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Archive for March 2019

Kashi, the oldest, the illustrious

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The Mahapuranas speak of 96 jalatirthas along the bank of Ma Ganga in Kashi. By the end of the 16th century, these were arranged as 84 ghats over what we today measure as 6.5 kilometres. Over the centuries, many of our greatest thinkers, philosophers and sants have walked the steps of these ghats and drawn inspiration from the trinity of Ma Ganga, Kashi and Lord Shiva.

The year was no later than 1971 when, as a small boy of six, I first heard of Kashi. We were visiting one of my father’s college friends, and although my recollection is dim, the babu-moshai lived in a spacious flat with a large airy verandah overlooking a backyard full of trees. The area was New Alipur, in Calcutta. My father’s friends included artists, theatre actors, film critics, a boxwallah or two, newspaper columnists. Some of them were there that day, and when I heard the names ‘Kashi’ and ‘Banaras’ I had no idea they were not two different places.

This is what I remembered them saying: you have to go to Kashi by the river or by the Grand Trunk road, and if you are a devout Hindu you have to approach Kashi the way it has been approached for more centuries than any of us can count, by cart or boat, or on foot. At the first sight of the temple towers of the holy city you must salute it with shouts of “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

Morning reading in a stately home near the Gauri kund, Kedar ghat part of the city. The 17th century traveller Bernier stated: “The whole city is a university. Unlike classes, departments and colleges, every house belonging to a Brahmin is a centre of education.”

Years passed, and as a youth, travelling by train through north and central India, I would now and then find a conversation in which Banaras and Kashi figured. In every corner where a tree will grow, I once heard on the long dusty journey from Bombay to Allahabad, the peepal and the ‘vad’ find a place, and under their wide branches there will be heaps of carved stones, fragments from temples so very ancient, before which we pray and to which we offer flowers.

I was older, and had seen something of our Bharat, but not yet Kashi, which seemed still remote and, in some curious way, unapproachable to one without the requisite devotion and basic knowledge. More years passed, and every now and then I would find, when fortunate to have in my hands a copy of a large-format book of photographs of India, an arresting scene of the ghats of Banaras, or one of its streets, a sadhu framed in an akhada doorway, a boatman on the river, a cow dozing on temple steps. And then the instruction heard long years earlier in a Calcutta verandah would sound, as if from a distance, “Jai! Jai! Kashinath!”.

On 12 Phalguna, Krishna Paksha, Dwadashi, Kaliyug Varsha 5120 and Vikram Samvat 2075 (3 March 2019) at the age of 53, I approached Kashi (with jeevansaathi Viva Kermani, whose efforts had made this long-awaited journey possible). In the taxi to the city from the airport I silently asked the Goswamis who knew Kashi before me to please excuse my conduct, travelling through mechanical means rather than on foot. It is not a small matter, for by now I knew that when bicycles were first brought into and ridden in Banaras, Hindus were strongly discouraged from using them to complete the Panchakrosi yatra, a distance of just over 55 miles which had to be completed by foot in three to five days.

Throngs of devotees outside the Kashi Vishwanath mandir. Here is one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Bharat. Whenever damaged and even substantially destroyed, it is Vishwanath, or Vishveshwar (ruler of the universe), who has ensured its reconstruction.

From the descent off the last stretch of elevated road and into old Banaras, it is much like every city in north India. There are malls, flyovers, unzoned new development where everything from hardware shops and mithai shops to tuition classes and call centres are crammed. Past the British colonial water administration headquarters, a club, and the campuses of two of the city’s five universities. And then you sense the nearness of the great water which alone is older than Kashi, Ma Ganga. But still hidden beyond the buildings and structures that are both smaller, older, odder, more embellished with decoration, more festooned with signboards and hoardings and posters and loops of cables.

A pustakalaya named after Tulsidas in Bhadaini, Kashi. Gosvami Tulsidas lived in Kashi in the early 17th century. He was a great bhakta poet who wrote the Ramcharitmanas (the ocean of Sri Rama’s deeds), in Avadhi, dialect of Hindi.

We had our lodgings in what had once been a mansion that had belonged to the family of the Raja of Varanasi, now divided into two and turned into a hotel. It stood at the entrance to Assi Ghat, which is when counted from south to north, the first of the 84 ghats. It is from this ghat that I first beheld the vista of Ma Ganga sweeping around the great nagar. When you look downriver (but north, for it is in this stretch of Ma Ganga’s length only that she flows back towards the Himalaya) the immense arc of the ghats curves slowly out, in the morning hours disappearing into the mists that curl from the water.

It is a sight to transfix you. The oldest, the very oldest, city in the world. Illustrious Kashi of unrivalled sanctity, and of boundless renown. So great is its antiquity that tradition tells us it was Banaras that first existed, and then the rest of the world was arrayed around it. Sushruta, the pitamaha of ayurvedic surgery, was educated here – but naturally, for Sri Dhanvantari, the seventh in the lineage of the Manu of our age, was an early king of Kashi. The very forms of oldest Kashi are from ages perhaps revealed only in the mahapuranas – the well of Jnanavapi was dug with Shiva’s trishul, the river Asi, which gives its name to one of those of the city, Varanasi, was where Durgamata’s terrible sword struck the earth when she chose to rest here after a battle.

The evening Ganga aarti, which is led by the Gangotri Seva Samiti at Dashwamedha Ghat. The first verse is: ओम जय गंगे माता, मैया जय गंगे माता। जो नर तुमको ध्याता, मनवांछित फल पाता॥

As you stand thus, the sounds of the city of today and the nagar of tremendous ages past swirl past (for that is why we speak mantras), there is movement up and down the ghats, on stone steps, in boats, on the wooden platforms, of bathers, families, pujaris, cows, groups of youth, vendors, sants and sadhus, here and there a dom, tourists and the touts that they draw. There is light, as Surya bestows it in the recesses of small shrines or casts it to flash on the gilded metal flags and trishuls that surmount the temples. There is colour, in the saris and the flowers, the arrangement of brighter colours against the stone of the ghats changing with every moment. Time wheels on but Kashi, they say, is not of this world.

(To be continued.)

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