Satiating all senses

Satiating all senses

Varanasi has never beeped out of news. The city, as old as ancient can be, has never ceased to overwhelm our senses, all five of them and beyond, writes ASHIS DUTTA

EDGY Ghats of Varanasi

Every brick in Varanasi has a perspective for a photographer, a tale for a storyteller. From photographer Raghu Rai to writer Diana Eck to filmmaker Satyajit Ray, they all have been smitten by Varanasi, often astounded by its mish-mash of the mundane and the profound. And they all, in their own way, have captured the magnificence of the city, and have scratched beneath for its soul. For, Varanasi exists in layers, and to paraphrase Rumi here, “you get only that much as you put into it.”

Vishwanath Gali is a good place to start. This is the famous lane, as narrow as just six feet at some places, which winds its way to Kashi Vishwanath Temple — the holiest of holies in Varanasi. According to the locals, their gali has remained the same for centuries. This is the same slender path treaded by Adi Shankaracharya and Ramakrishna and hundreds of such enlightened souls on their way to Vishwanath Temple. Yet, from the main road I missed the nondescript turn to the lane and had to retrace back after asking shopkeepers. The lane’s metaphysical significance and its downright ordinariness are what make the strata of Varanasi. You choose yours to live in. But stay at it long enough and you will sense the gradual unfolding, one after another.

Once inside the Vishwanath Gali, I was sucked into its cosmos. At one level of perception, it is crammed on both sides with shops, temples, narrower by-lanes leading to more shops, temples and lodging houses. Electric wires and banners in several languages — I could make out Kannada, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali apart from Hindi and English — crisscross and jostle for space overhead. At one place on the middle of the lane a cow squatted peacefully and munched. It wasn’t bothering anyone, and every passer-by made sure not to perturb it.

Chatter of people wafted in the ears, talking or bargaining or asking for space to move, in Hindi and French and Marathi and Italian. Somewhere in some by-lane, a sonorous temple bell rang out in slow rhythm, its resonance permeated above the babble around.

I slowed down and eventually stood at the entrance of Shakshi Ganesh Temple, and it dawned how this slither of a lane is complete by itself. In form and in faith. Like a holograph of the composite reality of the city.

Sadhus in Varanasi.
Sadhus in Varanasi.

On wings of faith

“I saw an aghori today morning by the ghat,” said Naveen Chand, the affable steward of my hotel, a Banarasiya for generations. “You can never make out an aghori from others unless you know he is one,” he said. Aghoris are a small, aloof sect of ascetics renowned for their supernatural power acquired through severe penance. “Where and for how long an aghori lives, 100, 200 years, no one knows,” said Naveen Chand. “After Baba Vishwanath himself, it is the aghoris, most revered in Varanasi.”

I know my math of homo sapiens’ longevity. But this was Varanasi. Not too long back in time, Trailanga Swami, a renowned ascetic, lived here for more than 200 years. And that’s not any myth but British India’s documented history.

That afternoon, I stood at the top of the wide steps of Dashashwamedh Ghat, looking at the assortment of boats and bajras floating on the Ganga. Some steps below to my right two sadhus sat by a simmering fire around a trident stoutly rooted to the ground, surrounded by a couple of faithfuls. One of the sadhus was bare bodied, smeared in ash and with long matted hair, and the other, almost in contrast, wearing a scarlet robe. I could not help clicking pictures when the scarlet robe suddenly gestured — ‘enough’, and beckoned me. For a moment I was unnerved, and Naveen Chand’s words, of supernatural powers, welled up in my mind. With cautious steps, I moved up to him. Not a word was spoken. Even the other ash-smeared one and the faithfuls stopped silent. He looked at me, or was he looking into me? I couldn’t fathom. Moments passed by, and tension grew in me, but he showed no sign of any emotion. Then, gently, he took a pinch of ash from the smoulder and with a faint smile, which looked benign at that moment, daubed a vertical on my forehead. I could feel a collective relief around, or was I extending my own bearing to the commune around?

Faith has it that at the subtle plane of existence, Varanasi stands firm on Shiva’s trident. Even to my questioning mind, perhaps, Varanasi can.

Ganga aarti amidst a mishmash of boats.
Ganga aarti amidst a mishmash of boats.

Paan-Kachauri

The Kachuri Gali, as it is popularly known, was abuzz when I stepped in. A large kadai on the oven was trawling out crisp jalebis, syrup still dripping from their glistening twists. It was too much to resist. A couple of kachauris and jalebis on a leaf-plate was indeed the call of the hour. When the kachauris arrived, they seemed larger than expected or what looked from a distance. But their aroma put to rest all my dawdling. I could diet another day. For then, cheers to good life.

The thandai shops were never idle, handing out glasses of cool divines — sharbat, thandai with your options for cardamom, almond, saffron. “Do you serve bhang?” I inquired for the one with cannabis. Ram Charan ji, the XXL-sized owner, replied with a twinkle in his eyes, “Not here.” Then added, “Not now, available around Holi in my shop in Thatheri Bazar.”

How could I escape without having a Banarasi paan? And for sure, there was one ready at hand. But this time around, I didn’t risk intoxication. No zarda please.

When I finally emerged out of Kachauri Gali, it was evening. The cool breeze from the Ganga drew me towards it. As if reading my mind, a boatman latched on with the lure of a ride on the river. “Also, aarti from the river,” he added. I took his bait.

Varanasi from Ganga

Baburam steered his small boat through the thick of large bajras which had crowded on the water, jostling over one another, thick with people, mostly tourists, facing the Dashashwamedh Ghat where the evening aarti of the Ganga was about to begin. The pujaris took up their position on their planks. The bhajan started, the bells tolled in unison and the flaming aarti began. The river-front was charged with piety and it seemed even the gods in heaven took time off and watched the divine ritual.

The aarti ended. The piety vanished, and the chaos of an un-policed traffic junction descended on water with all the boats, small and large, trying to get out of the pack by the most expedient way. “Sambhal ke, sambhal ke,” the cry of ‘watch out’ bellowed from all directions. Baburam must be a deft handler of the oars. He piloted his small boat out of the mess unscathed — both the boat and me in it, I mean. He quickly rowed to a quiet part of the river. From the distance he pointed towards the bed of fires. “That’s Manikarnika Ghat,” he said, “where the fire of cremation has never extinguished, even for a moment, through millennia, hazaron saal se.” Life and death have their own denominations in Varanasi, their interplay, not quite the way we are used to. Baburam took a U turn and rowed up stream. The river was now dark, and silent, with fewer boats.

From the river, gliding in the darkness of the night with only the sound of oars dipping into the water, this was another city. “This is Munshi Ghat …. Darbhanga Ghat …. that’s Sri Kashi Ram Ashram there, … Chousatti Ghat named after chousatt – means 64 - temples,” Baburam went on. I knew Varanasi was seeping inside, colouring my senses in its own shades.