Ramdhun Chaurasia gazes benignly upon us from his perch opposite Varanasi’s Chowk Police Station. Five feet by five feet, his paan shop provides the perfect frame for his flowing white beard and thick-framed glasses. When I stop to take his picture, he folds his hands in a dignified namaste and then waves us on into the maze known as Godhuliya.
The heart of Varanasi, the essence of Kashi, this network of lanes lies slantwise along the northern bank of the Ganga and leads to 80-odd ghats. At least two of these are also crematoriums—Manikarnika and Harishchandra (where the king of legend is supposed to have stoked the pyres)—while the largest of them all is the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
A tourist boat returns to the ghats at dusk
It is 11.30am as Guptaji, our self-appointed guide, 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 Kashi—raanrh, saand, seedhi 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 prostitutes in this city of piety.
A few wisps of wood smoke linger in the lanes of Varanasi, 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 network of lanes leading to Manikarnika Ghat, where cremation and immersion guarantee salvation, and all day and all night the pyres burn by the water’s edge.
As we pause at a corner, we are shooed aside with chants of Ram naam satya hai (Ram’s name is the truth). A small procession trails after a chaarpai (cot). As it passes, we catch a glimpse of a bright Banarasi silk sari. 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 dead of night.
But now, in the late morning leading into a coppery noonday, Godhuliya is bustling. Near the main road, the lanes are lined with shops. Sweets, religious tracts, flowers, unidentified multi-hued swathes of cloth, tacky silvery fabric with glimmering fringes that could be used to scare away birds at airfields. 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 temple itself is strangely disappointing. 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. “Security” is high because a disputed mosque lies within the temple perimeter, and we have to pass through a metal detector.
In deference to my companions’ piety, I join the queue, and we are eventually whisked into a tiny room where flower garlands and offerings lie half-submerged in a small sunken tank. The overworked priest is assisted by a pair of policemen who obviously see greater merit in part-time puja than in the security detail. My daughter sets up a wail as we leave with our prasad. A monkey has made off with her packet. The non-commissioned officer (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, Godhuliya 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.
As one nears the ghats, the pace picks up, the crowds increase. Where earlier 3 ft of width seemed quaint, it now seems stifling. Long lines of pilgrims file past us, their eyes open wide in a daze of faith. In many groups, the men wear cotton Gandhi caps.
Varanasi, which is also known as Banaras, 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, Gangaji. 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.
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. 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, which claims that it alone is entitled to use the symbol.
Evening is drawing in as we make our way along the banks towards Dashashwamedh Ghat. 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. The sandhya aarti, the evening invocation at Dashashwamedh, is a unique experience, a religious rite transformed into sheer spectacle.
Under the lights, seven priests in unison invoke the gods with slow synchronized movements, with flaming lamps, conch shells and torches, while the accompanying scriptures boom out from loudspeakers. 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 ghats are dark, we wend our way homewards through Vishwanath gali (lane). Even late at night, there is no escape from the devout. Sound of the bucinas, the saints are marching by! A band of sadhus swings down the lane, scattering all before them with the cacophony of their music. By the time we reach the end of the lane, foot sore 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 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.
How to get there
Varanasi is connected by SpiceJet to Delhi (round-trip fares from Rs2,600, plus taxes) and Mumbai (from Rs7,500, plus taxes). A number of trains link Varanasi to Mumbai and Delhi as well. Check ‘www.indianrail.gov.in’ for convenient connections. There are no direct trains/planes between Bangalore and Varanasi.
Where to stay
The Taj Ganges (‘www.tajhotels.com’) is close to the airport and has 130 rooms for rates upwards of Rs3,225 per night. We stayed there, and recommend it highly for the service and the gardens. The Radisson (‘www.radisson.com’) is centrally located and offers rates starting from Rs4,000 per night. There’s also a Best Western, a three-star hotel adjoining the five-star Clarks (‘www.clarkshotels.com’), which has rooms for upwards of Rs4,500.
What to do
Discover Godhuliya. Visit Ramnagar Fort. Watch the evening ‘aarti’ at Dashashwamedh. You could plan a day’s visit to Sarnath—be sure to stop at the Vajra Viharat Buddhist temple on the way.
Where to eat
More than established restaurants, roadside shacks and eateries provide a richer experience. Among the must-visits: Yadav Lassi Bhandar outside Ramnagar Fort, Sharad Bhandar near Vishwanath Mandir. And Jhunjhunwala’s and Krishna Bhandar, both in Godhuliya, for authentic ‘jalebis’ and ‘kachoris’.
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