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Varanasi: The Oneness of All Times

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By Roli S

But where did the ancient city begin? Where is the oldest part of Varanasi? The thought invaded me this time when I travelled to the intriguing piece of land called Varanasi. To my surprise, I found out that although thousands of foreign and domestic tourists visit Varanasi every year, the oldest part of Varanasi has hardly any footfall! Yes, you read it right. Away from the crowded and frequently visited places like Dashashvamedh Ghat, Gudaulia, Assi Ghat and Lanka, are situated the archeological remains of Rajghat, located on the northern end of Varanasi and just north of the Malviya Bridge, most likely the oldest part of Varanasi. I came to know that the archeological remains at Raj Ghat were a result of a chance discovery in 1940 when the nearby Kashi Railway station was being extended. When a portion of a brick structure was revealed during the extension, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) got involved, which led to an archeological excavation. Later, a couple of excavations followed under the supervision of the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) revealing evidence of a continuous settlement right from the 8th century BCE! An astonishing revelation, indeed, at least to me, because my many visits did not bring me to this side of Varanasi.

My continuous curiosity about this fascinating city brought me to Rajghat, this time. I do not know what it is about Varanasi, because to me it symbolises the Indian spirit and ethos in total, and it is impossible not to be astonished by it. Varanasi is a vast network of sacred places. The entire city is a sacred land, which matches the sacrality of the land of India and, like India, Varanasi gives a sense of unity. It tells the humanity of this world that in Hinduism, there can be as many spiritual paths as there are spiritual aspirants and similarly there can really be as many Gods as there are devotees to suit the moods, feelings, emotions and social background of the devotees. My tour through the lanes of Rajghat took me first to Krishnamurti’s profound vision, the Rajghat Study Centre and Retreat. The Centre is set on a high prominence overlooking the quietly flowing Ganga. This is the place where Jiddu Krishnamurti lived during his annual visits to Varanasi. This is a place for self-exploration and learning, a space to delve deeper into existential questions of life. It is a place of great natural beauty and tranquility, a far cry from the noisy and populous lanes and bylanes of the Assi Ghat. Here the atmosphere lends itself to the intention of such centres: learning about oneself, which is also the study of life, in the light of Krishnamurti’s teaching. Krishnamurti is regarded globally as one of the greatest thinkers and teachers of all time. He did not expound any philosophy or religion, but rather talked of the things that concern all of us in our everyday lives, of the problems of living in modern society with its violence and corruption, of the individual’s search for security and happiness, and the need for mankind to free itself from inner burdens of fear, anger, hurt, and sorrow. He explained with great precision the subtle workings of the human mind and pointed to the need for bringing to our daily life a deeply meditative and spiritual quality. We were greeted warmly by the director of the study center, who encouraged us to walk around, observe and absorb the atmosphere of the place. Overlooking the river Ganga, bathed in abundant greenery, the place exuded a special charm. The self-sufficient residential cottages neatly stood on the undulating landscape of the area and the library housed numerous good books showcasing the philosophy and teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti.

One could sit comfortably in a peaceful and serene environment and read those books. I even bought a few for my own library back home. My eagerness and appetite to learn more about the area took me and my companions down the street. A few metres away from the Krishnamurti Centre was located the little known but very significant, Adi Keshav Temple. By the looks of it, it looked like a neatly constructed, newly painted and very well-maintained temple but it is said that the temple is the most ancient of Varanasi. Some say it is as old as when early Vedic civilisations flourished. This way the history of the temple makes it religiously more important as the Early Vedic Period is the root of the ever flourishing Hindu Civilization. There is mention of the Adi Keshava Incarnation, which is one of 24 incarnations of Lord Vishnu in Vishnu Puran. According to the legend, it is said that when Lord Vishnu had to appear on earth, he first put his feet at the place where Adi Keshava Temple is located today. Adi in Sanskrit means starting and Keshava is one incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Adi Keshava Temple is on Adi Keshava Ghat also known as Raj Ghat. This ghat of Varanasi is referred to as Vedeshwara in Ghadavala Inscription. Vedeshwara in Sanskrit means Lord of Vedas thus giving testimony to its historical originality. The temple is located at the confluence of Rivers Varuna and Ganga. The location of the temple provides it a serene beauty and you would feel a primordial energy of the divine. The temple architecture is heart-tuggingly beautiful and looks unique among temples of Indian style architecture. The priest of the temple, whose generations have been serving the temple, was very forthcoming in talking about the neglect the temple faced till recently. Nevertheless, he was very helpful and apprised us of the temple’s history and significance with great patience. After visiting the temple, I felt as if that was the place where I had been longing to visit for a long time! I stood on the steps leading to the Adi Keshav Ghat and looked at the same river Ganga that a few minutes ago I was admiring from Krishnamurti Study Centre. My heart swelled with pride at the diversity of Indian culture. Religion flourishes here as it does nowhere else. Other lands may surrender themselves totally to a particular faith or thought process, but in India most ideologies are deeply rooted and acknowledged fervently. The strength of Hinduism lies in its infinite adaptability to the limitless diversity of human character and human tendencies. It has its highly spiritual and abstract side suited to the philosophers like Jiddu Krishnamurti, its aesthetic and ceremonial side attuned to the man of imagination; and its quiescent contemplative aspect that has its appeal for the person of peace and the lover of seclusion. Today, the ruins of Rajghat are a protected monument under ASI and share the space with the Tomb of Lal Khan. Lal Khan was an 18th century Muslim general of the King of Kashi, and his magnificent domed tomb today overlooks the ruins of Rajghat. As I stood on the Raj Ghat, I decided that Varanasi like India of the ages is not done for, nor has she spoken her last creative word; she lives and has still something to do for herself and humanity. Varanasi is not only a city like India is not only a country and something geographical, but the home and the youth of the soul, the everywhere and nowhere, the oneness of all times.

(Roli S is an Educator and Author based in Thane)