|Ganga from Assi Ghat @5.30AM|
Yes, that is the realization at the end of the journey- the more things change, the more they remain the same. No amount of turbulence all around can change the basics. It’s so true of people and also for places. At least for places, which have seen a lot of changes over the centuries. No wonder it applied to the oldest living city of the world.
Looking back, I wonder why I was expecting that it will change at all. A city which continues to be what it is for centuries-unaware of people who come here, people who patronize it, who destroy it …people who love it and hate it for almost similar reasons. Why was I expecting, it might have changed in last 15-20 years? May be because even then, the squalor and garbage, the broken roads and unruly traffic made me uneasy. I last visited Varanasi as a schoolgirl. I loved the city, its old charming ways – its narrow lanes, its traditional eateries and of course the river. Back then, I found the nearby Buddhist pilgrimage Sarnath straight out of my history books. It was in Sarnath that I first experienced how powerful would have been the faith preached by Buddha that it broke the centuries old customs of Hinduism in the 6th century BC. In Sarnath, during my last visit, I was amazed to see the spread of Buddha’s dhamma across the world and how it ties the citizens of different countries beyond language and politics. I was also very envious of the students of BHU, the sprawling university campus and the unmatched courses on offer.
Then in last 20 years I changed. My gaze changed as well. Now when I looked at the dirty lanes of Banaras, I thought of lanes in historical part of the Rome and compared the two. The two eternal cities – which continued in all times of History, so similar in this aspect and so contrasting in all others. While in Rome there was a constant awareness of the historical context of the place, here it was blissful ignorance. Even the government notice boards and pamphlets do not speak the facts – but merely state the folklore, the “belief” associated with the place. While in Rome even the smallest and most ordinary of churches were very clean, in Banaras even the holiest of all temple, the Kashi Vishwanath temple needed some real faith to ignore the stench and dirt around it. Though I am not a religious person as such, I did not even feel moved at the sight of the temples. But then, temples were in any case not the most favourite sight in the city for me.
The early morning boat ride was the best remembered part in my memories for Banaras. So we went again for it. The sky was full of monsoon clouds and the river was swelling with flood water from Nepal. The ghats, very uncharacteristically were almost barren. The life of the city, however, slowly started to appear. Priests and foreign tourists, local people and devotees from outside, cows and stray dogs, flower sellers and boatmen…slowly they all took their places on the Ghats. It was from the ghats that we saw the swamp of foreign tourist gathered with their cameras at Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremation as per Hindu rites. For my mind, it was a very disturbing fact that death too can be a tourist sight! But apparently in the age of reality TV, all emotions attract our curiosity- even the most tragic ones. We wondered about the centuries of history appearing in the names of the ghats and also the naïve ignorance of people. There is something special about the place – something very real and important, but somehow, I had lost the innocent eyes of a child to admire that.
|On the Ghats of Ganga|
Ramnagar fort and the mysterious fort of Chunar, both places have definitely lost their grandeur and charm. Badly encroached and mindlessly maintained by insensitive government organizations, they no longer remind one about the days gone by. The stories of prince and princesses, spies and romance as narrated by Devaki Nandan Khatri in his ‘Chandrakanta’ seem very remote to the present structures.
Is it simply our ignorance about our history or our disinterest in anything beyond basic needs that can make people use a beautifully located British cemetery as a garbage dump? Even the royal carriages of King of Kashi, used for the annual Ramlila look so ill kept and unimpressive. All along the overpowering thought was about the people visiting the place from other countries. Would they be able to sail through the complicated and tricky madness of the city to find some greater meaning in all this? I am somewhat doubtful of that!
Sarnath, unlike Banaras was clean and serene. Through very deficient in terms of facilities and infrastructure, at least the place looked holy and inviting. It was, in fact, in Sarnath that I realized the answer to my disquiet about Banaras. It was in fact foolish of me to think that anything will change in the eternal city. Even with the new swanky shopping malls selling McDonalds burgers and western-style bakeries, the city will remain the same. It may be the world’s most un-hygienic holy place but it is also one of the most sought after. The city perhaps breaths with faith and not the polluted air. One can never judge this place at a material level. As a philosophical capital of India, the only way one can see and appreciate Varanasi is philosophically. Probably the groups of Sri Lankan and Thai tourists, with folded hands and whisper-like chants of mantras, got this from the beginning. And that is why perhaps, near the dilapidated Ramnagar fort and the ill maintained Chunar fort, the dirty, crowded ghats and just behind the snakelike lanes, with all the pollution and garbage, quiet flows the Ganges.