What can I write about Kashi (or Varanasi or Benares) which has not been written before? Hence I will pen down how I have seen Kashi through my eyes since my childhood. It is considered to be the oldest and holiest city in the world, an ‘eternal city’. Mark Twain, the American author, once wrote ‘Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together’.
I was born and raised in Benares in 1970s. My grandmother Late Shyama Devi would carry me on her back quite regularly, to the ghats of Benares for early morning prayers. Since then, I have visited Benares more than 50 times to meet my relatives. I have travelled extensively in India and lived in USA, Canada and England for more than 7 years. Only three other cities in the world – Delhi, Lucknow and New York City, give me the same amount of joy which I get in Varanasi.
I feel pure when I watch sadhu and yogi performing mundan puja or praying for dead at the ghats. When I see this and delve deeper, then worldly possessions seem fake. One sight I always witness is, groups of foreign backpackers sharing their chillam (marijuana) with a sadhu and talking about spirituality and mysticism. I live in Delhi and have been to Haridwar, Mathura and Agra multiple times; places where maximum foreign tourist visit in India, but the joy I have seen on their faces in Varanasi is just beyond imagination. It is probably the only place in the world where logic ceases to exist. The crowd, the filth and chaos all seem to get lost in the infectious energy of Varanasi. All you need to live in Benares is simplicity and a banarsi attitude. The city is famous for its mornings. Subah-e-Benares (Morning of Varanasi) and Shaam-e-Awadh (Evening of Lucknow) are supposed to be two of the best attractive scene of the world.
Typical morning breakfast here comprises of curd, jalebi and kachori. Lassi and tamatar chaat are a must have for everyone and so is Mithai (sweets) of various types. The huge amount of tourist influx viz. Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans etc. has given rise to numerous hotels and restaurants in Varanasi. In the last 20 years, I have seen all kind of continental cuisines – Italian, Chinese, French and Thai gaining much popularity here. Most of the famous eateries like Pizzeria Vatika Café, French Bakers, and Mong Café etc. are situated on the bank of River Ganga, at the ghats.
The ghats and temples
The boat ride from Raj ghat to Assi ghat gives you an awe inspiring view of all 80+ ghats. Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat host cremation of dead bodies on a 24X7 basis. This is the only place in the world where dead bodies are cremated round the clock. Legend has it that even if one dies anywhere, but is cremated in Varanasi (on the bank of River Ganga), it absolves them of all the sins and one attains moksha. As per Markandeya purana, King Harishchandra worked as a slave in the cremation ground of these ghats, to pay money as part of a promise made to Sage Vishwamitra. Another legend says that Kashi rests on the trident of ‘Lord Shiva’and Kaal Bhairav serves as the doorkeeper to keep evil forces at bay
Kashi is aptly termed as ‘temple city’ of the world. You can see temple at every 50-100 meters. The scent of incense, sound of ritual bell and chant of ‘Bum Bum bhole’ is omnipresent. The prominent Hindu temples are Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan, Manas Mandir and Kaal Bhairav. Once I visited Varanasi in 2011 with two of my friends. We reached the Kashi Vishwanath temple at 2 am to watch Mangala aarti from 3-4 am. It was raining cats and dogs that day. We stood on the door of the sanctum sanctorum and saw entire aarti being carried out by renowned priests. I could see shivling in all its majesty (without garlands). The whole atmosphere was so pious that I felt something inside me changed for good, that day. It was crowded and noisy outside yet I felt peaceful and calm inside. There is also morning and evening aarti performed by a group of priests, on a grand scale at Dashashwamedh ghat. People occupy every inch of the ghats, boats and nearby hotel rooftops to watch this spectacle.
It is said that Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath (near Kashi) and founded Buddhism. I have been to Sarnath couple of times and the stupa is an architectural marvel-very calm and serene in its appearance. Sarnath is also the birthplace of the 11th tirthankara Shri Shreyansanatha Bhagwan. Most of the tourists who come here are from China and south-east Asia.
Besides religion, food and culture, another aspect which makes Kashi famous is its ability to produce giants and eminent personalities in the field of literature, dance, drama, music and politics. Almost 2-3% of the famous personalities, which India has produced, were born, raised or worked in Benares.
Famous People from Varanasi
Bhartendu Harishchandra, Jaishankar Prasad, Munshi Premchand, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Devkinanadan Khatri et.al were all born in Benares and are considered as doyens of Hindi literature. Bhartendu is known as the ‘Father of modern Hindi literature and theatre’. Prasad wrote ‘Kamayani’ which is considered to be a modern day epic. Khatri’s ‘Chandrakanta Santati’ is a popular epic fantasy Hindi novel. Premchand is known as ‘Upanyas Samrat’ having written Godan and Gaban et.al. Here, I would like to mention that I am the grandson of Munshi Premchand.
During bhakti movement, Varanasi was a thriving centre for musicians/poets such as Kabirdas, Surdas, Ravidas, Tulsidas and Meera. Amongst modern day musicians/singers, Ustaad Bismillah Khan, Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Girija Devi, Pt. Ravi Shankar, Sitara Devi, Pt. Kishen Maharaj, Pt. Channulal Mishra have provided their exemplary service to music while living in Benares. Benares gharana is one of the most prominent gharana of Hindustani classical music. One of my Aunt studied music along with Girija Devi in 1940s.
Famous film personalities such as Anjaan, Sameer, Sujit Kumar and dancing legends Pt. Birju Maharaj and Gopi Kishan are all from Varanasi. Amongst politicians, Sampurnanand, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Kamlapati Tripathi and Bhagwan Das were all born and raised in Benares. I am proud to say that Sampurnanand (ex-Chief Minister of UP) was one of my grandfather (my father’s Mausa) and my real grandfather Mahtab Rai was a good friend of Bhagwan Das.
An ode to Kashi cannot be complete without mentioning Dussehera celebrations. Ram Lila of Ramnagar and Bharat Milap are the famous attractions in which theatrical version of Ramayana is enacted by common people. I have watched it twice as an adult and I must admit that Delhi Ram Lila pales in comparison to this one-a drama which nobody should miss in their lifetime. In the end, I would want to mention a delicacy of Kashi- banarsi paan (betel leaf with areca nut). I do not know of a single Varanasi resident who does not eat paan. It is a stimulant and a mouth freshener eaten after lunch or dinner. I have been a regular paan eater since the age of 6 and I still relish it with same gusto. I aspire to settle down in Kashi once I grow old.