“Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it, is the primary business of Varanasi.”
― Tahir Shah, Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Winding through the dingy lanes, overcrowded with human endeavour and fulfilment, man and cow jostle to get their bearings straight. For within the labyrinthine maze of societal settlement lives one of the worlds most fascinating amazement. Benaras. Or Varanasi. At daybreak, when the world wakes up from its deep slumber, Benaras is simply living through. This city never sleeps. Enmeshed with gods and goddesses, spirituality lingers all around. The crowd swells but the chants never drown. And slowly pushing through them, I reach the finest of nature. The mystic river. Ganges. Not just a water body but a civilisational cult. Older than the oldest habitation existing. Benaras and Ganges are a couple intertwined by fate and history. Many legends and fables after, they still live. Breathe.
The city is a bewilderment of chaos. A smorgasbord of kaleidoscopic wonder. Nationalities, communities, caste, creed, gender. They all merge. Making it a melting pot of the world. And they are all in the mad rush to attain nirvana. Some do it on the stairs of the ethereal ghats. Most within the confines of the innumerable temples which dot the skyline. Benaras is more than just a city. It is a culture. A way of life. Hindu scriptures sing paeans of its sustenance for over a thousand years. History bows to it.
बोधारो मत्सरग्रस्ताः प्रभवः स्मयदूषिताः।
अबोधोपहताश्चान्ये जीर्णमङ्गे सुभाषितम्॥
(Learned men are jealous, masters laugh at me.
Other do not understand, [thus] good quote remains in [this] old body [i.e. me])
For millennia, Benaras or Varanasi or Kashi has been home to the greatest of scholars. Intellectualism is an intrinsic part of its fabric. The BHU is a testimony to that. So are the many Hindu monasteries which tutor students in the Vedas. Sanctity, they say, is found in the sanctum of the mind. And godliness lives within the knowledge of life.
And as the sun slowly sets, the monolithic ghats light up. The riverside becomes a hive of activity. Paper lanterns are set afloat as candles are lighted along the periphery of the stairs, creating a luminous silhouette from afar. The Ganga Arti begins. It is an ode to the river. The provider and the maker. The foetus and the umbilical cord. It is also the final resting place of the innumerable who wish to attain a reprieve from the infinite loop of birth and rebirth. Karma is Benares’ martyrdom.
I sit back and watch the river flow by and the migratory birds skimming along the surface. I also discover the India, I so fascinated about, unfold itself so merrily. The great family gatherings on boats feeding those birds or simply touring the ghats. The child playing with a paper boat and then setting it free. The avid photographer focusing on that paper boat, nonchalant about the din a group of sadhu are creating by chanting the hymns to praise the lord. And the hymns stay with you for long. Maybe forever. The lyrics portray your own role in other’s lives. And how synchronised we all are with each other. In love, hate, feeling, longing. Symptomatic of the unfulfilled urges our frail human hearts yearn for. Benares is your fulfilment. A reward of your karma in a birth so devoid of acknowledgements.