Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Highway to Heaven

(The original version of THIS)
(and with the pics they DIDN'T print. Gah)

Ramdhun Chaurasia gazes benignly upon us from his perch opposite Benaras’ Chowk Police Station. Five feet by five feet (and not more than four feet deep), his hole-in-the-wall paan shop provides the perfect frame for his venerable white beard and thick-framed square glasses. When I stop to take his picture, he folds his hands in a dignified Namastey, then waves us on into the maze known as Godhauliya. The heart of Benares, the essence of Kashi, this network of lanes lies slantwise along the northern bank of the Ganga. They lead, inevitably, to the 80-odd ghats that dot the bank. Two of these are also crematoria – Manikarnika and Harishchandra (where the king of legend is supposed to have stoked the pyres). The largest of them all, the Dashashwamedh ghat, is a microcosm of Kashi itself.

Half past eleven on a winter morning as Gupta-jee leads us across the road from Chowk Police Station into the mouth of the maze, shoving aside a stray bull with a slap on the rump. Smiling through a mouthful of ­paan, he says “Chaar cheez se bana Kashiraanrh, sand, seenhri aur sanyasi”. The four things that define Kashi. I can understand the bulls, stairs, mendicants, but I’m discomfited by the casual use of raanrh­ – a term used interchangeably for widows and for prostitutes in this city of piety. I swallow the bile and walk on. Right at the mouth of the lane where we enter the labyrinth, a shop is doing brisk business. Milk. Hot milk ladled into steel tumblers from the huge pan where it simmers, milk so thick and sweet it’s almost glutinous, earthen bowls of cream sprinkled with saffron, pots of yoghurt and little earthen plates of skimmed cream. I glance at our guide and he answers my unspoken question. Not here, he says, the best lassi is over by the gate of the RamNagar palace, miles away and on the other side of the river. (And indeed it was awesome when we sampled it on the cusp of evening, lassi so thick it could not be sipped and we had to eat it with wooden spoons from earthen tumblers. But we were in Godhauliya …)

A few wisps of woodsmoke linger in the lanes of Benaras, rising above the smell of rotting flowers. But those are the grace-notes. The smell of incense is much stronger, and strongest of all is the smell of camphor. With good reason - this is the highway to heaven, the net of lanes leading to Manikarnika Ghat, where cremation and immersion guarantee salvation, and all day and all night the pyres burn down by the water’s edge. As we pause at a corner, we are shooed aside with chants of Ram naam satya hai. A small procession trails after a chaarpai. As it passes, we catch a glimpse of a bright Benares silk sari. The yards of finery lead but to the pyre … About 250 dead people pass through these lanes every day. I’m not much for spooks and haunts, but I really wouldn’t like to walk these lanes in the dark of the night.

But now, in the late morning leading into a coppery noonday, Godhauliya is bustling. Near the main road, the lanes are lined with shops. Sweets, religious tracts, flowers, unidentified multi-hued swatches of cloth (turbans?), tacky silvery fabric with glimmering fringes that could be used to scare away birds at airfields. Toys of the most hideous coloured plastic, ruled note-books for schoolchildren, paan masala in bewildering (and hitherto unknown) variety, souvenirs and gewgaws carved from stone. There are few buyers as yet. It’s too early in the morning – they will stop by after they have visited their Lord in his sanctum farther inside the maze, in the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir.

The Mandir itself is strangely disappointing. The approach lies through claustrophobic lanes choked with a double line of pilgrims. The courtyard now looks like the forecourt of a government office – railings of steel tubing, cemented pavements and dozens of policemen. Cameras are not permitted. We have to pass through a metal detector; s” is high because a disputed mosque lies within the temple perimeter. In deference to my companions’ piety I join the queue, but even here “gorment” has its say. Gupta-jee­ mumbles something to the policemen and we are whisked ahead of the rest into a tiny room where flower garlands and offerings lie half-submerged in a small sunken tank. The crush is almost as bad as in Kalighat, that other centre for purveying organised religion. Most wonderfully, the overworked priest is assisted by a pair of policemen who obviously see greater merit in part-time puja than in the security detail. I notice they are more devout than punctilious – they have left their shoes outside. My daughter sets up a wail as we leave with our prasad. A monkey has made off with her packet. The NCO in charge of the police detail shrugs helplessly. Some aspects of security are not within his purview.

As we pick our way towards the burning ghats, Godhauliya is even more labyrinthine. The lanes meander, intersect, take sudden turns, make hurried ascents via steep worn stairs. Old doorways open into dark corridors and little courtyards where men sit on stools and chaarpais, reading papers, sipping tea. Barred windows look out on the unceasing slide-show. Discordant music surges out of one opening. It leads to a small iron gate with bars, a flight of steps leading down to a cemented basement where two bearded sadhus raise their voices in tuneless song before a vermilion smeared idol, competing with loud bhajans from a boom-box in a corner. The combined effect would have inspired loud protests from Fulliautomatix. The peripheral lanes are quieter, less crowded. One can stop to pass the time of day or share a paan. Amazingly, bicycles and even motorcycles appear round the sudden corners, their riders deftly threading between pilgrims and bulls alike. It must take a brave man to venture here on wheels, for a wrong turn could leave him facing a flight of stairs with no room to turn around. As one nears the ghats the pace picks up, the crowds increase. Where earlier three feet of width seemed quaint, it now seems stifling.

Long lines of pilgrims file past us, their eyes wide in a daze of faith, pushing their way past bulls and bicycles, their bare splayed feet oblivious of the cold and wet and the occasional hooved tread. In many groups the men wear cotton Gandhi caps. A cluster of bearded Muslims in skull caps are a pleasant confirmation of diversity. But I wonder, will they be allowed in? A disturbing thought. Most of the crowd are aged, definitely senior citizens, but instead of walking sticks they hold on to each other. I can’t help but wonder whether some of them secretly hope to pass away within these lanes, to go down to the ghat again but this time borne on the shoulders of their companions. Benares or Varanasi derives its name from the confluence of the Varuna and Assi rivers, but one has vanished and the other is now little more than a drainage canal. The only reality here is the Ganges, Ganga Maiyya, Ganga Jee. Infinitely tolerant, the embodiment of Awld Tom’s “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing”, she knows that sooner or later, upright on two legs or stretched upon four, all things end in her. I read somewhere that there are seven categories of people who must not be burned: children, sadhus, pregnant women, and those who died of smallpox, cholera, leprosy, or snakebite. All the others come here at the end.

Perhaps the first sight of Manikarnika inspires pop philosophy. A house-high stack of timber awaits the funeral processions. In its shadow a calf suckles in its mother’s flank, providing either a picture either of life in the shadow of death or a reprise of the earlier Congress party symbol. As we join the stream flowing down the steps towards the river, my eyes go upward, seeking the house I have heard so much about. The palace of the Dom Raja. No pyre may be lit without buying fire from him, a right supposedly conferred by Vishnu himself. In a way, he is the gatekeeper to the next world Local legend has it that King Harishchandra served his penance under the king of the Doms. Ironically, the new electric crematoria have been installed at Harishchandra ghat. All I see, however, is another temple up the slope. The Dom Raja’s palace is a few hundred yards farther down the river, a flaking pile overlooking the river and guarded by two huge plaster lions. The lions have provoked the ire of the royal family of Ramnagar, who claim that only they are entitled to use the symbol. The essence of Kashi, a struggle between the temporal and the traditional.

Evening is drawing in as we make our way along the banks towards Dashashwamedh ghat. Half –way down the steps we pause to observe a stand-off between a billy goat and a matted mendicant. Hard to tell which one smells more rank. Boats are drawn up at the steps. A horde of tourists will go out on the river for a special view of the ghat after sunset, to observe one of the best-kept secrets of “incredible India”. The Sandhya Arati, the evening invocation at Dashashwamedh is a unique experience, a religious rite transformed into sheer spectacle. The Ganga Seva Nidhi deserves praise for cleaning up the ghats and organising the show, every night of every year from 1999 onwards. Under the lights, seven priests in unison invoke the gods with slow synchronized movements, with flaming candelabra, conch-shells, torches, while the accompanying scriptures boom out from loudspeakers and roll across the river to the sand-banks on the far shore. For one hour, while the boats rock and creak on the waters, we are lost in the ebb and flow of the ritual.

Later, when the lights have gone out and the ghats are dark again, we wend our way homewards through Vishwanath galli. Brightly-lit shops line the entire lane, one operating from a shrine to Krishna. Little paan­ and cigarette kiosks appear unexpectedly. Shops selling myriad mouth-fresheners – ­supari, gulkand, paan masala - all have Bengali names, but our skeptical companion sneers that it’s a marketing gimmick. Even late at night, there is no escape from the devout. Sound the trumpets and the bucinas, the saints are marching by! A band of bearded ­sadhus­ swing down the lane scattering all before them with the cacophony of their music. By the time we reach the end of the lane, footsore and faintly sweaty, we have had enough of tradition and spectacle. Hot kachoris and spiced tea are far more tempting.

The essence of these lanes may be this, that they are history and splendour only for outsiders. For those whose lives unspool within the lanes of Kashi it is home, a living organism that breathes and eats and barters and bickers while death and religion flow through the maze into the all-forgiving river.


Phantasmagoria said...

You make me want to go there. Fantastic job Mr. Prufrock.

Lazyani said...

Sir, Take a Bow.

You made me smell the camphor and see the light and shade of the famous gallis.

For a person whose idea about Varanasi is based largely on 'Joy Baba Felunath' , this was a treat.


km said...


//PH: you were right.

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Poetic post ("Poest"?).
I remember visiting Benares way back in 1999, and completely hating the crowds and the way religion is prostituted and packaged.
The only good thing was the all-sand, no-water river.
By the way, thanx for visiting my newbie blogs. With the amount of travelling you do, why is your life in the pits? Or is it the travelling which is the 'pit'-fall?

eve's lungs said...

Makes me want to return

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Saw your lonely-traveller-in-comfortable-but-cheerless-continuity-of-hotel-rooms post in HT Cafe. Along with your pix, of course.
As Bridget Jones would have said, GAAAAH! No offence meant in my post on bureaucracy, I didn't (at that time) know that you were in the bureau. And it's not time yet to wear the bottom of your trousers rolled, is it? BTW, your daddy-posts in your rediff-blog are too touchingly cute.

Vivek Kumar said...

must.. visit.. Benaras..

El said...

whew, that was some extensive account, the only thing I really know about Benaras is from the book by Pankaj Mishra(The Romantics), which was really well written..

mystic rose said...

Awesome! You were inspired I think, and not just by the city. I so enjoyed reading this.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Ph, praise from YOU? I am overwhelmed.

lazyani, if I have conjured up a hundredth of the magic of Joy Baba Felunath, my writing has evolved

KM, 'umble bow in your direction

Sucharita, I also loathe organised religion, Sikh Gurdwaras being honourable exceptions. As for the pits, long story.

E Lungs, you should return. In winter.

el, I'm sorry my account wasn't good enough for you. But thanks for reading.

Mystic Rose, what would have inspired me if not the city?


mystic rose said...

If the city couldnt have inspired you, nothing can. But there is a freshness to your writing now, a renewed energy that comes thru, and perhaps your articles being published has something to do with it - or not. :)

March Hare said...

I spent a hefty portion of my life there. Still go back every year. There's a part of me which will always be a part of the teeming city.


This made me want to go back right now.