“Where all others’ paths end, ours begins,” the Aghori baba near Harishchandra Ghat says. His skin is deepest burnt-brown; his head-cloth and body-wrap black. Only his eyes blaze white, answering my questions with weary amusement. I’ve caught him during his daily late afternoon hunt for wood from a spent funeral pyre at the cremation ghat.
Varanasi is Hinduism’s Mecca and Lord Shiva’s city, mystical and weird like Shankar Bhagwan. It is the Lord’s Matrix: it is spiritual punk. Foreigners come perhaps because they see the mysticism with a clarity that sometimes eludes Indians, for whom Varanasi is a filthy, squalid, never-ending small town. Varanasi is the departure spaceport for salvation-seekers before they head to the s-dimension (“s” for spiritual).
Varanasi aka Banaras aka Kashi (city of lights) aka Anand Kaanan (forest of bliss): The name derives from the five kos of land between the rivers Varuna and Assi. Mythically, Varanasi sits on Shiva’s trishul’s middle prong. Eighty ghats watch the river Ganga flow by. A handful of lesser, postmodern ghats have lately sprung up. Cremation mostly happens at Harishchandra Ghat and the larger Manikarnika Ghat. Located near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Manikarnika Ghat is a few hundred metres before the popular Dasashwamedha Ghat. Manikarnika’s mythology is that Shiva was passing by with Goddess Sati and she lost an earring (mani karna in Sanskrit) here, condemning the spot to forever have funeral pyres.
This sadhu never begs for alms but has “fans” who voluntarily offer him food and money.
I take a boat up the Ganga at dusk, and as I pass Manikarnika I count eight pyres. “How could it continuously have had funeral pyres when in pre-history, people were less?” I ask shastriji, an octogenarian scholar of physics and the Vedas. We sat one morning under a peepul at Shivala Ghat, both of us taking a deep dive into Kashi. “Instead of eight there would have been a single pyre,” he retorted with a cosmic wave of dismissal. “Instead of three hours it would have burned for six.”
The myth has variations. One says that after the Daksha’s yagya, to which son-in-law Shiva was not invited, a humiliated Sati self-immolated. Her corpse was cut into 51 pieces by Vishnu, each landing in what are now 51 Shakti peeths; her earring landed in Manikarnika. Another says the earring
fell off while Shiva danced his wild tandav. There must be more. Manikarnika Ghat is now run by the dom raja, whose azure house stands metres away. The dom are traditional carcass-handlers. This dom raja is reputedly rich, with orchards across Bihar.
The Aghor sect is among Shankar Bhagwan’s varied devotees. My mother was unimpressed when I spoke of going to its ashram. “I don’t like the Aghori,” she said, echoing Hindu orthodoxy. The Aghori smear themselves with cremation ashes, wander about dishevelled, and wear skulls (like Shiva). Caste conscious Hindus avoid them and foreigners seek them out, though both miss the point. By my meager philosophical understanding, the Aghori try to transcend the categories through which we comprehend the world. They try to rise above our pigeonholes of perception and knowledge. The Aghori attempt to defy duality.
This means mastering one’s prejudices. Control of the mind is key to the spiritual (or non-material) life and the Aghori symbolise this by drinking from a skull—the mind’s location. Foreign documentary makers come looking for Aghoris who eat human flesh but this is just an “urban legend”. No one here has heard of such an Aghori. “The theory is that to rise above duality you do the most disgusting thing imaginable,” my guide Kunal says. Kunal was a banker for seven years before chucking it to tell Varanasi’s stories. He’s amazing. “One of worst is to eat dead human flesh,” he continues. “If you can eat a piece then theoretically the world has become one.” However, Kunal has never met anyone who has.
“True, the Aghori focus on cremation grounds,” he says. “Nothing or no one disturbs you here, especially at night.” I wouldn’t want to mess with a tantric, rumoured to be cannibalistic, at a cremation ground in the dead of night. So we meet our baba in the afternoon. Harishchandra Ghat itself is grim. One pyre has almost wound down during our visit when another corpse is carried in. Three men, looking on the eternal verge of collapse, quibble over a chillum of ganja; three curious Westerners look on. “Why don’t we present our best face to foreigners?” Kunal asks in disgust. “As it is, they have a harsh sense of humour. One morning I led a group down an alley where a cow was eating from a pile of garbage, and a man said, ‘Look, your holy cow is having breakfast’. It feels terrible.”
When it comes to tech, Varanasi is in on it: Priests snap selfies (top left) and capture Durga puja festivities on iPads (top right); a Korean tourist (bottom left) bonds with kids over photos she has clicked, and pilgrims, young and old, catch up with families in far off villages (bottom right).
The Aghori baba is having a cup of tea before gathering the wood; it will go to the Baba Kinaram ashram (named after the sect’s founder) for its eternal flame. The baba and I say nothing. “We are beyond words,” he says. “Our Guru has used every existing word to speak of our way, but it is beyond even that.” So we sit and I feel myself spiritually decompress. Intermittently we talk about things like appearance and the Aghoris, but increasingly it is clear that to know their way, one has to live it. It’s beyond explanation.
Afterwards, Kunal takes me to the Gauri Kedareshwar Temple. It overlooks the red-and-white candy-striped Kedar Ghat. Its Shiva lingam is a massive mound, like the Himalayan original. It’s Varanasi’s real treasure: the hidden-away temples, each with lingams by the dozen, lining the walls and crammed on shelves. Shiva is literally inescapable.
Kashi Vishwanath, the city’s most famous temple, is the toughest to visit. It is Shravan, Shankar Bhagwan’s month in the Hindu calendar, when I visit. Taciturn Abhishek makes up for his lack of stories by getting instant access to the sanctum sanctorum, a necessity given the long line of devotees from all over India, particularly the South. Apparently 1.5 lakh devotees visited the day before. Yet even at the silver altar and its flower-carpeted and milk-bathed lingam, pilgrims jostle with such ferocity that the Lord probably shakes his head in resignation. The elderly, hunched and twisted, manhandle you with a burst of cosmic energy. More hands than Mahakali’s push aside whatever stands in their way to God. It’s worse than a zombie apocalypse.
Every morning devotees offer sun salutations by queuing up to bathe in the Ganga (left); In the evening, priests deck up for the Ganga Aarti, a spiritual extravaganza where they break into synchronised choreography holding oil lamps (right).
“Aurangzeb destroyed this temple,” Abhishek finally says. “There’s his mosque,” he points to a dome beyond the barbed wire. Throngs stream past, and he says India’s biggest problem is overpopulation. “Modiji needs to do surgical strikes in our cities,” he says, referring to his representative in Parliament. But Abhishek is also practical: we visit Annapurna Devi—Shiva’s mother, from whom he first begged for alms. After all, we all first beg to our mothers. She’s the mother who feeds the Cosmos.
Other insanely crowded temples that are a must-darshan include the Kaal Bhairav, featuring a terrifying manifestation of Shankar Bhagwan where, in an Alien vs Predator-type showdown, he cuts off Lord Brahma’s fifth head with his fingernail (Kashi sprang up where the head landed). Shiva here is silvery. Also, he has a dog. I bow and someone ties a black thread around my neck. “It will cure you,” Abhishek says, apropos of nothing specifically.
At the Sankat Mochan Temple, a sindoor-drenched Hanumanji blesses those who struggle to the front of the devotees. Here the poet Tulsidas, author of Ramcharitamanas, had his vision of Hanuman. Here also, behind the compound’s huge tree, terrorists exploded a bomb in 2006, during the aarti. Where the Ramcharitamanas was written now has a temple: the two-storeyed Tulsi Manas Temple, a 1960s gaudy pastiche with cherubic marble gods. It’s like a Bhagwanji ka mall. Visitors snap selfies everywhere. What would happen if Shiva suddenly appeared on Earth, I wonder. Would people seek his blessings or click selfies?
Boatman Bhoomi (left) sings thumri so well that tourists often offer him gigs abroad. He, however, feels Varanasi’s ghats will ring empty without his voice; An Australian tourist poses with a ‘holy cow’ (top right); Dyed clothes are often dried in the city’s crammed alleys (bottom right).
The Durga Kund Mandir is one of many temples in Shiva’s city devoted to his wife. I love Durga puja and have several times visited the goddess at the Shakti peeth at Kamakhya in Assam, where, of the 51 pieces, Sati’s pubis dropped. Assamese women are beautiful, obviously from Shakti’s divine power. The Durga Kund Temple is wondrous, but I like even more a house-temple hidden in Bangali Tola, revealed by Kunal.
After we visited Gauri Kedareshwar, Kunal and I walked through the city’s old quarter, through the Bangali Tola where he grew up, and up to Dasashwamedha Ghat and the Chowk area, near the hidden entrances to Kashi Vishwanath. The walk in itself was an experience: through the narrow galis of Kashi, over the uneven flagstone roads, passing by halwai shops deep-frying some evening delicacy or other, and giving way to the buffalo ambling along. “When cattle stop giving milk, owners abandon them to save money they would otherwise need to spend on feeding them,” a driver complains. “But if you hit the cattle late at night, someone will jump out of nowhere, claim ownership, and demand Rs 3,000 or Rs 5,000 for damages.”
Cattle on the road is no doubt part of the small-town experience. In fact, everything about each walkabout
transports me back to my childhood in Bihar (Patna is only a four-hour drive away). Even the schoolgirls we pass occasionally, holding hands; no other relationship in their lives will be as carefree or affectionate. Whose hand did my mother hold while walking home from school? Varanasi is the epitome of small-town life.
Kunal and I arrive at a haveli: “No foreigners or tourists are allowed, but we’ll pretend you’re a friend.” An extended family lives here, smiling as we pass through the courtyard to get to the back, where, under salmon pink arches there is an entrance to a temple: a Kali Bari. The black stone goddess with piercing white eyes and protruding crimson tongue is among my favourite icons.
Brahmin students, who are imparted lessons in Vedic lifestyle and culture, run down the red-and-white, candy-striped Kedar Ghat for their morning yoga ritual.
After the walk we emerge from the quiet lane into the crowded and cacophonous Chowk, Varanasi’s ground zero. Kunal drags me to Kashi Chat Bhandar where I beg him to stop stuffing me. I’d already had tomato chaat and pakodi chaat; he orders palak chaat and tikki chaat. Also, gulab jamun. The eats are Varanasi’s other treasure. One morning I had a kachori-jalebi breakfast; in my youth I once wolfed down, with my cousin, one kilo of fresh jalebi. One evening I had Varanasi’s famed thandai, the thick milk concoction with cardamom and almonds; here they put in extra mewa, and of course a bhang thandai is as common as a traffic jam. Another evening I had lassi and I could have drank glass after glass all night.
Given the proliferation of halwai shops and their inventiveness, you could plan an entire eating tour. How sweet is Bana (made) ras (juice): the pista-tinged, paan-shaped malai gilori, each bite an encounter with layers of khoya and malai; the warm, soft, wet kisses of gulab jamun; the crumbly epiphanies of lal peda; a tiny pond of kheer in an earthen-pot; and magdal, made from dal, an extra-special incarnation of Kashi. All contribute to pet ki puja, a true communion with the divine.
Lastly: the evening boat ride down the Ganga that culminated with the maha aarti at the Dasashwamedha Ghat. Flutist Atul Shankar was on board, thanks to my host Gaurav Kapoor and his Banaras Privé, playing an evening raga. Divinely inspired music helps the mind drift down the Ganga. Varanasi is also an epicentre for Indian classical music. Many of the foreign visitors, three lakh annually, come to learn music. Many revisit over decades. One night I manage to hear Mangala Devi, whose magnificent voice box sings songs of Shravan. “Banaras is a place where bana ras,” she puns, to underline the emotional essence of art. I am again adrift down a river of time.
After my visit I wonder why I neglected visiting Varanasi for so long. The last time was as a teenager, when Banaras was a touristy curiosity. This time was a spiritual journey of time, emotion and transcendence. It’s a magical mystery tour, and as the Beatles say: “Roll up!”
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STAY Suryauday Haveli on Shivala Ghats is a 15 minute boat ride upstream along the famous ghats of Benaras. The Haveli offers three packages between 16th November, 2017 and 31st March, 2018 and is inclusive of GST. (http://www.suryaudayhaveli.com , Rooms from Rs13,500, inclusive of GST; Tel: +91 542 6540390, 2276811; Reservation Office – Tel: +91 11 66617838, 66617839; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
EAT Varanasi’s restaurants offer a wide range of cuisines from Malayali (Kerala Cafe) to Japanese (I:Ba). The recommendations below are by no means exhaustive.
Head to Kachauri Gali for an early breakfast of kachauri-sabzi (fried bread with vegetables) and jalebi at the street stalls. For mithai, head to the iconic Shree Rajbandhu in Chowk or Ksheer Sagar in Sonapura. Sip on a glass of strawberry pomegranate lassi at the Blue Lassi Shop.
While at Mansarovar Ghat, gorge on onion pakoras and lemon pancakes at Lotus Lounge.
Visit Godowlia Chowk for thandai, a milk-based drink. Bite down on Banarasi paan at Keshav Paanwala in Lanka, or Tambul Bhandar.
For a western gastronomic spin, take a walk down Assi Ghat, a lane packed with shops and restaurants. Indulge in crisp pizzas at Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe or stop at Hotel Haifa for a Middle Eastern thali. Besides serving up a scrumptious continental breakfast, Open Hand cafe is your best bet to shop for handcrafted clothes, bags and knickknacks. Kashi Chai stall is a must visit for its hard-to-miss cups of tea.
is the author of The CEO Who Lost His Head (2017), Death of Dreams: A Terrorist’s Tale (2000); Farooq Abdullah: Kashmir’s Prodigal Son (1995). He is a regular columnist for Mid-Day, Khaleej Times, and Provoke magazine. He is currently working on a memoir set in lower Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School in the late 1970s.
is the recipient of the prestigious Nikon World Photography Award. He works with Olympus, Go Pro and Manfrotto in India to lead and design photography trips; apart from working with US photographers on India Photo Trips.
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