On the banks of time

City Lights: Varanasi

Selling Spirituality: A religious ceremony in progress on the ghats of the Ganga. Photo by Somit Bardhan

Highrise buildings, brightly-lit shopping malls, youngsters clad in jeans and short tops and overcrowded narrow and cramped lanes may give an impression that Varanasi also known as Kashi or Banaras is changing with the times.

Yet, as one approaches the ‘ghats’ of the sacred Ganga river, it appears that this ancient city — said to be the only city in the world with a written history of 3500 years — is still holding on to its old ways of life and living. In fact, there clearly appears to be two cities.

The modern ‘Varanasi’ and the old ‘Kashi’ or ‘Benaras’ and the two seem to be competing with each other for attention.

“Kashi denotes spirituality while Varanasi is the modern version with malls that is aiming to catch up with other growing cities of India,” says Ashok Kapoor, president of Kala Prakash, a leading cultural organisation of Varanasi.

Said to be resting on Lord Shiva’s trishul (trident), Varanasi is not a mere city but a living history. According to mythology, it has won over the fear of death. And why not. It is the very own city of Lord Shiva — the God of destruction.

The city has charmed the common, the religious, the spiritual, the naturalists, the scholars and gypsies alike. Every religious Hindu wishes to die here believing that he will attain moksha (salvation). No wonder the earth at the cremation ground at the famous Manikarnika Ghat (where the kund is believed to have been dug by Lord Vishnu and filled with his perspiration) never gets cold. The dead bodies keep arriving round-the-clock.

“There always is a long queue at the ghat and relatives and kins bringing the bodies here happily wait for their turn,” says Rajesh Kumar Gupta, waiting to cremate his mother’s mortal remains.

One also comes across a large number of old and emaciated women clad in white sitting on the stairs of the ghats imploring the tourists to spare a penny for them. These women, mainly from West Bengal, live in the nearby ashrams awaiting death. “My only wish now is to breathe my last here,” says 80-year-old Charu Lata, who has been living here for the past 20 years. Among the other ‘inhabitants’ of the ghats is the dome raja, who rules the roost here. Without his permission the bodies cannot be cremated. Even the legendary king of Benaras, Raja Harischandra, had to offer his wife’s clothes to get his son cremated here.

The beauty of Benaras, according to the people living or visiting the city, lies in its Ganga ghats. In fact, over 100 ghats on the bank of the Ganges are always teeming with pilgrims, common people and foreign tourists.

It is said that one is absolved of one’s sins if one takes a dip in the holy waters of the Ganges. But for the scores of foreigners, these ghats offer a perfect setting in their quest for enlightenment.

Salvation course

The shabbily dressed hippies can be seen loitering and puffing away ganja with the locals. Ashutosh Kumar, who owns a hotel near the Ganga ghats, says that a majority of foreigners spend most of their time at the ghats. “They (foreigners) sometimes stay in
the city for months together,” Kumar adds.

A memorable event on the ghats is the Ganga Arti, that takes place in the evenings. Hundreds of earthen lamps float in the waters of the Ganga mesmerising the onlookers.

Although the city of Varanasi has been changing, yet the people here are very sensitive about its distinct culture. A majority of them may toil like any other middle class city residents but they love the unique lifestyle of Benaras, that revolves around the sacred river. Clad in red gamcha (a towel), the old and young men can be seen jumping into the Ganges for a daily bath in the morning followed by a breakfast of jalebi and curd. A perfect beginning to subah-e-Benares (the morning of Varanasi). Thandai (a milk-based drink) is a great hit with the people here and has come to be associated with the culture of the city. Many small shops near the Ganga ghats sell bhang (an intoxicant) which is either gulped with water or mixed in thandai.

Chewing of betel leaves appears to be more of a fashion here. A famous destination for the betel chewers is Gama’s Pan shop in the busy and over-crowded Godaulia market.

Though Gama is no more, his sons have been successful in keeping the tradition alive.

Although Varanasi could be a nightmare for shoppers, yet the markets, especially the stretch between Maidagin and Godaulia remain filled with shoppers well into the evening. The main attraction is the world famous Banarasi Sarees. The Banarasi silk sarees gained popularity in the Mughal era. It was during the Mughal times when all arts be it Persian, Rajasthan or other Indian schools got amalgamated to create a fusion of aesthetics.

Today, there are mainly four varieties of Banarasi silk available. Those are Pure Silk (katan), Shattir, organza which is fine kora with zari and silk works, and finally the georgette. Some 10,000 shops sell Banarasi sarees in the temple city which is more a cottage industry for several million people around Varanasi that includes Azamgarh and Mau districts as well.

Urban pressure

The city, however, with its over crowded markets, narrow lanes, potholed roads, neglected ghats, appears to be bursting at the seams and could soon lose its charm.

“The pressure of population on the city is simply too much. It is the main market for the eastern Uttar Pradesh. The city is growing at a fast pace with many new colonies having come up but the infrastructure is lacking,” says Vishwanath Pandey, who has been associated with the Benaras Hindu University for several decades as its public relations officer.

“The state government is doing nothing for the city. The silk industry is dying while law and order remains a major problem, adds Pandey. Indeed it is next to impossible to drive through the roads where chaos reigns supreme. A drive from the main railway station to the BHU which is about seven kilometres could take over one hour.

Further, the new generation does not appear to bother about the cultural heritage of the city. They are too engrossed in making career plans like other youngsters in any other city of India. “After all we have to prepare ourselves to face competition... what is there in Varanasi... there are no jobs here,” remarks Ramanand Singh, a student at a degree college here.

“Barring the BHU, there are no facilities for professional education in Varanasi,” he adds.

And his observations found support from many students standing near the BHU gate.

Incidently, Varanasi is a centre for learning Sanskrit, the language of the ancient India.

There is the sprawling Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya in the heart of the city besides numerous Sanskrit schools. Students wearing janeu (sacred thread worn by the Hindus) and chutia (a clump of hair on the back of the shaved head) could be seen chanting Vedic mantras in these schools.

On its part, the UP government has made plans to develop Varanasi as a heritage city. A host of schemes were recently launched for integrated development of Varanasi. The schemes included projects of infrastructure, roads, bridges, sewerage, solid waste management and water supply worth more than Rs 800 crore. “We plan to develop Varanasi as an international tourist centre and a heritage site in the near future in addition to developing the surroundings of the religious city as part of the Buddh Paripath,” chief minister Mayawati is reported to have said.

The residents of the city feel that both the central and the UP government should make efforts to preserve the character of Varanasi. They rue that the official apathy is destroying the original character of this ancient city. “The officials have scant regards for Benarasi culture... at times they are completely ignorant of it,” says Rachana Upadhyaya, an old resident of the city.

Vinod Tripathi, who owns a drug store, cites an example. Recently a senior official got the world famous Kahi Vishwanath temple painted with enamel paint — which contains chemicals — on the pretext of protecting the temple building.

The paint, however, closed the holes of the sandstones of which the temple was made of and thus threatened to destroy the original character of the temple. After objections by the people, the administration has now ordered removal of the enamel paint.

Eminent environmentalist Prof BD Tripathi also echoes a similar view. “The character of Varanasi is changing. Growing pollution is affecting the health of the people here. Once it was surrounded by rivers from three sides — Ganga, Varuna and Assi. But now the Assi river has almost dried up...Varuna is on the verge of death while the Ganga is facing grave threat,” Prof Tripathi says. Kapoor, however, is optimistic. “Benaras depicts the real culture of the city. One has to ‘live’ Banaras to know Banaras not live in Banaras. It is a way of life. It is the lanes and bylanes which are the real Banaras.”

Kapoor’s observations can be experienced by merely taking a walk in the lanes of the city in the mornings and evenings. Men clad in lungi with a gamcha on the shoulders walking casually and greeting people in the mornings is a common sight. But the same people will dress up more formally when they come out in the evenings.

The ethos of Banaras

The typical Banarasipan is also visible in the way some of the well known small shops selling tasty kachauris with juicy and spicy aloo and chutney do roaring business. They remain open only for a couple of hours in the evenings. Ask them why they do not open in the mornings, and the common reply will be, “Arre bhaiya ganga snan karna hai, puja karni rahti hai subaha” (There the bath in the Ganges and then the puja that takes up our morning hours).

“True Banarasis are a contended lot... they don’t aspire for more than what is essential for their survival... that’s the way they live,” Kapoor says. “The city has to preserve this culture of masti to survive and to keep its heritage intact. As a matter of fact the heritage can be preserved only if we preserve the Banarasipan,” adds Kapoor, whose organisation, Kala Prakash, is vigorously promoting classical and semi-classical music of Varanasi.

While Lord Shiva may be trying to save his own city from destruction, his very own people are determined to destroy it. And if and when that happens, it will not be the end of a mere city, but of a civilisation.

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