Varanasi has witnessed the coming and going of many empires and dynasties, kings and queens, all leaving their mark for posterity but ultimately overshadowed by its magnificence
Images of Varanasi on social media often fetishize trishul-wielding naked sadhus with ash on their bodies, pilgrims taking holy dips in the water of the river Ganga, corpses burning on the ghats, and cows roaming around in the bylanes. A surfeit of such depictions constructs this vibrant multicultural place as essentially Hindu, instead of celebrating the diversity that thrives there. Things on the ground are often quite different from the way they look online.
In addition to the massive Kashi Vishwanath Dham project inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is drawing hordes of devotees to Varanasi, there is much else to take in. Even a short encounter with this ancient city affirms its rich pluralistic character built over centuries. I was there just two weeks ago, and stood transfixed by the beautiful mix of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Muslim and Christian influences – almost a microcosm of India itself.
Apart from experiencing the Ganga Aarti — a feast for the senses and a gateway to the sublime — I went to the Sankat Mochan Mandir. Being there was special because this temple established by Goswami Tulsidas, who composed the Ramcharitmanas, has been hosting performances by some outstanding exponents of music and dance including Kelucharan Mohapatra, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Rajan-Sajan Mishra, Ghulam Ali and Birju Maharaj.
While their annual Sangeet Samaroh is scheduled for April, I found a bhajan mandali immersed in singing and playing the harmonium and manjeeras when I paid a visit this December. I also came across small groups of people huddled together, talking animatedly, playing cards, and enjoying mithai. This sight reinforced the social and cultural role of religion in people’s lives, in addition to its spiritual, emotional and political significance.
I also made my way to Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first teachings after enlightenment. The archaeological sites and the museum got me to slow down and reflect on how fortunate I am to live in a country where I can access these places so easily. While circumambulating the Dhamekh Stupa, I bowed in gratitude to the countless people who must have worked on constructing, excavating, restoring and maintaining these structures.
One of the world’s finest collections of Buddhist art is housed at the Rubin Museum in New York City, and I am not exaggerating when I say that being there felt like being at a shrine. The Sarnath Museum may not be as fancy or well-funded but what makes it sacred for people like myself is standing where the enlightened one stood, and renewing our commitment to walk on the path he showed us to end our own suffering and to benefit fellow sentient beings.
Sarnath happens to be the birthplace of Shreyansnath, the 11th Tirthankar in Jainism, whereas Varanasi is considered to be the birthplace of the 13th Tirthankar named Parshwanath. I was able to stop by at the derasars built by their followers for a brief darshan, thanks to Ola bikes that offered me a cheap and efficient mode of transport during my stay. A rare stillness descended upon me as I quietened my restless mind and dwelt in the present moment.
Apart from these, I managed to incorporate Gurudwara Guru Bagh — which commemorates Guru Nanak’s visit to Varanasi — and St Mary’s Cathedral in my itinerary. At the gurudwara, a kind gentleman helped me tie a cloth around my head before I went in to kneel and offer prayers. The cathedral had a more festive atmosphere as I showed up on the day of Christmas – people eating chaat, lighting candles, and enjoying the nativity scene on the lawns.
I did not get to pay my respects at the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir and the Gyanvapi Masjid. I am confident that neither Bholenath nor Allah would mind since I did say hello from a distance. The huge crowds ambling down the newly built corridor made me take a rain-check, and head straight to the Kabir Chaura Math. It is an oasis of calm, a stark contrast to all the chaos that it is surrounded by. I suspect that this place, which celebrates the life and work of the 15th century poet and mystic Kabir Das, does not feature on the to-do list of most visitors.
He has been a great source of inspiration for me. I often think of this couplet attributed to him: “Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein, Maange Sab Ki Khair/ Na Kahu Se Dosti, Na Kahu Se Bair.” (Standing in the marketplace, Kabir seeks the well-being of all/ He cultivates no allies, he makes no enemies.) This is not the voice of a fence-sitter but the wisdom of someone who refuses to participate in power games. He prefers turning inward rather than joining a camp.
These words remind me of another beloved poet, Shantideva from the 8th century, whose text Bodhicharyavatara (An Introduction to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) travelled with me to Sarnath. In one of the verses, which Raji Ramanan has translated from Sanskrit into English, Shantideva says, “Having departed from this life/ And from all my friends and relatives, / If all alone I must go elsewhere/ What is the use of making friends and enemies?” Indeed!
Looking at Varanasi through a narrow ideological lens based entirely on one’s allegiance or antagonism towards the ruling party – is a disservice to what the city has to offer. Its history is too vast and impressive to be documented single-handedly by even the most learned of historians. It has witnessed the coming and going of many empires and dynasties, kings and queens, all leaving their mark for posterity but ultimately overshadowed by its magnificence.
The author is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.