SPEAKING TREE, Times of India, May 25th 2012
Sitting on the ghats of the ‘city of lights’ and watching the Ganga flow quiety is a serene experience, writes Alka Nigam
Kashi, the ‘city of lights’ is said to be the abode of Shiva. The Ganga, on its way to Gangasagar, takes a deep curve to wash the feet of her father. On the left bank of the north-flowing Ganga, is a panoramic sight of over 2-km stretch of stairs around the ghats leading up as openings to the city of Banaras. On the other side of the bank, stands tall the majestic fort of Ramnagar- the seat of the erstwhile maharajas of Kashi. Kashi is the metropolis of Hinduism. It is held sacred by the followers of this religion. A unique culture, taking myriad forms, has sprung from the ghats of the Gange. Since millennium, the ghats are thronged by people. Some are regulars who come to bathe in the wee hours. They have never missed a dip in the holy waters in their whole life. As the sun goes up, the city comes out of its slumber and the ghats seemingly ready themselves for hectic activity. Shiva and Ganga- the sacred combination of the two- is the secret of the magic that is Kashi.
The ghats have a charm of their own, with interesting stories about them.
On the stairs of these ghats, in the darkness of dawn, Kabir was accepted as a disciple by Swami Ramananda. The uneducated, but enlightened Kabir gave importance to the guru in words which have become immensely popular. He said he would choose a guru before God because the guru shows the way to reach God. On these ghats was written the greater part of the epic Ramcharitmanas which is the anchorage for millions of Hindus. The huge body of Tailang Swami was seen floating here on the waves of the Ganga. Shri Shyamacharan Lahiri, the great saint, came to these very ghats to bathe. On these ghats, the two great mystics met. Tailang Swami, when asked by a confused disciple why he saluted a mere householder, accepted with humility that what he with his loincloth could not attain, Lahiri attained as a householder. Mahaprabhu Vallabhacharya entered the waters of the Ganga near Hanuman Ghat when he sensed that his time to leave the world had come. Standing on these ghats, the virtuous Raja Harishchandra demanded money from his wife for the last rites of his dead son. The hallowed ground- called the Harishchandra Ghat- is known for the cremation of the dead.
The other cremation ghat is Manikarnika, and it is said that the fire from the pyres never extinguishes here. Most Hindus nurture a secret desire to die in Kashi. In the past, the wealthy and the aged came to Kashi in their last days to die here. In modern times, children take it to be their duty to disperse the ashes of their parents in the Ganga at Kashi. Legend has it that here Shiva invokes the Tarak mantra in the ears of the dying person to enable the soul to cross the ocean of samsara and get liberation.
It is a folly to regard Kashi as the city of the dead. The ghats open out to narrow, meandering streets. These vibrant streets do business of crores and are hubs of Banarasi culture, which is a queer amalgam of pride and a no-matter- what attitude mixed with magnanimity and sweetness unique to this place. It is a city of opposites. Except a Banarasi, no one can imagine a hearse being carried side by side where a family is shopping for a wedding. This stoic gusto for life is a mysterious gift from the Divine to this city for which Life-in-Death is no different from Death-in-Life. Both coalesce in a perfect blend of living spirituality.
The Banarasi Spirit
Banarasis are full of joie de vivre because they know fully well its transience. This ultimate wisdom is the source of its robust energy, which prevents it from dying and makes it the oldest “living” city in the world. Mark Twain caught its pulse right when he said that the glory of Babylon, Arabi, Egypt, can only be imagined through the books of history, but Varanasi is still vibrant. Whether his comment- that Varanasi is older than history, tradition, and legend and looks twice as old as all put together- is complimentary or not, credit has to be given to the city that in spite of government apathy in providing modern infrastructure, it is still going strong. The belief of its inhabitants in religion, which teaches total submission to Divine will and total acceptance of things as they come, is very ancient.
You love the city or loathe it. Sitting on its ghats and watching the waters of the Ganga is a serene experience that transports you to a different world. The old ghats still reverberate with the musical tinkling of bells coming from the temples nearby. The floating diyas or earthen lamps still watch their reflection in the waters. And the waters of the Ganga, though sluggish at places, still flow on just as Baba Vishwanath still continues to shower His blessings on Kashi.
Varanasi’s original name was Kashi, derived from the word Kasha, which means brightness. It is also known variously as Avimuktaka, Anandakhanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya. The present name, Varanasi has its origin in the two tributaries of the Ganga- Varuna and Asi, which flank its northern and southern borders. Banaras or Benaras, as the British called it, is only a corruption of the name Varanasi.
The fort, about 14km from Varanasi, is situated on the opposite bank of the Ganga. It is the ancestral home of the maharaja of Kashi. Maharaja Balwant Singh built this fort-palace in the 18th century. The fort has a temple dedicated to Ved Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. Legend has it that the poet-saint stayed here for a brief period. The museum inside the fort displays the royal collection including vintage cars, palkis and an armoury of swords and old guns.
By Train: Varanasi is an important rail junction and is connected to all major cities of country by train. Some important trains from Varanasi station are Kashi Vishwanath Express (Varanasi-Delhi), Shramjivi Express (Patna-Varanasi-Delhi), Farakka Express (Malda Town-Varanasi-Bhiwani), and Saryu-Yamuna Express (Muzzafarpur-Varanasi-Delhi).
By Road: Varanasi is connected to the rest of India by motorable roads. Some important distances are: Agra -565- km, Allahabad – 128km, and Bhopal- 791km
By Air: Regular flights operate from Varanasi to Delhi and other metros. Babatpur Airport is 22km from Varanasi and 30km from Sarnath.