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Posts Tagged ‘Ganga

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.)

The baskets of old Bihar

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“Baskets used specially by the sower are called generally ora, ori or oriya (sometimes made partly with the fibre of the leaves of the tal palm); also we meet, to the west, chhainti, and to the east chhita (a large one), chhiti (a small one), or dauri. South of the Ganges they are also called in Patna batta (also in Shahabad), daura, or dauri (sometimes made of the culm of the silk grass, andropogon muricatum), in Gaya (also in North-East Tirhut) pathiya (also used for feeding cattle), and in South Munger khanchiya. The only difference amongst all these is that in the case of the daura and dauri the bottom is woven of bamboo slips, like a mat.

“There are likewise several other kinds of baskets, used indiscriminately for this and other domestic and agricultural purposes. Thus, small straw grain-baskets are changeli or changeri, and sometimes dali or daliya, especially towards the east. In Patna and South Munger they are called batri. Another very similar basket (but still smaller) is called very generally maunni or mauniya, also batta in Patna, Gaya and South Munger, and phuluki in East Tirhut. A large open basket made of split twigs of bamboo generally woven up with the fibre of the leaves of the til palm is called tokra, dhaka, dhaki, ora or chainta. A smaller variety is called ganja, tokri, dhakiya.

“When the bottom is very finely woven, so as even to hold water, it is called oraisa. The dhama is an open basket made of rattan. The khaincha or khancha is a large coarse basket made of twigs of cytisus cajan (rahar) or tamarisk (jhau). South of the Ganges we also find deli. A smaller basket of the same kind is known as khanchi (also khanjhi in North-East Tirhut), khanchiya, khacholi, pathuli (Gaya), nonihari (Patna), or (South Bhagalpur) damhariya. The dagra, dagri, also called South of the Ganges daura, dauri, or (South Bhagalpur) dala, is a large shallow basket. These are all made of either bamboo twigs or slips, except the daura or dauri. In Shahabad karui or doki, and north of the Ganges sikahuti or sikauti, is a little basket made of the stalks of the munj grass.

“A broken basket is chhitai, or in Gaya chhatna, or in South Bhagalpur chhitna. The jhampi or jhampiya is a little basket with a lid. It is also called punti or pautiya (being then generally made of munj grass) and petari (made of bamboo or rattan). A larger kind is called jhampa. The lid of all these is called pehani or jhamp. Thaicha or changor, or in Shahabad thaincha or thincha, is a kind of large open basket. Phuldali is a flower-basket, saji is one with a handle. In North-East Tirhut mator is a basket used by betel-growers.”

From ‘Bihar Peasant Life, Being a Discursive Catalogue of the Surroundings of the People of that Province‘, by George A Grierson, printed in 1885 at The Bengal Secretariat Press, Calcutta.

Where the big rivers are

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The biggest river deltas are flat and that’s why the cities which occupy some of the have expanded so much, so quickly. The last 50 years has seen a big population expansion on deltas – cities like Dhaka in Bangladesh. Twelve megacities on deltas have expanded in terms of populations from 62 million in 1975 to 153 million in 2010, an expansion that is not slowing.

‘Global Change’, which is the magazine of the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), has brought out a special number of deltas and the risks borne by city administrations that occupy deltas. The IGBP, in its own words, “coordinates international research on global-scale and regional-scale interactions between the Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes, and their interactions with human systems”.

Flooding both from rivers and the sea is increasing. There was a storm surge in the Irrawaddy in Myanmar in 2008 when 200,000 people were killed. But people are still living on the delta. However, the estimate is that two million people have left the Indus delta in Pakistan to move to higher ground as salt water has invaded the farming zone. [A larger version of the graphic above can be found here (1.4MB). The original IGBP infographic which I have modified can be found here – caution, big file (12.7MB)].

The Po delta (near Venice in Italy) subsided largely because methane was being pumped from underground. They stopped the pumping and the delta is sinking 10 times less fast than it was. But the land surface is not actually rising, and it’s still below sea level. The Chao Phraya River Delta (along which Bangkok is built) subsided because of groundwater being pumped out to supply Thailand’s thirsty capital. So they introduced a tax on water use, such as showers. In Shanghai, the local government slowed the rate of pumping water out of the ground.

However, when countries set up commissions to look at the natural environment, it’s often water/river courses they’re concerned about, like with the Rhine. There is not so much focus on the delta. Where countries have tried geo-engineering, they can scarcely bear the prohibitive costs. It is estimated that China in the 15th to 18th centuries used 12-15% of its historical GDP in attempts to control the Yellow River from spilling out into its floodplain, but these gigantic efforts were never really successful.