varanasi MY LOVE

"In-Roads", Life Positive Magazine, Oct 2002

Varanasi or Kashi literally means “the city of spiritual light.” It is the spiritual capital of India in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh dating to the 11th century B.C. It has been the hermitage of Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali. It's where the Ganges changes its course, and moves northward for 5 miles. It is believed that Varanasi is the land of salvation, where Gods meditate in ethereal bodies, where dues of a thousand lifetimes gets exhausted in one single moment, and a single chant of a rosary equals a thousand. Those who die here attain instant nirvana. Others undergo the pain of past, unfulfilled lives in their subtle body and lighten karmic loads.

There was a definite urge to visit Kashi, just the name spelt liberation from the wheel of

saṃsāra. Weeks of planning yielded no result. One afternoon when it rained, the earth became sufficiently damp, and the seed of my yearning sprouted. The train blew its whistle, and I was there just in time to hop on. During the overnight journey, I melted in the rhythmic snarls of the train and awaited the unexpected. On reaching, everything was just as I had visualized... ringing rickshaw bells, traffic snarls, bustling crowded streets, sidewalks lined with shoemakers, barbers and old fakirs playing chess. The sensory stimulation of the place was overwhelming. Right from the roadside chai, the banarasi paan (exotic areca nuts and rose petal paste of gulkhand wrapped in a fresh betel leaf), the milk served in mud kulhars (traditional handle-less clay cups), the harsh rays of the sun smoldering my skin... everything felt so very intense, even the coolness of Banyan trees.

Yet, this intensity of stimulus seemed just a façade, a frail cover over the immense peace beneath—the real Ganges of Varanasi. Silence swelled, like the breasts of a yielding mother behind a veil. Sweetness spilled from the sweets abundantly doled out by leisurely shop keepers wearing crisp white dhotis. For them, time seemed to truly exist forever. It seemed as though their existence was being cared for by celestial forces, and this knowing set them free to relish the simple pleasures of living. It was also truly the first time ever, that cow dung, thin lanes crowded with cows, monkeys, dogs and humans all at once, failed to irk me, not a wee bit. The love of locals mingled with the rising notes of the evening aarti, the afternoon applause of namaaz, the fragrance of incense and the palpable holiness of the land.

Diverting myself from the lure of temples, shrines and deities enclosed therein, I headed straight for the river. Along the Manikarnika and Mahashamshaneshwar banks, hundreds of bodies were being burnt methodically in a row, with caretakers lifting and turning skulls with much the same ease as we barbecue meat. As I watched the rituals briefly, I became more than aware of the life pulsating in my limbs. It began to drizzle as I sat on the steps of the bank, and immersed myself in the waves. The water was still, yet when it splashed against my body, it had definite language. I could hear it speak, dance, laugh. I now understood why the Ganga is personified a woman! I stared long and hard at a log of dark brown wood floating atop water, which suddenly shook to life and started to swim! I laughed, and the brown lean man could not understand why!

Just then, as though from nowhere, a boat appeared in view with the boatman’s sleek limbs forming a fascinating arch against still waters. The moment I spotted him, he spotted me and soon crawled to a halt at my side. Pure wave-communication! Riding the wooden planks, I reached the other side of the river, and mutely watched smoke rising from the burning dead on the other side. Returning in a trance like state and mounting a rickshaw, I delved deeper into the streets of this ancient city where truth and falsity forget their demarcation. The jeweler, the milkman, the cyclist, the dhobi, and kids on swings—they all seemed as though at the last leg of a long and tiresome journey of their soul. Or were they Gods feigning as humans? I began to relax and felt as light as the temple flag, and the dried twig afloat on the water. Well, just when you say enough, there is more! A serving of Gopal bhog (sweets made with gram flour) thrust me back in the grip of life.

My stay at Narada ghat with a traditional Varanasi family was heartwarming. I was on the topmost third floor, with the steep stairs typical of three-generation Varanasi homes, giving my calves just the needed workout. The ground floor was inhabited by a quiet and prayerful South Indian family, who were visiting for a nine month long Kashi pilgrimage. They cooked simple meals in their room on small stoves. I could hear their television at night, chatter of kids studying for their exams, filling of water in the morning and notes of their prayer ritual. It was a warm sense of being amongst family, and sitting by the side of the Ganges fills in all the remaining gaps. There is no threads pulling you back, because you have lived fully, relaxed fully, prayed fully, and connected fully with each breath. Then rain happens, and washes away any remaining traces of memory, regret, longing or hope. Now I know why people visit Kashi, and never leave. There is nothing left to do after reaching Varanasi.