O’ Benares, what have you done? I find myself helplessly trapped in your story, lost in your streets and consumed by your fires.
I have seen a lot of you in photographs, in films, have heard many great men and storytellers; speaking of you as if you are heaven on earth. Many believe your waters will wash away their sins. Many hope you are the way to salvation. But none could prepare me in the manner you embellish yourself with life and death . O’ Benares your gaze is distant and your embrace cold, yet I wonder why I am drawn to you, wanting to curl up like a newborn at your feet or just bob silently as a carcass in your holy waters.
A student of Ustaad Bismillah Khan exclaimed in frustration that his house is too small. “Please come with me to America”, he said, “You will be more comfortable there.”
To which the Ustaad replied, “Am I alone here? If you can carry my Ganga to America, or my Balajee Temple , I will come with you.”
A Benarasi’s heart beats in rhythm with an ancient culture, its myths, its rulers and its history.This profound spirit swallows most travellers who visit it, even for a few days.
The Ganges flows in its air, it dyes its saris and colours its walls. It tells many stories,some as old as civilisation and on its baluster run the rails of the city’s life. Boatmen, weavers, pundits,Domes, musicians, philosophers,marauders, rulers and many wanderers are rendered as soft notes of oars as you row in its water.
The ghats are the steps to realisation. Watching the river flowing from somewhere and spanning to a yonder horizon, beyond the city and beyond its bridges, you can easily believe that it is impossible to connect with such a vast entity. Then after a while its presence becomes as normal as your own. She is there, you are here and there is nothing more to it.
The Manikarnika Ghat is the most intriguing place by the river.This is where the deceased are cremated round the clock and the business of life conducted with an unimaginable nonchalance.
No one has the time to ruminate over life and loss. Children fly kites, cows amble around chewing on marigold flowers or just sit blankly.
Dogs look about their territory.People live, get ready for school, pray, converse, drink their tea,while small processions carrying the dead chant ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Name of the Lord is the only truth) while weaving through their midst.
Firewood is piled high all over the place. Atmosphere stings the senses with acrid smoke , aromas of burning flesh, wood and other condiments, engulfing you with honest brutality of existence .
The business of burning bodies at the ghat is sanctioned by a mythological story. A caste of people called Domes manage the burning ghat. Legend has it that a Dome king, many years ago bought Raja Harishchandra when all others refused.The great king then had to work on the funeral ground to pay off his debt to the sage Viswamitra. His wife and son were sold to a Brahmin. When a snake bite killed his son ; his wife brought his body to be cremated at the funeral ground. Harishchandra refused to complete the last rites as she did not have money to pay for it.The great king passed the test of righteousness on the shores of Ganges here while the Domes earned respect for helping Harishchandra.Since then the caste is regarded as the one which can be relied upon.
Most around the burning ghat, have glazed, deep yellow eyes. Effect of smoke perhaps, but remarkably clothes dry in the vicinity without any significant carbon deposit. Many use the charcoal of the funeral pyre as firewood for cooking or simply keeping warm. Some Sadhus dwell at the cremation ground. They are called Aghoris. Like Shiva they smear their bodies with the ashes of the deceased. I wasn’t fortunate to acquaint with one, but it is common to meet such people here.
The fire which burns the pyre has to be bought. It is centuries old and immortal.
A hospice nearby hosts those who wish to die in Benares.
But the city celebrates life in many ways. It weaves exquisite silk fabric. The complexity of dobby and jacquard is one of the most difficult to understand, even for masters of textile design.Power looms have replaced hand operated ones and most of the silk yarn now is imported from Korea or China. Still, with such nontraditional methods one wants to see a Benarasi textile which looks like a Benarasi textile. Modernity cannot replace the flavour of this great city.
Outskirts have the malls and big retail shops. From mobiles, to burgers and Volkswagen; almost everything is available here.
As you near the ganges, the city transforms. Houses are different, colours are different, food is different and attires are different. Space is less and silence more. Everything is shared gracefully amongst humans, cows and dogs.
Walking the narrow streets leading to the shore of the Ganges, one realizes how life has a different notion here. No one is pushed. Almost all spend time generously on seemingly vacant philosophies.
It is amazing how almost every old city in India has a heavy tail. A part of viscera which thankfully has not shrunk to the aesthetics of modern marketing and lifestyle.
Corners and walls are blessed by Gods or their problem solvers.
Or one sees a banner displaying sixty days of mourning after Mohurrum. This is at Ustaad Bismillah Khan’s residence at Daal Mandi.
I thought Benares will be a lot like Old Delhi, or somewhat similar to Haridwar. I was wrong. Streets of old Benares have a lot more colour ,are narrower and are much cleaner. It is far less commercial than Haridwar. People are used to prying photographers. Some ignore, some smile – trying to speak in English and some ask for money. For someone as swarthy as a typical north Indian, I found it to my surprise that I was seen as a ‘foreigner’.
It is a photographer’s delight. Colours, textures, feelings, people, light and so much more make this an essential visual journey to accomplish. No wonder anyone covering India has to see this city.
As one nears the river, complexion of human interaction changes. I expected an aggressive hard sell of religion here. There are pestering boatmen, but they do not come at you as a swarm of wasps. Nor are there donation seekers or too many beggars. It is commercial in an understated manner, which was a surprise. One can sit by the riverside and watch.
Watch the river calling its children. Watch her children speak to her or simply see her drape around their wishes and sins with a timeless obduracy of faith in her own cleansing power .
The river has the power to turn everything into a surrealistically beautiful moment. It doesn’t matter whether it is a sunrise or a water burial of a baby.
I felt good that the river is revered as a supernatural force, a greater force. Whatever logic we may use to describe human behaviour, we cannot ignore the place of emotion in our lives.Ultimately it is a matter of the heart which makes this relationship so special.
Life begins early on the banks of Ganges. Hues of the mind easily distinguished by its involvement with light, space, spirit and body.
Some are gentle, and others more vigorous.
This workout is called the ‘Pheri’, literally circumnavigation, which it is as the mace travels front and back of the body on both sides. I couldn’t figure out the logic of the movement as most effort involves control of motion relying on the object’s weight. The boy Chandan, has tremendous concentration. For more than ten minutes he looked at the wall and did his Pheri. Later he expounded the benefits of exercise and celibacy to me.
Though it was mid December, activity around the river is maximum in the wee hours of the morning or late dusk. The place is painted with chirps of a variety of dialects and languages, sound of bells, instructions on a loudspeaker to yoga practitioners, singers or rattle from shaking bones of those brave enough to take a dip in the cold waters of the Ganges.
Afternoons are gentler in activity, where one finds tourists ambling and exploring the ghats. Life is simpler then as most natives recede to run their lives. It is the best time to just stare and ingest the presence of this great river. It is far less polluted than the Yamuna of our Delhi, and there is a massive campaign, imploring the visitors to keep it clean. The appeal has not fallen on entirely deaf ears.
Sun sets behind the city, turning most into colourless dark forms, ready to dissolve into the night. But wait! there is still a responsibility to thank the river.
I did not enjoy the aarti ( prayer ). Actually I have never enjoyed any aarti. This one however is an attempt at exaggerated gestures, with the wrists of the participants flowing in feminine movements. I can believe that they are trying to emulate the river. To me it appeared overly contrived.
One of the agendas was to taste typical Benarasi food. Breakfast is great, an ample serving of delicious pooris and subzi, served with a few hot jalebis. Good enough to last most of the day. This dish is consistently fantastic everywhere in the city and consistently cheap. For twenty bucks, one can be satiated till late afternoon. Another interesting thing is the Mallauaa. Best pronounced with your lower lip brimming with beetle soaked saliva. People claim to make it with dew drops and milk cream. The combination is whipped vigorously till it turns into a foam. So when you ingest Mallauaa, you feel nothing. It is as if you are eating air.
It is ten bucks worth of aerosolised milk cream. This particular flavour was special. Somewhat bitter, like that bitterness of nectar when you suck on a flower’s pedicel, but over all it is a sweet meat. Benarasi paan is another specialty. It is called Maghai paan technically and when you chew it, leaves no fibrous after bodies sticking in your teeth. I sampled sweet versions which were tender and luxurious. Most natives swallow it with beetle nut, lime and tobacco. Benarasis eat two kinds of kachauris. One eaten in the morning is called the Gudhri Kachauri. It is small ( looks like a dumpling), filled with masala lentil , and is served with a preparation of potatoes and black chick peas. The other is consumed in the evening and resembles the normal version we are accustomed to.
Four days spent at Benares, photography was a given. I expected to see somethings, but most came as a surprise. The spirit of the city is unimaginable and cannot be easily comprehended. Four days are not enough, maybe four lifetimes are, but even with its sang-froid welcome, Benares made me richer.
Like Yama, It discouraged me to ask certain questions, told me the futility of even knowing those answers. But as you walk on the shores of the great river, either you wonder how you have deserved to experience the sensation or simply thank whatever force you believe in for being blessed at that moment.
Honestly, I was pretty overwhelmed in four days and just wanted to fly back home to my family. I rubbed and washed , tried to drink and sleep the sensations away. It was not to be, I was born there but strangely it was my first visit and as a turtle who reaches the place of its birth to procreate, I too have a calling to get there again.I’ll see her now in other seasons.
Till we meet again Benares.