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Banaras: An Impossible Place

Only in the holy city would you find a signboard which says, “One can stay here for a maximum of fifteen days. If someone does not die within those fifteen days, then they would have to make arrangements elsewhere.”

Artistic depiction of Varanasi ghats
Artistic depiction of Varanasi ghats Shutterstock

Banaras is an impossible place. To measure it is difficult. It is here and there. It is in the ashes and in the sand. It stands yet it runs. It sleeps while it wakes. It is a duel of fire and water. A duet of noise with harmony. A rush of chants and expletives. The pehlwan [1] is the protagonist of the most tender love story. Rama is the finest form of the Nirguna [2] while the Saguna [3] tradition rests in the mosque. Tulsidas wrote,

धूत कहौ, अवधूत कहौ, रजपूतु कहौ, जोलहा कहौ कोऊ।
काहू की बेटी सों, बेटा न ब्याहब, काहू की जाति बिगार न सोऊ।
तुलसी सरनाम गुलामु है राम को, जाको, रुचै सो कहै कछु ओऊ।
माँगि कै खैबो, मसीत को सोईबो, लैबो को, एकु न दैबे को दोऊ॥

Translation:

Someone tags me either as cunning, or Enlightened, a Rajput (warrior) or a weaver,
I do not wish to marry my lad to someone’s daughter. Nor will I malign someone’s caste by approaching them.
No matter what anyone claims, Tulsidas is a celebrated liegeman of Shri Ram.
Requesting for a morsel, and sleeping in the mosque. Neither to take a penny from anyone, nor giving anyone two.
 
Once Sikandar Lodi visited Banaras, and summoned Kabir. Kabir Sahib went to meet the Sultan after decking himself up. While he was on his way, many people accompanied him. By the time Kabir finally reached Sikandar Lodi’s court, it was too late. The Sultan was furious, and sought the reason behind the delay. Kabir’s response was the answer of Banaras. He told the Sultan: “My Lord! An ant was found on the way, adorned in kohl. She carried a camel on one shoulder, and an elephant on the other. No one knew where she was haughtily heading. So, I trailed her for some distance. Hence, the delay.”

Some kings have an astute understanding, and Sikandar Lodi was one of them. He understood that it could not have been only a poet who could have given such a crookedly mystic answer to his rational and worldly question. Actually, it was a city that was speaking in his voice. A city that has a uniquely irrational answer to every question.

Death. The end of life. The gloomiest moment of mourning. Then there is Banaras, which faces that moment with celebration. By turning death into something auspicious. It can be felt through one’s veins on any day, and at any time by visiting the Mahashmashana[4], Manikarnika. Numerous rituals, such movements, innumerable visuals of pleasure, and clamour for death have isolated the grief of dying alone. If the stretch after death could be experienced, then there are no doubts that people from all over the world would have preferred coming here to perish for the sake of absolute adventure.

All the images woven into the identity of Banaras are lost deities. They come out of their temples to stand among the endless queues of devotees. Time is found sitting on the boat, and the sadhu’s [5] loincloth is flying like a kite in the sky. Pushtimargis [6] chanting ‘Radhe-Radhe’ throughout the year are found adorning Sita and Lakshmana in Ramlila. The river is hidden in the sand. Rebelliously facing the swanky McDonald's building is a guerilla-like cart of the typical kachori-jalebi. All are facets of Banaras, even when they are distant from each other in their own right. Premchand is blissfully unaware of the city, Jaishankar Prasad does not recognise the address to the village. Channulal Mishra does not know Dhrupad, Kashinath Singh has nothing to do with poetry. In music, dance, literature and drama, it is tolerable that towering giants like Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Hazari Prasad and Bharatendu are not here these days. Precisely because the sheer number of unexceptional writers, artists, dancers and musicians in Banaras is unrivalled in the world. That is, the atmosphere is confounding.

There are seven days, yet nine festivals in Banaras. Behind every big festival, there is a special festival of its own, trivial and beautiful, that is also strange. Bharatmilaap behind Dussehra; after Diwali, Dev Deepawali rushes in, while Budhwa Mangal sits adjacent to Holi. The city has always intended to put its distinct signature on tradition.

The youth do not get either tired or scared of this city. They have embraced the mercurial and impulsive forms of this city to metamorphose it to the best of their ability. The reasons for all the changes that have taken place here in the last two decades include politics, as well as the youth. As such, Banaras is the bastion of Kathak dance; but how can one draw greater lines than the ones traced by Sitara Devi, and Gopi Krishna? How can such intimidating legacies be overcome? However, one is reminded of a young woman here. The image of Soni Chaurasia on roller skates, dancing continuously for 124 hours, without stopping, without falling, is etched in the Guinness Book. Meanwhile, restlessness, not quality, emerged as an essential ingredient allowing her to touch the glory of the past by leaping forward.

It is only possible to trade disappointment, and frustration in treating the past as a mess. At the same time, by making it an object of worship, it can only appear as a hoax. Banaras is as it is. Half archaic, half modern. One half falling down, while the other determined to rise from its rubble. Which way one chooses to stay is up to us.

Statistics imply that Banaras is one of the most densely populated cities in India. Every day a large wave of tourists and people from nearby districts come here. The longer they stay here, the more profit the businesses will make. Behind the popularity of the world-famous Ganga Aarti, which started two and a half decades ago, the philosophy of stopping the tourist for some time seems to be working. The people of Banaras also praise the mystical elements, and divinity of the Aarti. If it is an object of religion, then the credit for its discovery belongs to commerce.

Dying in Banaras offers salvation, and this thought has pierced deep into the Hindu awareness like an arrow. People arrive here to meet death. With their kith and kin. It is this one aspect that has created a larger-than-life effect on the narrative of Banaras. Hundreds of widows from the royal families of Nepal and Bhutan are waiting to die here. Eighty-one-year-old Mahamaya Boral from Sikkim has been waiting for the last fifty years in one such waiting room at Lalita Ghat; yet death never arrives at her door. One would be amused to see the gaiety of Mahamaya, and a dozen of her friends in a daily anticipation of death. Their routine appears like a poem. A dip at the Ganges followed by a visit to the abode of Vishwanath Ji in the early hours of the morning. Kirtan and refreshments follow their return to the ashram. Then comes the daily chores. Some women make wicks for earthen lamps, some weave garlands of fake pearls, and some wrap paper on toffees. Lunch is followed by another dip at the Ganges in the evening, followed by dancing to kirtans and dinner. By tying the faith of death like a knot at the end of their saree, life moves forward for them, fearlessly.

Kashilabh Mukti Bhavan stands at Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest cremation ground of Banaras. Residing in it, people await death. On the signboard outside, a warning raises a strange concoction of laughter, fear, and affection. Note the decree: “One can stay here for a maximum of fifteen days. If someone does not die within those fifteen days, then they would have to make arrangements elsewhere.” This decree cannot easily be forgotten.

The visage of Banaras has changed rapidly in the last two decades. Hotels have sprung up like mushrooms on the ghats of Ganges. The city’s skyline is in danger. Greed has increased, and the age of renunciation has diminished. Memory has been confronted. When the guru-shishya tradition became fragile, then those who learned music, dance, and drama turned to the institutions, even when the aura of those institutions was waning. Manuscripts of great compositions have disintegrated by rubbing against each other. Kabir’s garland has been pilfered by thieves from Thailand. There is despair in Ramlila and the spirit of participation is slowly getting eroded.

Yet the fairs are crowded. New festivals have originated without diminishing the aura of the old ones. The quest for learning is reducing, nevertheless the opportunities for expression have augmented. Population, and traffic have transformed the challenges. It is difficult for people to move effortlessly and that is precisely what has protected the local businesses.
If one intends to, they can also recognise Banaras by its smell. Somewhere ittar (perfume) lingers and somewhere paan (betel leaf); The streets of garam masala (ground spices) and sweetmeats lend different aromas. There is a jaggery market, and one also for flowers. The aroma has enfeebled, but other fragrances have also turned up. Banaras has acknowledged everything.

No one can be ‘othered’ here. Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, and Gujarati people have big localities on the banks of the river. By combining all these into one, the new metropolitan Banares of the affluent is also burgeoning. The dust of construction is puffing sturdily, and has engulfed the sky since the last decade. Yet, amidst that dust, a three and a half hundred years old Banarasi saree shop gleams like the future. That shop has learned to keep pace with the global market, and its reach from the international airport to online platforms is a daily testament to its resilience, and eminence.

Banaras is more outside than it is inside. The more it is established like Bismillah, the more it becomes ousted like Ravi Shankar. Even across the seven seas, it rings Banaras-Banaras. Those who have been forsaken by this city are blessed by this rejection. “Go vaañ nahīñ pa vaañ ke nikāle hue to haiñ; Ka.abe se in butoñ ko bhī nisbat hai duur kī.” (“Granted that the idols have been expelled, and are now no more in the chamber of the Ka’bah; Nonetheless history bears witness that they did reside there once.”)

The citizenship of Banaras is timeless. The joy of living here lies in challenging the contemporary times. One either stays – living in the past; or travels beyond – in the future. Life is impossible here in this sense because it is woven from the fabric of extremes.

So, welcome to Banaras, and even if it throws you out, consider it to be your good fortune.

(Translated by Chandrali Mukherjee)

(Vyomesh Shukla is a Hindi poet, critic and thespian

[1] Wrestler.

[2] A philosophy of Vedanta that questions the forms and qualities of the Absolute.

[3] A philosophy referring to the manifestation of the Absolute that has a coherent form.

[4] “The Great Crematory where the fire never dies”

[5] Ascetics.

[6] Followers of a sub tradition of Vaishnavism centred on Krishna.

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