Banaras is so old, so steeped in its own legend, that we forget it still breathes, that life goes on and that it has new stories to tell, argues Shreevatsa Nevatia
Gods squabbling amongst one another is perhaps a problem unique to polytheism. According to Hindu scripture, Brahma and Vishnu were once arguing about who between them is supreme. Annoyed by their pettiness, Shiva sought to end the quarrel with a grand gesture of sorts. He appeared as an infinite and blinding shaft of light that penetrated the edges of the cosmos, finally making it expand. Many Brahmins believe that this linga of light had burst forth from the earth in Banaras. That’s why the city was named Kashi, the Luminous. This is where Shiva, I’m repeatedly told, becomes apparent.
In Banaras: City of Light, Harvard scholar Diana Eck recounts this and other stories with an objectivity that slips sometimes into wonder. She talks of how Shiva, fed up of Brahma’s affronts, had once cut off his fifth head. To repent, Shiva wanders the earth with the severed head glued to his hand. In Kashi, finally, the heavy and hollow skull falls: “One of the claims made for this city is that merely entering its boundaries destroys all sins, for even this worst possible sin, killing a brahmin, fell here.” In Banaras, mythology becomes history without the customary hesitation.
For the past decade, I have come to Banaras at least once every year. Most times, I have brought my copy of Eck’s Banaras with me. An astute cartographer, the teacher of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies has been my guide. When I interviewed her three years ago, she had said without any affectation: “Kashi ke kankar, Shiv Shankar. The very clay of Kashi is Shiva.” I am not a believer, but I do value good stories, and Banaras is full of them. Like temples and lingas, there is one on every corner.
In years gone by, I have woken up at three in the morning to take my place in the serpentine queue that leads to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Bleary-eyed and lightheaded, I have witnessed the mangala arati. I remember finding it strange that there is an auspicious hour to worship a god for whom auspices have never mattered. My mind still ringing with cymbals and chants, I have walked to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, waiting for dawn to break over the Ganga. Still young, I felt light would engineer enlightenment.
But last November, as I stood on Assi Ghat, looking at the Ganga, I did not see Shakti in its liquid form, I only saw a river. The boatman was not a repository of narratives. He was looking for someone to fleece. Eck had told me, “The symbolic is too complicated to be taken literally”, but despite this advice, my mind refused to wrap its head around divine metaphor. I needed to find meaning, and I had only four days. Since Banaras would not talk to me, Banarasis were my only hope.
I first met Amitabha Bhattacharya in 2015. I instantly knew that when I reached my sixties, I would want to have aged into a man like him. Constantly chewing paan, he speaks unhurriedly. Informed both by reason and left-leaning emotion, his authority is an inheritance. After his forefather, the Vedanta philosopher Madhusudana Saraswati moved here in the 16th century, 23 generations of Dada’s family have lived in Banaras, and he says he can’t imagine a life outside this city. When talking about Banaras, he quotes British political theorist Harold Laski, Urdu poets, Kalidasa and Shankaracharya. Sanskrit is his mother tongue, and if he’d not taken to journalism, he says he would have surely taught the language.
Over the four or so years I have known him, Dada, I have found, prefers meeting me on his turf. The conversation we once had in my hotel room was stilted. He is in his element in the classrooms of primary schools, doctors’ waiting rooms and in the houses of friends. This time, we decide to meet outside his cubbyhole of a newspaper office. I’m early, and the doors of the office are locked. A funeral procession is passing by when I see Dada waving from across the street. He leads me to the noisy reception room of a guesthouse. “We can talk in peace here,” he says. I can only laugh.
“I saw the funeral procession and I felt nothing. I stood by the Ganga, and nothing,” I complain. “Why are you worried? This just shows that you’re now one of us,” he smiles, trying to comfort me. Dada starts telling me a story he has told me once before. I don’t interrupt him. I need to hear it again. Referring to the Ganga’s S-shaped trajectory in Banaras, he says, “Normally, a river flows from north to south, but in Banaras, Ganga flows to the north. So, Ganga, instead of being centrifugal, is centripetal here. Philosophers explain it by saying that in Banaras, even Ganga is forced to introspect.” He tells me I should take heart in the fact that funeral processions don’t move me anymore. “Speaking generally, we desire to live long, happy lives, but in Banaras, the ambition of human life is different. Everyone is here to find a worthy death, to find salvation, moksha, mukti. So, in a sense, Banaras has a simple aspiration—death.” Dada, my friend and also my informant, knows that I am usually unconvinced by explanations that are not secular. He says, “To stomach these theories, you must believe in three things—God, the Vedas and rebirth. Even if you don’t, and I know that you don’t, one can’t help but be fascinated by how faith can shape a city.”
For Dada, Banaras has always been more spiritual than religious. He says, “If you’re religious, chances are that you’re either communal or a fanatic. Banaras, thankfully, is mostly free of such demons.” Not having directly addressed Shiva for ten minutes, our conversation soon meanders back to him again. “In Banaras, Shiva is known as Aghor, the One Beyond Fear. The people of Banaras, as a result, are carefree. He is like a village elder here, someone to be loved, not feared. On the surface, you’ll think that Banaras is a city of rituals, but I think they are mostly redundant. Shiva doesn’t care for flowers.”
Standing on the narrow street outside the guesthouse, we see three men taking a selfie. Dada stops to look at them. He frowns before he goes on, “The selfie comparison is an obvious one to make, but in the 20th century the camera was focused on the world outside. Today, everyone wants to take a picture of themselves. This self-centredness is new to Banaras.” It’s in Banaras’ language that Dada finds evidence to prove his theory: “Individuals in Kashi don’t ask, ‘Mujhse kya matlab?’ (What’s it to me?) They ask, ‘Humse kya matlab?’ (What’s it to us?) We say hum. We never say main. Banaras always starts with a ‘we’. It’s politicians who make us internalise a narrative of ‘us and them’.”
To find Rajendra Tiwari, the mahant (high priest) of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, you have to walk along its alleys, asking for Bablu Bhaiya. I find him on the steps outside Chitra Cinema, a derelict theatre that had, of course, once known better days. The last time I met Bablu Bhaiya, we sat in the backseat of my car, joking about the 2014 parliamentary elections and measuring its possible impact. Four years on, he doesn’t want us to change the topic. His family has served Vishwanath for thousands of years, he says, and the claim he has over the city is now fast becoming a casualty of government policy.
To build a 400-metre-long corridor that will stretch from the Kashi Vishwanath temple to the Ganga, the Uttar Pradesh government is in the process of razing 166 houses that line the labyrinthine lanes of Banaras. “This is the heritage of Banaras that people from all over the world come to see. We don’t want a modern promenade. We want our history,” says Bablu Bhaiya, offering me a cup of tea that is too small and too hot to hold. The priest then holds my hand while he goes on. Strangely, he isn’t animated in the least. He talks about his discontent the way someone might bemoan a tasteless dinner.
“They’ve started a luxury cruise on the Ganga here, but who has Rs 18,000 to pay for it? They’re talking about a seaplane. I can’t think of anyone in Banaras who wants one. People who are from here have stopped going to Kashi Vishwanath because it’s only the politicians who get treated like VIPs there.” The list of Bablu Bhaiya’s disaffections is long, but eventually, he seems exhausted by it. “In the end,” he says, “Kashi must be saved not because it is old and historical, but because it is sacred.”
The residents of Kashi have been known to believe that their city rests on the trident of Shiva. Bablu Bhaiya goes to some length to prove that this assumption is fact: “Walk from one end of Banaras to the other and you’ll feel the crests and troughs. This point where we’re sitting is situated on the tip of the middle spoke.” A natural raconteur, Bablu Bhaiya then tells me how the cosmos has seen 27 cycles of creation and destruction: “But even during each pralaya, Shiva saves the city from flood waters by holding it aloft on his trident. He never forsakes Kashi. That’s why we call this city Avimukta.”
To rediscover Banaras, I realised I had to reacquaint myself with Shiva. The doors of Kashi and Kailasa, it seemed, were adjacent and identical. Looking at my notes from a 2015 trip, I remembered that Vishwambhar Nath Mishra had told me, “If Shiva will not allow me to stay in Kashi, I will not be able to live here. I lived away for a decade, and I do believe it’s he who had turned me out. If you want to be in Banaras, you need his permission.” This time, Mishra, mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, has asked me to meet him at 10pm. “I’m a little busy with an annual festival, but I would love to talk.”
Mishra’s house is easy to find. He lives on Tulsi Ghat, and the living room I’m led into is newly renovated and suddenly spacious. Sitting between two bolsters, Mishra, also an IIT professor of electrical engineering, says he shares Bablu Bhaiya’s misgivings about the Vishwanath corridor. “People come to feel Banaras. Nobody comes to see its infrastructure. If you want to work in Banaras, you must do something about the Ganga’s suffering. Parts of the river have essentially become sewage drains. The tragedy is that 40,000-50,000 people still bathe in the water, and many of them sip it too.”
After half an hour of discussing UP politics and the impending general election, Mishra lightens up. He wants to know what I have been eating in Banaras. “I keep going back to Deena Chat Bhandar,” I tell him. “Yesterday, though, I was waiting for my turn to eat golgappas, and it’s like the man didn’t see me. When I complained, he said there’s a chat shop next door. I should try my luck there.” Mishra allowed himself a belly laugh. “Never hurry a Banarasi. You should know that by now. We might not have a penny in our pocket, but we will still think we’re kings. We are never inferior. We live in Kashi!”
I had, for long, understood that women were largely absent from Banaras’ streets and its discourse. Even though Shiva lived the life of an urban householder in Kashi, the pre-eminence of his wife, Parvati, was almost always ignored. The Ganga, imagined as a woman, was reduced to a single, female token that was being abused and polluted without much compunction. Sitting in Mudita Agarwal’s large living room, I asked the 43-year-old architect if any of Banaras belonged to its women. Trying to calm one of her five-year-old twin sons, she thought for a few seconds before saying, “I would have to say no.”
“There’s no doubt that Banaras is male-dominated. Take religion, for instance. Women are constantly harassed by pandas and priests alike. You don’t feel comfortable on the streets because invariably, you get stared at. There are no safe public spaces where you can simply hang out.” When Agarwal went for a Diwali card party in early November, she says she was surprised to see that none of the women there worked: “Barring education and medicine, there are no opportunities for women in other fields here. #MeToo doesn’t affect Banaras because there are so few women in the workplace.”
At social functions, says Agarwal, you often see that women and men are divided into separate groups. “Usually, the women have nothing to say to each other after about ten minutes. There’s nothing to talk about because nobody is doing anything with their lives. I try to go over to the men’s side. At least there is some conversation there.” When asked if she saw any signs of change, Agarwal could only recall one real instance of progressiveness. “Two years ago, a family friend passed away. His sons were in the States and they couldn’t make it in time for the funeral. I remember it was his wife who then stepped up. She performed the last rites and there was no real opposition. We were all a bit shocked.”
The burning pyre appears often in the film Masaan (2015). Deepak, one of the film’s protagonists, belongs to Banaras’ Dom community and his family facilitates funerals for a living. His lover is worried her parents will reject him because his caste is lower than theirs. In a parallel storyline, Devi is humiliated by the police who break into a hotel room to find her having sex with her boyfriend. The film stubbornly resists all of Banaras’ clichés. There is no mysticism, no customary shots of the evening Ganga arati. I impulsively decide to call Varun Grover, the film’s writer, to ask about restraint.
“When we went for the recce, we decided to not use the backdrop of the Ganga arati. We didn’t want to give the film that exotica which everyone relates Banaras with. We wanted to tell our story through the people.” From 1999 to 2003, Grover was a student at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and having lived in several cities all through his life, he still likes to call Banaras home. He says, “Banarasis don’t see the city as exotic at all. As a matter of fact, they see it as the opposite of that. Once you have lived there, you do not see the obvious elements. You don’t, for instance, see the Ganga as extraordinary.”
In Grover’s imagination, however, the Ganga does, in fact, make Banaras special. “Ganga, as feminine energy, balances out the masculine Shiva. Banaras is just as male-dominated as any other North Indian city, but because of the Ganga there is a softness. There is nuance. It engineers a femininity in language. I could spend an extra hour just listening to Banarasis talk. Thankfully, they all love to talk so much.” Though Grover recalls Banaras wasn’t safe for his female colleagues after sundown, he does add, “I know I say this because I’m a man, but Banaras, for me, will always be the first real city I saw.”
Back in Bombay, I find myself scanning the pages of Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography. I’m still looking for the epiphany that eluded me on Assi. In a chapter she dedicates to Shiva, Eck writes of Banaras: “The cramped lanes of this dense city eventually open onto the spacious steps leading to the river, like clutched hands releasing their offerings of flowers into the stream. The intensity and the calm, the business of life and death, go together.” Eck’s writing is evocative, but for the first time, I confess to being underwhelmed. For years, I had followed a map she had drawn. She had made one of the world’s oldest cities seem even older. While I marvelled at her Banaras, though, I could never inhabit it. This time around, Banarasis showed me a Banaras that exceeded my literature. Suddenly, the city was not just one I pondered, it was a place I felt. The joys of everyday Banaras, I found, surpassed the delights of its mythical self.
This essay was published in Jan-Mar 2019 issue.