Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Benaras, is the cultural capital of India – a mysterious place that has been slightly overlooked by influxes of visitors, who set foot in the incredible land of India only to see the majestic Taj Mahal and tick some sights of general interest.
Starting a journey in India for many of the neophytes, who are less prone to accommodate themselves to the country’s vibrant lifestyle, unique tastes and a world of unusual smells should first venture into Delhi. India’s chaotic capital is famous for its fearless touts and a veritable crush of mechanical and human traffic, tuk-tuks and old Tata Ambassador taxicabs hurtling along the wide avenues. This might seem downright confronting, extremely dangerous and no less confounding for the first-time visitor, but it would be impetuous to let your first impressions depreciate the wonders of this truly multidimensional metropolis. In spite of the apparent chaos and cacophony that the
swarming traffic produces in the scorching heat, it would be hard to find anyone who does not immediately become enamored of the captivating ancient monuments, magnificent museums, a vivacious performingarts scene and some of the subcontinent’s most delectable dishes served throughout Delhi (not all these are for the squeamish, but commonsense or, even better, a well-trained tummy can keep one’s digestive system unharmed). You will be amazed to see how Delhi, this huge melting pot accommodates a
jumble of vernaculars, covering Hindi, English, Urdu and Punjabi, which easily creates the
impression of a post-Babelic turmoil so suggestive of the region. While Delhi is home
to a “new” and an “old” world – one being New Delhi, the imperial capital if British India,
whereas Islamic India has is center is Old Delhi. “Visiting the city even for a couple of
days can be absolutely tiring,” comments Miss Eishita Puri, who owns K One One, a cozy
guesthouse, only a stone’s throw away from the madding crowds that one encounters in
the vicinity of the dramatic Red Fort, Jama Masjid and bustling bazaars of Old Delhi.
Life and death
Enchanting and contrastive as the capital might seem from many aspects – some of which are presented authentically yet with a strong bias in Slumdog Millionaire, the not so recent English box-office hit – travelling on leisurely by one of the ramshackle trains of a bygone era to other cities in India will make the visitor understand that Delhi is far from being a final destination in terms of contradictions. As you get off the train in Varanasi (or, you may also opt for the more comfortable way by arranging a ticket to India’s high-quality, privately owned boutique airlines, like Kingfisher or Spicejet), you will agree that the platform looks as though it were the perfect place for initiation into the gamut of contradictions that coexist peacefully in Varansi – the ancient and the modern, the mystical and the mundane, and of course (perhaps most famously), life and death. Varanasi, the place where the soulattains moksha is also the city that fuelled the fertile imagination of the like of Tulsidas, Kabir and Jayshankar Prasad.
Enjoying Varanasi – or at least understanding a fragment of its rich and variegated cultural and religious scene – is only possible if the visitor is somewhat conversant with at least a handful of Indian gods and rites as well as the shining spirituality that runs through every motif of the rich and complex worldview that every Indian preserves in their bosom. Had the author of the present piece studied Indology at the famous Faculty of Humanities of ELTE back in his native Budapest, he would certainly have comprehended more profoundly why Varanasi is regarded by all Indians as the last stop before nirvana. It was for centuries that Hindus have made their holy pilgrimage to Varanasi by the River Ganges to attain instant moksha, the liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
The oldest living city
Only few places in India are as inscrutable, exciting or spiritually touching as the beautifully preserved bathing ghats covering the terraced riverside of the Ganges. Varanasi, previously named Benaras and Kashi (which means the City of Light), is today the throbbing heart of the Hindu universe, a crossroads between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Ganges is the everlasting symbol of hope to past, present and future generations. It cannot be accidental that Mark Twain (who seems to be as good of a philosopher as a walking depository of witticisms) stated in his 1898 book, Following the Equator that “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” And how correctly he put it: Varanasi is indeed the oldest living city in the world, a magical but oftentimes overwhelming place the Western soul is very unlikely to ever identify with in its entirety. It is the city where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public on the city’s ghats. travelling on a leisurely passing boat on the Ganges late at night will offer India’s most absorbing experience: it is the desire of many Indians to die and be cremated in Varanasi after being soaked for an instant in the holy Ganges. While the cremation of the dead bodies can surely be regarded as the major “attraction” of Varanasi, you should refrain from believing that this unusual ritual is the only high point the city can offer. If there is one thing you must mot miss is the evening aarti at Dashawamedh ghat.
Water and soul
As the sun goes down, every day, for about twenty minutes, the ghat of Benaras comes to a standstill even as hundreds gather there for the pinnacle of the day. A spectacular, flawlessly choreographed prayer service by the pandas – incantation to the river goddess, songs, several-tiered aarti stands, conch shells, temple bells will grip the visitor with an inexplicable religious fervor. You will be mesmerized by the sheer noise that goes down to the soul. It is loud. It is grand. It is surreal. Starting the daybreak in Varanasi at the ghats offers an experience that is no less captivating: thousands of pilgrims are bathing naked in the dark-colored waters of the Ganges, scooping some cold holy water in their hands to wash away the earthly sins of mortals. Varanasi awakens from its emotionally touching evening aarti to offer solace, a newer and purer life that so few can experience today. While the Ganges ranks among the top five most polluted rivers of the world, every visitor should be encouraged to touch it, to feel it. It is a sacred, a mystical and an inexplicable feeling: the electric numbing feel of the water is sure to linger on for days and months and years.