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A new Varanasi, Older than the Old!

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By Roli S

Mark Twain remarked long ago, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” In the 1960s, when archaeologists excavated seals, potteries and other implements which dated back to the 8th century BCE, it made Varanasi one of the oldest settlement sites of the world, as old as Jerusalem and Athens, if not older! It is certainly the oldest living city in the world! I am connected with the city of Varanasi in many ways, and I had never visited it as a tourist or as a spiritual seeker in the past. I had faint memories of pushing my way through the narrow crowded approach lane to visit the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple with kith and kin and lots of jostling and shoving around.

But, I then I found myself visiting the new Varanasi. After watching in the pictures and listening to a few friends who had visited the city recently, I was curious to experience the new modified, the more organised Varanasi. The thought that Varanasi could be organised was a far-fetched one I knew, but what was the harm in harbouring a thought? Change is, of course, natural and inevitable. But change I believe can be steered into the desired direction. I was about to witness the changes myself. In my heart of hearts, I did not want the idea that I had of Banaras in my mind to be changed and wiped out. The Banarasi people, the Banarasi paan, the Banarasi ghaats, the Banarasi street food, the Banarasi gods, the Banarasi philosophy and over all the Banarasi character!

Banaras, Kashi, Benaras, Varanasi out of all the various names given to the city, my favourite has been ‘Kashi’. Banaras Hindu Vishwavidyalaya and Kashi- Vishwanath, Banaras or Kashi, no other city in the world adapts to different names as gracefully as Banaras does. Can Banaras absorb the efforts that are being made to infuse modernity in its surroundings without losing its character? With this curiosity, I set upon a visit to the legendary Kashi-Vishwanath Temple. I realised that the visit to the temple is very rare and exclusive to even my relatives who are living in the cit. Since the revamp of the temple and its grand opening for the public, the tourists, and devotees from all over India and the world are thronging the temple premises and locals have to wait for suitable occasions to visit.

We decided to visit the temple in the afternoon leading to the evening. Ditching the car, it was decided to take an electric rickshaw to reach the temple. Electric rickshaws are the newly used mode of transportation in Banaras. At a leisurely pace, the rickshaw took us to the street that would lead us to the temple. Beyond a point, rickshaws are not allowed to ply and one has to either walk on foot or take the old-fashioned rickshaw pulled by another human! Since the walk till the temple gate was a long one, and the street was lined with many stalls, carts of all sorts and people were weaving their way through the activity, one of my companions wanted to take the rickshaw and I was made to sit forcibly on one along with her! The idea of being pulled by another human was so appalling at that time! I thought, how did I never mind it at all the other times in the past when I sat on a rickshaw pulled by another human being? I wanted to jump down but had to remain seated to give company to my co-rider. The first thing that I noticed upon reaching the temple was the huge, impressive gate at the entrance made in carved stone. The barricades and security were around to manage the entry of people in the temple. There was no jostling, stumbling, and pushing around by the devotees eager for the ‘darshan’ that was entrenched in my memory from when I visited the Kashi-Vishwanath temple, earlier, many many years ago.  Once inside the temple’s premises one is impressed by the spacious, substantial, and abundant surroundings. The tasteful architecture and the organised atmosphere delighted me, and it doubled my joy as the vibes and energy surrounding the ‘main shrine’ was magical. All the devotees standing patiently in the queues were exuding positive vibration and, in my heart, and in my mind, I could feel the energy and power of ‘Shiva’ everywhere! A small ‘Rudra Abhishek Pooja’ ceremony was performed by us sitting in the secluded neat corner of the temple before the ‘Darshan’ and the offerings were made to the ‘main Deity’ right after that.  ‘Darshan’ done, it was time to then appreciate the grounds and buildings surrounding the ‘main shrine’. Not only a spiritual, but it was also a proud moment for me to savour and appreciate the vision and sagacity behind the new look, highly valued Kashi-Vishwanath Temple compound of the holy city of Varanasi.

I remembered at that time the contributions of Rani Ahilaya Bai and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, both of whom had contributed to the construction of this ancient temple. Even they would be happy to see this newly built Kashi-Vishwanath Temple. Besides all the amenities like drinking water, washrooms, etc., there was plenty of space in the compound to sit around and soak in the devotional flavour. One can connect with the ‘Almighty’ sitting on the stairs leading to the River Ganga as well. Such a cool idea it was to connect the ghats of Ganga to this Shiva Temple. Does Ganga not shine as an ornament on Shiva’s head all the time? The thought crossed my mind. Neatly lined boats moored on the banks of River Ganga beckoned us and we opted to take a boat ride in along the famous, trademark ghats of Varanasi. The setting sun in the background presented a beautiful picture of all the ghats. These ghats have always fascinated me. As I have understood that these ghats of Ganga were not only built based on the concept of ‘Tirth’ or pilgrimage to provide access to the sacred water of River Ganga, who is a mother, a constant companion and a dear friend to the people of Kashi, but also on these ghats were a crucial dock in the ancient times where the busy northern trade route passed the city on its way from Bengal to the North and Western regions. While our boat glided on the waters of the river, one by one all the ghats passed by and with them passed by the awe-inspiring history of not only this ancient city of Banaras but in fact the history of the whole of ‘Bharat’, of human spirit, of self-exploration, of the cycle of life and death and of ultimate liberation! There are close to a hundred ghats here on display in Banaras and each with its own significance. Beyond the innumerable shrines, images, idols, rites and rituals, temples, palaces, kothis, havelis, stories and myths, I felt that whole of India congregates here as there are footprints on these ghats from all over the country. Let us not forget the addition of the latest ‘Namo Ghat’, with its contemporary looks and facilities, joining its older brethren and providing a breath of fresh air to all the tourists and boating enthusiasts that come to Banaras. This ancient holy land reverberates with the hopes, amiability, friendliness, and sociability of not only Banarasi people but all of the human race. We ended our boating trip at the ‘Dashashvamedh Ghat’. While climbing the stairs, I looked around in awe and soaked in all the energy that filled the air. I spent an evening admiring these ghats, but many lifetimes are not enough to understand and absorb the meaning of this place. The preparation for the evening Ganga Aarti was going on and we decided to skip the event as we had already attended a few in the past. An outing in Banaras is incomplete without delighting in its street food and what better place to do that but in the lanes leading to the Ganga ghats? So, we ended the day gorging on hot kachoris, aaloo-tamaatar ki sabzi and super-size khoya gulab jamun, sitting in a small and cramped road side café that was jam packed with people from around the world. That is when I realised that, when in Banaras, one has to not only see the city but also to live the city with the rest of humanity. The same way our beloved Shiv Shankar lives in Kashi’s each and every Kankar, so is the belief!

(Roli S is an Educator, Teacher Trainer, Author, and School Reviewer based in Thane)