Hot summer is here and that immediately reminds me of my last visit to Benares or Kashi. Kashi sometime back, had long been on our travel list. Kashi? Why? Had we reached that point of our lives when our responsibilities towards our immediate family were completed and we needed to become more spiritual? Not at all. We still are far away from that point. It sure will take a lot of time before we can really let go off family duties and begin our ‘teerth yatra’ so to say. You see, Kashi or Varanasi is my ancestral city. In fact, my husband jokingly tells me many a time; “it is your connection to the holy city that has still kept me afloat. Otherwise I would have drowned long back having you for a wife!”
Recently, we had a guest from the city. The visit rekindled memories of our trip made to Varanasi sometime back. I remember the trip more now because it brings back memories of sweet teeth chattering winter, something I long for desperately in the sweltering heat! As long as I can remember, the city of Varanasi has always been my family’s winter resort. It was that time of the year when we packed our trunk boxes with warm clothes and ‘bedding’ with all the blankets and headed for a long journey to the North. The journey used to be quite an experience in itself. Meeting new people on board the train, watching nature change its shape and colour as the train chugged along and of course, drinking hot tea when it started getting cold – all this and more gave me much pleasure then. Once I entered marital bliss I couldn’t but wait to share this inherited joy with my husband. We kept bidding our time. As they say, it is only when the Gods call can you be fortunate enough to visit a holy place. After some time of intense waiting, we were invited by the Gods to Kashi. Finally!
With time planned meticulously we pooled in our resources to visit Varanasi in winter. I was to encounter again the joy of meeting forgotten relatives and reliving hazy recollections of a land I was related to. With bag and baggage containing a horde of sweaters, shawls and blankets, we boarded the train to Benares, the city of all redemption. It was wintertime in the north so there was no telling how cold it was going to be. Both of us boarded the train with numerous thoughts running in our minds. As far as I was concerned I was excited. I don’t know whether ‘excitement’ would be the right word as my mind was constantly running in flashback reliving moments long experienced.
The train slowly chugged into Northern territory. At several stations, we found chaaiwaallaah sscreaming their lungs out in amusing tones and people suddenly seemed to have popped up in the train from out of nowhere (their presence was entirely unnoticed by us in the train till we reached the approaching Northern belt stations!). More psychological than anything else I presume, considering the fact that we had become used for so long to another language in the South. From then on we were entirely unaware as to where we were going. I wondered whether I had done the right thing by coming. Couldn’t we have gone to some other city instead – Bangalore or Bombay for instance? I wondered again. Finding my husband look at the city with childlike vigour, I cast away all my apprehensions. After all, wasn’t it me who had insisted on showing him the place of my roots so to say? ”
After having got introduced to all the relatives present we wasted no time before we set off on our discovery rides. This we did because we were very much aware that we had very little time to roam around. Experience has shown all and sundry that the best way to move about in the holy city is the cycle rickshaw. High seated, with space just enough for two, it is an ideal mode of travel (although I do admit it took us some time before we could actually get used to the vehicle. Why? Because we kept slipping down the seat every time the rickshaw stopped or decided to do a little jerky dance!).
The reliable and economical cycle rickshaw is the best mode of conveyance here.
It was only later, after some reflection we discovered that the seat was so made to enable the driver to drive without much exertion. He could actually be in full control without having to huff and puff as he pedalled along. More so for the fact that unlike us two commuters, other cycle rickshaws carried not two but four and even six passengers for a pittance of four rupees or eight as the distance demanded. Even the auto rickshaws plied jam packed with passengers seated cosily next to the driver who seemed to have no problem driving in the city which was quite a feat for us considering the fact that traffic laws did not seem to exist all in the city.
Anybody who drove or rode on the streets of Benares seemed to go about as if they owned the place, and so had every right to drive, as they wanted to. If one were to ask any one of them in anger, “Baap ka maal samjha hai kya?” (‘Is this your father’s property?’) pat would come the reply, “Tohaar baap ka maal ha ka?” (‘Is it YOUR father’s property?) ! This reflected not a kind of audacity on the part of the public of this holy city but a helpless statement of survival. The system in this city is such that every man’s vehicle be it cycle, car or truck is always trespassing into his immediate neighbour’s way. In such a situation, one could only follow the rule of the driver or rider before you, who in turn was doing the same.
Life in Benares city is a combination of ancient wisdom, purity along with the twisted nature of survival. Anyone who has visited the city has at least one experience to relate of a time when he or she has been very professionally duped by a tout or guide. Every visitor will also speak in disgusting tones about the dirt that borders the lines of the city. But the same person will also vouch for the peace and spiritual enchantment that he has felt visiting the innumerable temples or by simply sitting on the banks of the Ganges River.
One among the several Ghats on the bank of the Ganges River.
The Ghats have a charm that simply cannot be substituted by any other place. Even the trademark of the city, the blood red spittle of the famous Benarasi paan (remember Amitabh Bachchan in the song ‘Khaiyke paan Banaraswalah’ from the Hindi film Don?) on every clean wall seems to fade into the background as one comes face to face with the simplicity and vibrant colours of this world famous holy city.
Tiny lanes lead one through ancient beautifully designed buildings speaking of a heritage still in existence. I longed at once for a life as simple as this. No deadlines to meet (time just did not seem to exist here in Benares). Everyone seemed to just flow like the Ganges River. No sky rising prices to worry about (when compared to other cities) and a mesmerising spirituality always at hand whenever life threatened with its unexpectedness. Who would want to leave such a paradise?
We were told there in the Jaabaala Upanishad, the two rivers Varana and Aasi, which give the name to the city Varanasi, are given a different meaning. “It is called Varana because it obstructs (vaarayati) all sins of the senses. It is called Nasi because it destroys (naashayati) all sins of the senses.” When the seeker asks where this place is situated the sage says, “It is the place where the nose and eyebrows meet. That is the meeting place of heaven and the world beyond.” It is the highest of the six chakras in the yogic anatomy and is said to be the place of the eye of wisdom.
The Varana River on her way to merge into the Asi River.
It is not just a cursory glance of the city that can give us a view of the city. Anybody who does that loses the chance to experience the city as a whole. It is viewing the city through the eyes of the naavik (boatman), the man helping with the bathing rites on the ghats, the man on the road that makes one understand the city as it existed ages ago. Left with the little time that we had, my husband and I went to the famous Benares Hindu University, offered prayers in the Kashi Vishvanatha Temple, the Sankatmochan Temple (dedicated to the monkey God Hanuman) and had a glimpse of the innumerable tiny shops in the little labyrinthine lanes. It was a pleasure to also see many foreigners soaking themselves in the aroma of the place. Whilst we were there, we seemed to have got caught in a time wrap – of colourful mysticism, flowing with the city that was busily balancing spirituality with ordinary life. As we left the city of Kashi I knew for sure that in spite of the conflicts that this city faces, nothing was ever going to meddle with the sacred charm of one of the ancient cities of the world.
I know that we had not seen everything here. Just one hurried hasty visit to the land of moksha cannot be sufficient. Till we go there again I suppose I can sit back, turn on the nostalgia volume for some mystic memories and maybe, serve myself some Kashi Ketchup!