149 - The sounds, smells and stories of Varanasi
If myths, legends, folklore and anecdotes determine the antiquity of a city, then Varanasi, or Benares or Kashi has no dearth of it. A total of 5 hours may be a tad too less to make a view about a city that is considered as the oldest in India and arguably the oldest in the world, but they are certainly enough for Varanasi to make an impression on you.
Varanasi is an antiquated city, with the old mixing with the very old. Even modern signs and images are represented through metaphors of the ancient. The amount of traffic, both in terms of intensity and speed that the hardly 3-4 feet alleys that cris- cross the city like veins can accommodate, is only seen to be believed. Human density is mindboggling. And the city still goes through its rites, undeterred by its limitations.
There are two parallel stories of Varanasi - the story of the city, its inhabitants, and its trysts with history, rulers, religion and temples and there is the story of the river Ganges and the entire universe of rituals that it supports and upholds - and beyond a particular time both of these merge together. The story of Varanasi can as well be the story of the river Ganges. One just has to delayer the 5000 year history - every decade and century has added its own layers and left behind its own imprints and followers, each believing that Varanasi belongs to them, never realizing that Varanasi is bigger than them - they are but just one layer. It seems everyone owns a part of Varanasi, and the city has enough to give a piece to give to everybody. Let me give you an example - Of the dozen of names of the Ghats on which people take a dip, sample three name - Narad Ghat (a God or His contemporary), Harsihchandra Ghat (a legendary King), and Rajendra Prasad Ghat (Indias first President) !! What a span!!!!
Varanasi is the city of salvation and liberation. People come here to die, for that is a death worth living for. Pyres burn round the clock on two of its Ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghat, particularly the former, a cremation that guarantees salvation according to Hindu beliefs. The sight of the burning pyre, one after the other, is poignant and overwhelming. One can sit in silence and watch it for hours deep in thought at a sight that is enthralling and intimidating at the same time; and when one forces his eyes off it, the thought that ricochets in the mind is 'What’s all the fuss about?'
Folklore has it, that every fifth house in Varanasi is a temple. It’s not an exaggeration. Although Varanasi may be a city of Hindi legends and folklore, other religions are equally represented. The Kashi Vishwanath temple access is nothing short of a miracle – through dark alleys, where perhaps even sunlight has no access, made more cumbersome and a tad irritating with all the police presence. Mainstream Gods coexist with the occult, the male divine along with the female divine. There are dozens of mosques, a historically significant Sikh gurudwara, and a few churches and finally there is Sarnath, the Place where Budha gave his first sermon after enlightenment. What an eclectic collection of spiritual possibilities – almost like a super mart of religions – the consumer has a wide choice.
There is ‘Chaorder’- a chaotic order in the sounds – the thousands of bells from the hundreds of temples, the call of the muezzin from the mosque, the buzz of a million believers, the tinkles’ of a thousand rickshaw pullers, the groan of a hundred of automobiles can be a strain not only on your eardrum, but also on your soul – and after a while, when you get used to it, the silence is deafening.
The day ends with the spectacle of the Ganga Aarti, an ode to the mighty river. Two set of priests perform a perfectly synchronized aarti, with consummate ease and harmony, bringing the day to an end for the river, by offering faith, and seeking benediction. As one watches the lit Ghats from the opposite side, atop a boat gliding on the water and become aware of the sound of bells, and the smell of camphor and that of water itself, the thought hits you – that the Ganges has seen this sight for thousands of years, day after day – and then one is no longer sure about the entire concept of time.
One needs a hundred year to understand Varanasi, and may a life time to experience it completely, and even then one would have experienced only a part of it. There are sounds that I can still hear, sights I can still see and smells I still carry. I may have left behind the city, guess the city refuses to leave me behind.