I wanted to visit Banaras for many reasons. A nostalgic call as I lived there as a kid for some time. A divine call for being a practicing Hindu. An exploratory call to see all that we hear about this ancient city, art and culture intrigue since I learned about the Sarnath School of Art, Lunar sandstone, Ramnagar Ram Leela etc. Curiosity about Kabir and his works. And of course, all other reasons for which this is one of the most visited cities in the world. They say all that can be written about Varanasi has already been written. So what am I trying to write here? I can only say I am writing about the time and space in my life that intersected with this city of many names and fame.
Looking at various aspects of the Banaras city – arts, culture, spirituality, divinity, music, and food – you wonder what is it in this land by the holy Ganga that it nurtures creativity in so many ways. The narrow lanes make you feel the divine from another aspect. You do not know how those old houses and dilapidated ghats keep on surviving, bearing the load of so many people. You see the life and death co-existing at the same time and place. And you wonder if this is the reason that here we are able to see things in perspective.
Top of mind recall, I felt blessed during the whole trip. Not only could we visit and see everything that we wanted to, everything just kept falling into place. The clues kept coming at the right time and place as if some unseen force drove us. You can call it the imagination of a conditioned mind, or the faith of a follower, but there was something more than just us driving and guiding us, it was right there in the air around us. On a lighter note, we were protected even from the notorious Pandas of Banaras who never approached us. The crowd was just enough to keep the place alive but not crowded for you to feel unsafe or claustrophobic. The weather was perfect and the company could not have been better.
What stood out most was the Akkhad and Fakkad attitude of Banarasi people. The ubiquitous were proud that ‘we are the best’ and we are leading the world came from just about everyone. People give you false information with such confidence that you tend to doubt your own knowledge. Saying ‘I do not know’ is beyond them. At the same time, there was a certain Masti that a lot of them carried like a Rickshaw driver after taking a certain amount, from you, tells you the actual rate for that ride. Sometimes they laugh off and say Banarasis have ulti khopdi, and why should it not be, ‘yahan to Ganga bhi ulti behti hai’ i.e. even the Ganga flows in reverse direction here. Ganga flows northwards in Banaras, flowing towards its source here and is hence called Uttar Vahini here.
There are two most sought after categories of visitors in Banaras. First, are foreigners who all the service providers presume to be wealthy irrespective of who they are and where they come from. This leads to the belief that they can part with money more easily than domestic visitors. Second is the Telugu speaking visitors. Visiting from Hyderabad, I never felt out of place with Telugu sight and sounds around me. The moment I said I am from Hyderabad, I heard ‘Chapandi, Randi etc’. And after a point, I started saying I am from Delhi.
Having said that, it is pretty much a global place. You can find most Indian communities having a small corner of the city to them. Where they get their kind of food, their language is spoken and their version of God is worshiped. You can find many nationalities roaming on the ghats and on the boats early morning and at the time of evening Aarti.
Old World Charm
There is still an old world charm in the Banaras city – in its boats that are still rowed by oars in-spite of being painted with advertisements, the Chai that is still served in Kulhads or clay cups, the Angheethis that are still used by the peanut vendors, mithai wallahs with the piles of Mithai on display. The narrow lanes that still showcase the indigenous living culture, the presence of God in a big or small way that is never out of your sight.
Banaras is and will probably always remain a multi-fold mystery for its visitors.