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A little monkey clambered his way up the temple almost as soon as the golden rays of the sun caressed the temple’s shikhara. The waters of the Ganga seemed calm and I could see the sun’s reflection glistening on the river’s surface, turning it radiant. Hundreds of birds circled around a few boats on the other side of the river and the ethereal sounds of the boatmen’s calls mingled with the tinkering temple bells turned the atmosphere almost surreal. It was sunrise and I was at the ghats of Banaras, one of the most ancient cities of the world.
I had just reached the city and had headed straight for the river. The experience was overwhelming to say the least. I could feel all my predispositions about the place slowly slip away as I walked along the ghats. The lines between the mythical and real faded away and I could almost imagine a solemn Tulsidas penning down the Ramcharitmanas perched on one of those stumps as devout believers dressed in chaste white descended into the grimy waters of the Ganga.
As the sun rose higher, the ghats started buzzing with activity. Chai-wallas set up their make-shift stalls on the stairs, hawkers were selling everything from piping hot vadas, wooden handicrafts and jewellery to mind-bending metal puzzles. Washermen hoisted up their clotheslines. Priests with their puja paraphernalia scouted for the perfect place to perch for the day, while multi-lingual touts tailed tourists for a boat-ride like hungry ghosts.
By the time the sun had reached its zenith, the riverfront had been transformed and the illusive peace that engulfed the ghats at sunrise gave way to chaos and cacophony. Yet, an invigorating vibrancy still hung in the air. Life in all forms, shapes and sizes—from dogs, cows, humans, birds and also a rat or two—thronged to the river like it was some kind of a liquid magnet.
As I made my way past the buzzing crowd, lost in my thoughts, a sudden drop in voices made me realise I had walked right into the middle of one of the two cremation ghats—the Manikarnika. Legend has it that this is where Sati’s earring had fallen off while an angry Shiva was carrying her scorched body. There are a number of other important reasons why this particular ghat garners so much attention that I only came to learn later. The only thing I can remember is watching corpses burn right in front of me. It seemed unreal at first but I stood there transfixed—watching what was once a live being turn ito ashes in the ancient cracking fire while the doms used long wooden sticks to break the skulls lying around. Fresh bodies kept coming and the ever-hungry fire fed on them like a famished god. It sounds ghastly I know, but somehow the violence of it all did not get to me. What struck me was a genuine awareness of our mortality and the futility of the things we do, fighting, killing and hurting for things that are so temporary. I stood there for a while, soaking it all in. It was only much later while talking to my mother that I came to know what I experienced for those few minutes had a name—shmashan vairagya. It can be loosely explained as the state of mind when one ponders over the meaning of life while watching a corpse burn.
Over-whelmed by these sights and sounds I decided to take a boat to the other side of the river. The sun was gently going down behind the temples and the river was crowded with noisy tourists on boats who were waiting for the evening aarti, one of the city’s biggest draws. The air was brimming with excitement and as darkness fell, the temple bells began ringing. Glad to be far for the maddening crowd, I watched from the other side of the river as a group of young dhoti-clad men with long hair walked towards the Dasashwamedh Ghat with gigantic lamps. They stood under the ghastly neon umbrellas that lined the riverfront. I noticed them now that they were all lit up making a garish display of green, blue, red. The temple bells grew louder and the young pujaris began what I believe was a completely choreographed aarti ritual—an item number to woo the gods, as it were. The crowd loved it. Camera flashes illuminated the riverfront. I wondered what the same ritual must have looked like and felt like a hundred years ago. It seems to me these days, unless something is flashy, loud and gaudy, it fails to catch our attention. Sadly the aarti too was more of a stereotypical display for tourists, but I did not let that bog me down. It was still amazing to watch people gather in multitudes, driven by the remaining threads of faith that they still held dear in their hearts.
In order to make the most of this place, I realised it is essential to remember—at all times while you are there—the antiquity of the place and also the fact that it is constantly changing. The city has been continuously inhabited since about 1000 BCE but as Richard Lannoy, a scholar and an artist rightly said, “Banaras has repeatedly been destroyed and then rebuilt from nothing but rubble. It has not lodged its history in buildings. The real past of Banaras is a past of the mind, upon which nobody sets any store other than in its capacity to inspire the present. Its imperishable elements are the moments of human experience.”
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