To some, the organised chaos of Varanasi may seem too much to bear. However, the soul of the Indian city resides not in its temples and shrines but in the river that silently passes.
Continuously inhabited for thousands of years with a history paralleled only by Jericho, Varanasi is a city like no other. The City of Light is one of India’s seven holy cities (the others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi, Ujjain and Dwarka) that grants devotees moksha (or salvation). People come here to die, to live, to lose themselves in the sea of humanity and to find themselves in its quiet anonymity.
Varanasi’s strategic location on the Gangetic plain at the crossroads of north India’s busiest road made it the centre of an important trade route during Mauryan times. Varanasi became a marketplace for shawls from the north, diamonds and gold from the Deccan, muslin and silk from the east, armaments from Lucknow, food grains from across India as well as perfumes, horses and elephants. Caravanserais and dharamsalas proliferated and the incessant crush of people led to the constant reconfiguration of this unique riverine habitat.
Down by the ghats
Various rulers paved the ghats (the steps leading down to the banks of the river Ganges) with stones, and built temples and palaces for pilgrims. Having a presence in Varanasi was the religious equivalent of owning a corner office at Mumbai’s Nariman Point. It meant political and social recognition. Sawai Jai Singh built the rooftop observatory of Jantar Mantar, while Raja Balwant Singh erected a red sandstone fort at Ramnagar – the bastion of the kings of Kashi. Just 2km from Lal Bahadur Shastri’s statue and ancestral house stands the Sumeru Devi temple at Purana Pokhra with the loftiest spire in Varanasi, rich with carved figures supporting an impressive roof.
On our sunset ride, culminating with the magical Ganges on Dashashwamedh Ghat, our boatman Dipu rattled off the names of the various ghats associated with mythological, royal and literary characters. ‘Parvati lost her mani-karnika (jewelled ear ornaments) so Shiva cursed the ghat to become a cremation ground. At Dashashwamedh, Brahma performed ten horse sacrifices. No-one bathes at Narada Ghat for fear of inciting fights. Mir Ghat is associated with Mirabai, while Goswami Tulsidas wrote the epic Ramcharitmanas at Tulsi Ghat.’
In the rains, the Ganges floods its banks and spills onto the ghats, shifting stone blocks and causing structures to collapse. ‘That’s not because of the river,’ Dipu pointed at the lopsided temple. ‘That’s Kashi Karwat, made to tilt by a woman’s scorn.’ While the river was the domain of the boatmen, the ghats were a shared heritage for priests, pilgrims, mendicants, hoteliers, washermen and musicians.
Besides local specialties such as the sweet peda, Banarasi paan, the Banarasi sari and carpets of Mirzapur and Bhadohi, the people also took pride in their local heroes. India’s second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, legendary for his simplicity, once swam across the Ganges as he was short of two annas to pay the boatman. Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya set up Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Asia’s largest educational campus.
From Kabir to Ravidas, some of the greatest Indian writers lived and found inspiration in this city. Renowned Indian surgeon Sushruta, author of Sushruta Samhita lived in Varanasi, which remains a centre for Ayurveda and yoga. Adi Shankara wrote his commentaries on Hinduism here while Tulsidas wrote much of his Ramcharitmanas on the banks of the Ganges. Munshi Ghat was named after Hindi writer Munshi Premchand, a native of Varanasi whose ancestral house lies in Lamhi village on Azamgarh Road. Novelist, poet and playwright Bharatendu Harishchandra was conferred his famous title in 1880 at Kashi.
‘This was the spot where Bismillah Khan used to play the shehnai, [oboe]’ an old gentleman indicated with his wobbly chin. ‘Soooo… many music maestros,’ chipped in a guy reading a newspaper. ‘Ravi Shankar (sitar), Gopal Mishra (sarangi), Pandit Chhannulal Mishra (singer), Kishan maharaj (tabla)…’
Not far from the place where Ved Vyasa started writing the great Indian epic Mahabharata, the Saraswati Bhawan Museum had a nice collection of royal possessions and a rare handwritten manuscript by Tulsidas. Bharat Kala Bhavan at BHU, with costumes, decorative art, postage stamps and miniature paintings, was another treasure trove. And crammed in between were shops selling the sweet boondi, cheeses khoa and paneer, lassi and everything under the sun. Locals firmly believed that due to the blessings of Ma Annapoorneshwari, Varanasi would always remain the land of plenty.
Need to know
The nearest airport is Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport located at Babatpur, 21km away. Varanasi Cantt Railway Station is one of the busiest, serviced by more than 240 trains a day. By road, you can take the NH2 from Delhi and NH56 from Lucknow.
IndiGo flies direct to Delhi from Dhs985 return. www.goindigo.in