ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY meet boatmen, priests, guides and locals to dig out Varanasi’s secrets, as seen through the eyes of its residents
‘There are 365 ghats in Banaras’, said Deepu the boatman. ‘If you take a bath at one ghat daily, you’ll have to spend 1 year here,’ he added emphatically. ‘Actually, there’s nothing like the Ramleela of Ramnagar,’ opined Ravi Shankar Pandey, priest at the Vyas Temple inside Ramnagar Fort. ‘It’s as if the gods descend to earth and perform on stage! You need to stay for a month to enjoy it’. The few days at our disposal seemed terribly inadequate to discover what was India’s oldest continually inhabited city…
The grey waters of the Ganga sloshed gently as Deepu expertly navigated the boat through the flotilla of crafts. We were returning from a luxurious dinner at WelcomHeritage Jukaso Ganges, a 200-year-old riverfront Yadava haveli painstakingly renovated into a boutique hotel. Located at Guleria Ghat and built out of Chunar sandstone, the haveli was a great addition to the ghats unlike the rash of modern cement guesthouses scarring the skyline. With an amiable boatman for company, the languid journey back to our lodge was unaccustomed joy.
Yellow flames rebelled against an inky blue night lighting up dour faces as we approached Manikarnika Ghat. ‘This is where they burn the dead before consigning their ashes to the Ganga’, said Deepu. ‘Why only here?’ he asked. As we shook our heads, Deepu continued. Once Lord Shiva and Parvati were having a bath here when their precious ornaments (mani-jewel and karnika-earrings) were swept away by the Ganga’s swift currents. Incensed, Lord Shiva cursed that these ghats would be used only to burn the dead. ‘Every night, an aghori takes the ash from a pyre burned after midnight to perform the bhasm-arti for Lord Vishwanath at 3am. The only other cremation ground is Harishchandra Ghat, where a great king faced many hurdles to fulfill a promise…’
Satyavadi Harishchandra, the truth-abiding king of Ayodhya was so pious, he evoked the jealousy of Sage Vishwamitra. To test him, the sage appeared in the king’s dream and asked for his kingdom as alms. Harishchandra agreed. The next morning, he made the necessary arrangements and left for Varanasi with his wife Shaivya and son Rohitashva. Not content, Sage Vishwamitra followed him and said he could not accept daan (gift) without the appropriate dakshina (token money). The king sold his wife and kid as helps in a Brahmin household and pawned himself as an assistant to Kallu Dom, the keeper of the burning ghats. Thus amidst great hardships, the family went about their lives. Sage Vishwamitra decided to up the ante.
One day, while plucking flowers for the Brahmin’s puja, Rohitashva is bitten by a snake and dies. When his wife brings Rohit’s body to the ghats for burning, the stoic raja uncompromisingly demands the necessary tax for burning the body. With no money, his distraught wife offers half her sari as vastra-daan but before her modesty can be compromised, the divine trinity intervenes and blesses the king with three boons. Harishchandra asks for Rohitashva to be revived, entry to heaven for him and his family in their mortal forms and never to put someone through such a test in Kaliyug. On learning the king’s true identity, Kallu Dom begs forgiveness and demands that he too be given access to heaven. The king relents, only to realize that Kallu Dom is none other than Yama, the god of Death.
‘And that building with the tiger sculpture is the house of Kallu Dom’, said Deepu, bringing closure to the story like an artful sutradhaar (narrator). ‘The house looks ordinary from the outside, but inside it’s a palace! Kallu Dom’s descendants are rolling in money; some even live abroad’, he emphasized. Hence the local saying ‘There are two kings in Kashi – one Kashi Naresh and the other Kallu Dom.’ We thanked Deepu for his insightful boat ride and climbed the steep steps of Manmandir Ghat to Rashmi Guest House.
The next morning from our rooftop perch at Dolphin Restaurant, we saw monkeys prancing around in the adjoining observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur. Over breakfast, we learned that besides the Kashi Vishwanath temple there was another Vishwanath Temple inside the peaceful environs of Banaras Hindu University. We set off and the auto navigated its way through crowded galis (lanes) manned by hawk-eyed policemen at corners demanding bribes for passage. ‘Vultures’, spat Bablu, after stuffing a note into the human daan-peti (donation box).
Soon, we entered through the main gate. Spread over 1,350 acres with more than 128 departments, BHU was one of the three largest residential universities in the world. Stately buildings of various faculties lined the wide roads as the statue of founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya greeted us in front of the New Vishwanath Temple, also built by him. The temple complex with nine shrines across multiple levels, its 252 ft tall spire, serene sanctum and cool marble floors was mesmerizing. As was Bharat Kala Bhavan, a rich repository of art and heritage. After a quick bite of samosa-chana-chai, we clattered down the pontoon bridge towards Ramnagar Fort.
Built in 1742 by Maharaja Balwant Singh, the riverside fort had an interesting collection of royal carriages, weapons and exquisite artefacts in the Saraswati Bhavan Museum. Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh had a penchant for target practice by tossing coins high in the air and shooting them with a rifle. The holes on the mutilated coins showed his perfect aim and a citation from Leopold II acknowledged his unique prowess of literally blowing up money! Also on display were 4-barelled pistols, unique swords and the legendary Ramnagar Clock. Made in 1872 by state clockmaker B Mulchand, the massive contraption still gave accurate chronological and astro readings!
A small cavernous passage led to a Shiv Mandir and the ancient Vyas Temple overlooking the ghats. Priest Ravi Shankar Pandey sat us down and narrated the mahatmya (legend). After the Mahabharat war, Sage Vyas came to Kashi with 18,000 sages. Despite being in the realm of Annapoorna, he didn’t get alms for three days. In a fit of rage he called Kashi daridra (penniless). Lord Vishwanath objected that he had no right to stay in the city. So Vyas gave up Anandvan (as Kashi was then called), crossed the Ganga and came to Tapovan on the eastern side. Vyas set up another Kashi, 4km from the fort, called Vyas Kashi. It was here on the sacred banks that he commenced his epic Mahabharat. Not only did Vyas compile the 18 puranas, he also divided the vedas into four, hence his name Ved Vyas.
Three lingas enclosed in copper casings inside the shrine represented Vyas, Sukhdev (his son who narrated Bhagwat Katha to King Parikshit) and Kashi Vishwanath. ‘No visit to Banaras is complete unless you visit this shrine.’ Pandey ji also told us about a stunning Durga temple nearby and the unusual Hanuman temple inside the fort, which opened only once a year on Ashwini Poornima. Using a visiting dignitary’s convoy as our slipstream, we tagged along to see the monkey god’s black form seated in veer ras (victory). While wearing our shoes, we overheard someone remark ‘Dev chadhi pooja, kutta khaye ki dooja’ (You offer things to god, but whether it goes to a dog or someone else, who knows).
Located 3km away near Purana Pokhra was the stunning Sumeru Devi or Durga temple. The tranquil atmosphere of the large stepped tank had transformed the grounds into a picnic spot where people baked litti-chokha on makeshift fires. The temple shikhara was suffused with ornate sculptural panels on all sides while brackets shaped like musicians and angels supported the roof. ‘Don’t miss the Chhinamastika Mandir of the headless goddess’, said a passing pilgrim. ‘It’s in the left corner when you do the pradakshina’, he added. On our way out, the autowalla pointed out an abandoned kotha overlooking the tank, which once echoed with music and dance. ‘The queen visits once a year,’ he added solemnly, as if there was some significance that we couldn’t comprehend.
A narrow lane from Lal Bahadur Shastri’s statue near Ramnagar Fort led us to his paternal home, where he grew up. Bank of Baroda had put up black and white photos of ‘The politician who took no money’. Stories about the simplicity and sacrifice of India’s second Prime Minister were legendary. Manoj Shrivastava of Bhartiya Jan Jagaran Samiti, which looked after the renovated monument and worked towards conserving Shastri ji’s legacy gave us an overview. Once as a young boy, Shastri ji wanted to cross the Ganga but had only 3 paise when the boatman wanted 5. He swam across and swore that one day he’d make it easy for the lesser privileged.
Years later, he sought permission from the Kashi Maharaj to use his personal ghat and built a pontoon bridge, which was free to all. He was the first railway minister to resign from office on moral grounds after a train accident. During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, before proposing a national austerity drive, he first asked his family to skip one meal a day for a week. Today, his motto ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ is kept alive by honouring farmers and soldiers on his birth and death anniversaries. ‘Tulsi Das, Munshi Premchand, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Malviya, Shastri ji, the list of luminaries from Varanasi is endless’, said Mr. Shrivastava, presenting us a photo of the statesman.
We were back just in time for the highlight of the evening – the serene Ganga arti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Priests clad in silken clothes ritualistically offered dhoop (incense), arti (lamps) and pankha (fan) to Mother Ganga, before gently lulling her to sleep. The next morning, it was time for the sunrise boatride. Early bathers took a holy dip while others lathered themselves or got their heads tonsured.
Gorakhnath was a manjhi (traditional oarsman) but if he hadn’t been a boatman, he would be mouthing dialogues in a Bollywood movie. ‘Jaise netaon ki rajdhani dilli hai, bhagwanon ki rajdhani Varanasi hai’ (If Delhi is the capital for politicians, Varanasi is the capital for gods). ‘Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan, Kaalbhairav, Durga, Gauri Mata, there’s even a Bharat Mata Mandir here!’ Several ghats were named after prominent temples or deities – Annapurna, Brahma, Hanuman, Rama, Kshameshwar, Kali, Chousatti (after Chousath Yogini temple) and Bhimeshwar or Kashi Karwat owing to its lopsided appearance. On seeing every deity have a ghat to his name, Sage Narad also desired one. Though his wish was fulfilled, his habit of inciting quarrels prevents people from bathing there, fearing a fight. ‘Only buffaloes bathe at Narad Ghat,’ chuckled Gorakhnath. ‘Ye mitti wala ghat hai, iska safai nahi hota,’ he pointed to the sludge.
‘The whole stretch from Ramnagar to Rajghat is shaped like Shiva’s bow, with the sand bank of the Ganga as the string,’ added our boatman. ‘And it has no crocodiles! Once a year, a creature comes, offers his prayers and disappears’. We realized every person in Varanasi was a storyteller and each ghat had a tale. Connected seamlessly by steps, the ghats bore the imprint of patron kings and queens who built temples, mansions and maintained the area for pilgrims – Scindia, Bhonsale, Peshwa, Holkar to Maharajas of Darbhanga, Vijianagaram and Nepal.
Rana Mahal Ghat was associated with Maharana Pratap of Chittorgarh while Manmandir Ghat was built by Raja Man Singh of Amber. Lali Ghat was established by the Queen of Amethi while Chauki Ghat was built for chaukidaars (guards) by Rajmani, the Queen of Calcutta. Dashashwamedh Ghat was where King Dasarath performed the putra-kameshthi yagna to beget children. Sri Math, considered the oldest area, was where Kabir Das lived while Tulsi Das wrote the Ramcharitmanas at Tulsi Ghat. The sacred Panchaganga Ghat was the confluence of five rivers – the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Karuna and Dhootpara.
‘That’s where a foreigner jumped off,’ exclaimed Gorakhnath. ‘Someone told him if you died in Kashi you attained salvation. The fool! That’s actor Pradeep Kumar’s house. That boat was used in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Arjun Pandit and Laga Chunari Mein Daag were shot at Raja Ghat. Yamla Pagla Deewana was filmed at Manmandir Ghat.’ And so on. Grudgingly, we bid adieu to our Encyclopedia Varanasica and hopped off to explore the beautiful domed Dharahara or Alamgir mosque built by Aurangzeb. The muezzin Hafiz-ur-Rahman showed us old photos of the two towering minarets that had fallen half a century ago. ‘The mosque is at its best on jumma (Friday)’.
Besides its Hindu and Muslim heritage, the region was also sacred to Buddhists, evident from the number of lodges with signs in Japanese, Korean and Thai. Just 13km away was Sarnath where our guide Ashok Biswas took us around Deer Park where Lord Buddha had preached his first sermon. Mulagandhakuti Vihara with murals by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu was where Lord Buddha spent his first monsoon. Nearby, the massive Dhamek Stupa and the ruins of brick foundations, pillars and monasteries harked back to the Ashokan and Gupta period. Like scores of temples, the Ashokan pillar too was damaged in Turko-Islamic invasions. Its severed Lion Capital, housed in Sarnath Museum, was the inspiration behind India’s national emblem!
‘The area was once a forest called Abhayaranya where deer roamed free,’ said Biswas. ‘In a previous life Lord Buddha was a deer and offered his life to a hunter instead of a pregnant doe, prompting the king to ban hunting. Thus Lord Buddha returning here to preach was no co-incidence. All of Sarnath’s earlier names – Mrigdava, Sringpur, Sarangnath allude to the deer (mrig, sringa, sarang).’
We were impressed. ‘But do you know the area also has a Jain history,’ Biswas exclaimed. ‘Nearby, Singhpuri with its Digambar Jain Temple marks the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the 11th Jain tirthankar. Even Parshavnath, the 23rd tirthankar was from Varanasi’, he added. This, in addition to the 33 crore Hindu gods and the previous lives of Buddha made Varanasi’s viraat roop (grand cosmic form) too daunting to fathom on a short holiday. We would have to return, not once, but over successive lifetimes…
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March, 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine.