed off into another alley that seemed to be right out of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. Like Apu’s father in the film we came across bare-chested dhoti-clad men hauling the holy Ganga water in heavy brass vessels up the lane muttering mantras.
Eventually, wending our way through the labyrinthine narrow alleys dodging the ubiquitous bulls we landed up on the ghats. Not being devout Hindus, the pancha kroshi - the five-day trudge through all the ghats - was out of the question for us. We preferred to wander around by ourselves and it was indeed enchanting, brought to life by a kaleidoscope of Hindu rituals. The collective reading of scriptures, tonsuring, the holy dips, people meditating; we saw all that and much more. We sat around on the steps imbibing the atmosphere, occasional clanging of temple bells providing the aural treat. As the dusk fell, it became more fascinating with lighted diyas (traditional earthen oil lamps) set afloat by devout on the water. We sat at the Dasashwamedh ghat, the most important of Varanasi's ghats, where Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses, soaking in the remarkable ambience with many others, including some tea-sipping Westerners and a few listlessly lounging bovines.
After engaging a boatman for a ride along the ghats next morning for Rs 120, we tore ourselves away from the compelling setting. We set off early next morning for the boat ride. Near the ghats, we were buttonholed by another boatman, who, after quoting a ridiculous Rs 450 for the same ride, settled for only Rs 100. My wife was happy to have struck a bargain. Later, however, we understood we had been overcharged by a neat 100 per cent. The ride doesn’t cost more than Rs. 50/-. Swindling is no big deal here, as the consequential sin can be washed away in next to no time with a dip in the holy river.
Yet the boat ride was well worth it. We saw some fine architecture, albeit in disrepair, like the ghats built by Raja Man Singh, the Scindias and the Holkars, and also the Alamgir mosque. While cremations were in progress at the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, we saw crowds engaged in ritualised bathing. It was still early, yet the ochre-robed god-men, unfurling their straw umbrellas, had commenced their business of blessing people for monetary considerations
What upset us during the boat ride was the way the rituals and daily chores of bathing and washing clothes with the generous use of detergent were polluting the Ganges. Leave alone offerings to the river in plastic bags, even ashes from crematoria are immersed in the same water that is used for rituals and ablutions. The Hindu reverence for the river is choking it to death. Clearly, the Ganga Action Plan can do precious little to bring the River to its pristine glory in the face of such massive pursuit of moksha.
We were rudely jolted out of our thoughts when the boatman suddenly moored the boat, indicating he had given us enough of a ride. Shaking off the avoidable indignation we soon perked up after a typical Kashi breakfast of handsome-looking browned puffed hot kachoris and sabzi with a few syrupy jalebis thrown in, accompanied by tea and all for just Rs 10 in an eat-pay-and-disappear shop next to the Dasashwamedh ghat.
Our perambulations in the city revealed two significant facts. One was the interdependence of Hindus and Muslims in the activities of the city that is dominated by Hindu religious services. Even the Banarasi saris, widely used in Hindu weddings, are mostly woven by Muslims. The other was the fact that Varanasi was one of the filthiest cities we had ever come across.
Leave alone the ghats, the roads are horribly filthy, severely encroached upon, causing chaos and disorder and they, just as the choked and stinking drains, seem to have never been cleaned. The devout can transcend the muck and mayhem; for tourists, however, the city is scandalously filthy. The contrast was palpable in Sarnath, only 10 km away, with the well-maintained temple complex of New Mulagandhakuty and the nearby little township.
I can't agree more with Jagmohan, the former Union Minister for Tourism, when he once said that Varanasi alone would attract a million foreign tourists if it were cleaned up. Inaction on this score is, sadly, allowing an opportunity for showcasing Hinduism in all its magnificence to remain unexploited. Hopefully, the recent fresh move to clean up Varanasi will materialise soon making the Holy City more acceptable to both, the discerning residents and tourists.
Tags: Varanasi , India
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