I always prefer to think of it as Kashi- a softer, prettier name than the bold Benares or the modern Varanasi. I had always wanted to go there, and when the first viable chance presented itself, I jumped at it. The city evokes a sense of timelessness, of suspension. A city that may be moving and growing outwardly, but its soul remains unchanged, fostering the vague feeling of being in a place ‘as old as time itself’.
I don’t usually plan to visit the same place twice. Restless feet and wandering spirit dictate that as much of the world as possible should be seen. With Kashi, however, it was different. Within a couple of hours of landing in the city, I knew I would be back. I couldn’t have pinpointed any specific reason for it- it is noisy, overflowing with people, there was traffic, there was trash. Inspite of that, the city excited me and called out to me- and sure enough, over the next three days, I proceeded to fall a hopeless victim to its various charms, its age defying character and its old soul.
Throughout my stay, I met only the kindest of people, people who spoke Hindi with the lilting bundelkhandi accent of Uttar Pradesh. In one day my friend and I were unconsciously copying it, not realizing we were doing it at first, and then enjoying ourselves too much to stop! Staying in a beautiful ‘done-up’ old haveli right on the banks of the river, with its deep cut rock steps and narrow passages further added to the atmosphere. Our room also had a quaint little sit-out balcony which offered fantastic vistas of the morning sun casting its brilliance over the deceptively calm surface of the great river. Inspite of the Victorian-esque décor of the room (or perhaps because of it?), which was nevertheless very quaint and darling, I felt myself slowly plunging into a fantasy about being a ‘lost princess of Benares’.
Later that day -as befits a modern day princess- I firmly zipped up my leather jacket against the crisp chilly air of the January evening, and with a swish of my gota-trimmed long skirt, bearing myself up smartly in the way I imagine princesses probably do, I stepped out for a long walk on the Ghats. My friend and I strolled about in the evening twilight absorbing everything the senses would allow- the visuals themselves were numerous- a couple playing with their first born, priests performing ablutions, families doing pooja, hermits doing ganja.
Before long, we were sitting on a step by the river, gazing at the setting sun and eating the (rightfully!) famed chole –tikki of Varanasi to the broken music of a flute student practicing nearby. As soon as we finished, a boy who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old approached us with a smile and an eager ‘Boatride ma’am? One hour- all ghats. I tell stories also’. A boat ride was definitely on the bucket list and if he told stories also then ah! he was the one, wasn’t he? I negotiated the price for a cool Rs 300/- including viewing the fabled evening Aarti from the river.
Dusk melted into darkness, putting in sharp relief the many floating lamps released into the river by devotees with fervent thanks and prayers. The Ghats were abuzz with preparations for the evening rituals. A rooftop restaurant came to life for dinner shift, illuminating garish plastic palm trees with green firelights, a sight which jarred my senses till I turned my back on it and escaped into one of Mohit’s stories.
Leaning over the side of the moving boat, I was revelling in the drama and the beauty of it all till my attention was diverted by the bright orange light pouring over us. The dark shadow of a Ghat lined with burning funeral pyres, the occasional crackling wood sending up a shower of golden sparks visible from even a distance. ‘That’s the Manikarna Ghat’ informed Mohit. ‘There is always a cremation going on and there will always be alteast one lit pyre- be it night or day’. I shivered involuntarily. Manikarna is a Sanskrit word that means earrings. There are many legends associated with the Ghat. It is revered as a ‘Shakti Peeth’ by some who believe that the Devi Satis earrings fell at this spot as her burnt body was carried by her grieved and angry husband. Another legend has it one of Shiva’s earrings fell at this place in a 'kund' where he was bathing with his wife, which led to the name of the place. I was mulling over these stories in my head, but Mohits next words brought me back to present with a jar. ‘They don’t burn children, or sadhu’s. They bring them out to the middle of the river and leave them here’. I snatched my hand out of the water (where I had been involved in the romantic occupation of skimming my fingers against the rivers surface) imagining all sort of dead bodies floating around.My friend went off into peals of laughter at my stricken expression, and the hilarious twist to my ‘princess-ing about’ as she called it.
We glided back along the length of the river to go back to ‘Dashashwamedh Ghat’ where the fabled synchronised evening Aartis are performed. As the time for the Aarti drew near, we were conscious of an increase in the boat traffic. I had envisioned floating on the river in quiet and beauty to watch the puja, instead we manoeuvred near one of the docks in front of the ghat – ‘to get a good ‘spot’’Mohit assured us, as many boats came and surrounded us, jostling for space and wedging themselves tightly in the now narrow available spaces on the vast and mighty river. By the end you could easily walk from the hull of one boat onto another boat and so on till you reached the Ghat itself! Nevertheless, the river still bobbed the boats, the air was cool and we were indeed in a good spot. Much has been written about these famed Aartis. The priests chanting and performing synchronised movements with multi layered diyas, the performance taking on a reverent, almost mystical aspect through the clouds of smoke and evening mist. My friend and I watched the two aartis side by side, thrilled with the romance of it all, tasting also our first real Benarasi paan which Mohit, the thoughtful li’l fellow, had brought for us, because ‘Benares aaye, aur paan nahi khaya toh kya kiya?’
Our few days in Kashi went by in a whirl of sounds, colours, legends and ‘thrills’. We visited the charming Ramnagar Fort, we meandered aimlessly in the bylanes looking into silver shops, we stood for an hour in the line of excited pilgrims for entrance to the great Kashi Biswanath temple to get 5 seconds of praying time inside, we ate chole-bhature and other street food to our hearts content, we visited the weavers colony and came back laden with armfuls of gorgeous Benarasi silk. In short, we revelled in the place- its culture and its people and nurtured our own soul on the soul of the old city.
My friend left early in the morning, and I had a few hours to myself before it was my time to go. I took a boatride to the other side of the Ganga, shared with a honeymoon couple, and old lady and some excited schoolgirls on an adventure. Flocks of eager sea gulls followed us, lured by the stentorian calls of our boatman (and flour pellets). I felt the incredible sensation which comes from being completely at peace with yourself and with your surroundings..and right there in the afternoon sun, amidst the glittering bejewelled river, the far away sounds of prayers and the much nearer sound of seagull wings, staring across at the ghats, I received my benediction.