When you set out on a journey you have a hundred expectations you evaluate the money factor, do research on the background of the place, and also help the emotions to run high. The charisma and mysticism of Varanasi effervescent in spirit is ideal for the wanderlust. My journey started on reaching the platform and a train named after the Hindu’s ideal and most venerated God Shiva. The wee hours of a serene and cold temple town were brought alive when one entered the Viswanath Gali.
Who has been given this status of a slayer of all evils could be pacified by a few Bela leaves, lotus, and roses lined in a queue to get a passing glimpse. What hovers on the sanctum is a dilapidated small arch of tattered temple structure that can fall over the chanting pilgrims.
Chanting of Har Har Mahadev kills your silence and the demons that torture you! You wonder the pilgrimage industry so close in the picture to targets and pressures of any corporate house will soon be withered to eternity.
When their esteemed product the Viswanath temple is so brutally pounded by bylines and rows of tourists who care less for their performance how does one gauge the final profit. The whole propaganda reverberates on encouraging cash-in devotion to the God who himself has a frugal diet and leads such austere life.
Mangal aarti, Rudrabhishek all the related devotional reality makes one belittled that god has put sums on our devotional levels. The place has a group of tonsured Kasi pilgrims male and female who don’t carry any pretensions about their love for Lord Shiva and happy being jostled inside the temple. In the same place at the other end stands the all-white uniformed Neta babu who is next to Lord Shiva for Viswanath’s pandas, Baba Viswanath for the police, and the watchdogs of our societal norms. Who will police the police?
After you alight from the elevated status of a bhaakt a gift of kachori and jalebi and a rickshaw ride to Ganga ka kinara is a welcome change! The boatman is hanging like Damocles sword and hardly allows you to bargain his loot on boat-ride of the 84 ghats.
The ghats are all intertwined with small galis that close on each day with a cacophony of tourist mongers, foreigners would be workers on religious principles, wanna-be-saints who know their backgrounds don’t allow them the space to breathe the air into their so-called pious veins.
They roam around learning French, Spanish, Russian to guide the aliens so supernaturally and superficially oriented to adapt pseudo-Hinduism. You learn when you peep closer that you are an easy target to their hollow promises of proximity to God and his various small mercies.
You gather the substance of their talk that hovers heavy traffic, metamorphic tourist needs, and the survival on less and lesser space to live and ruminate. Everybody is ousting each other in the ball game of life holding everything else responsible for the impasse and Banaras woes but not himself.
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The ride on the boat overlooking the ghats was a revelation on the moving life of an exploited river that has become a lifeline for many who want to abandon their near ones. On namesake, Ganga is treated like a mother, filthy and dirtied by the same people who worship her with her fervor during Ganga aarti.
The place stinks of enormous environmental hazards equal to an epidemic proportion and the citizens of the country are raining sewage garbage and plastic waste on the river bed. Crores and resources are being announced and pushed into the system on a defunct and choked urban sprawl.
The life savings of many devotees across the globe is washed away by the demanding Jajman on the edifices atop the ghats where pilgrims dole out money without any thought. If one is not cunning and worldly-wise one loses the strength to oppose bad vibes and getting cheated by the priests.
Outside the Kashi Viswanath Temple, one lines up in the queue with bel leaves and roses to pushed and shoved into a dark alley of lanes where even a pigeon will breathe with difficulty. The temple administration has the prayers demarcated into amounts that matter to help you meet the lord in the hour’s timings of the day on paying a particular sum.
Army and police guard the sanctum as if the deity and the terrorist have a pact while the temple’s upper and lower crust is peeling and falling off like a tree in autumn fall.
There is less and lesser attempt to preserve the virtuous and pious environment and more on the judgment of God on the public depending on their purse. Rickshaws and pedestrians are all that can ply and every nook and corner has a paan shop to satisfy the choked mood.
Food is cheap, affordable but available only in small portions. The Indian spice route conveniently travels from one plate to another in plates of chaat of various kinds flavored with masalas and chutney.
Misrambu and lassi with doles of homemade malai on it are suited to the sagging nerves of moving among the crowd as a commoner. Kachori and sabji along hot piping jalebi mingle the taste buds to more food stalls. Keshav ka paan digested everything that you ate.
Afternoon descends and with a heavy feeling, one gets into a rs. 50/- rickshaw ride to the citadel of knowledge Banaras Hindu University. It makes you wonder how well the massive and towering British colonial structures standing tall against the congested galis of Banaras. The massive old banyan trees, tea stalls, university and college students meeting over Maggi, small samosas, and Rs 5/- tea in earthen pots.
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The massive women empowerment of the women’s college at the towering entrance of Banaras Hindu University makes you proud of the vision of our nationalists Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya. Who would have imagined that this 19th-century colossus would have grown out of the simple request of an intelligent visionary to an egoistic king like Kashi Naresh?
The man runs on foot from sunrise to sunset and demarcates a portion of the kasha kingdom for his vision to materialize. He wins on the war footing when brain triumphs over the king’s wealth and brawl. The king throws his expensive shoe at the Pandit which gets auctioned at Lanka chowk to fetch the university its first earning.
The maverick Pandit gets his friends to share his ways and within years on merely generous donations the foundation is laid. On the amassed wealth and many who share the visionary’s thought there now stand tall in annals of history a university that boasts of highest excellence in research and emphatic philosophy.
The evening descends on the simmering silence of the ghats to observe Ganga aarti. This is a daily ritual where on one end a deadman’s body travels to sounds of “Ram Nam Satya he” every two minutes to Manikarnika ghat on another end the blazing fire display of diyas keep playing on the religious fervor of the Shiva devotees.
The sound of conch shells, Sanskrit prayers invoking the Lord transforms your soul. You are in unison with the moment with an intrinsic desire to live and encourage the soul to higher levels. The experience lives you hungry to get more receptive to internal tussles one goes through to remain human or go beyond.
What one gains at the end of the walk through the galis is buzzing consumerism against a serious thirst for the truth of the being. One should be guided or be a guide only time is left to and decide fate.
The next day entails your journey to Sarnath a furlong from the main city where a Buddhist stupa and an ancient excavated site of an extinct temple complex of old dynasties of the Gupta period runs from the period. How Asoka the great gets the Buddhist influence his kingdom to become a hub of monks and their historic forays into the unknown and seven commandants of Buddhism.
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A number of foreign tourists and followers of Buddhism visit these places to satiate their hunger for completing their pilgrimage tour. The Varanasi that is left outside the historical museum and sprawling lawns of Sarnath is all marketing spot waiting to exploit the currencies from all over the world. Generate employment and provide food to the otherwise poor and teaming population bordering on hinges of an old and choked civilization.
What Aurangzeb did centuries ago by building a mosque just next to the Kashi Viswanath Temple and plundering the innocent masses to penury is being replaced by the Indian middle class who wants the best of clothes for himself at the cost of letting the city die its natural death.
What will remain will be the political hopes of smart city offer by the Prime minister that will flow into the Ganges as yet another attempt to bring development to the doors of an archaic city that can only be experienced on the periphery and not repaired ever. Governments make promises but the citizens have to cooperate on the reality they face. In lieu of getting few kickbacks for babus, everything is compromised at the alter ego of the scheme of things.