Varanasi-The City of Lights
Uttar Pradesh is home to many holy pilgrimage sites
that dot this large State-situated in the inaccessible, lofty
mountains to blistering hot plains and along cool rivers.
On a winter morning as
the cool wind blew gently, I rode on a rickshaw speeding along the
narrow roads of one of the oldest cities of the world. Varanasi, also
known as Kashi, meaning City of Light, was coming to
life. In fact, the eternal city of Varanasi never sleeps. It was only
six in the morning and the streets were full of people rushing to
take a pre-dawn dip in the holy Ganges.
Kashi is as old as
Jerusalem or Athens and like a true Indian city, it is one of
contrasts. Its antiquity is preserved along with currents of
modernity in an unbroken chain of Hindu tradition and culture.
Yet, this over-populated
city is, on the surface, overwhelmingly bewildering and extremely
challenging to the Western visitor, who may find himself suddenly
lingering in an altogether different era: in the midst of all the
chaos, an orderly world fashioned in divine order is distinctly
At dawn, I left my
rickshaw and started to walk towards Dashashwamedh Ghat, the most
famous ghat in Varanasi. Dashashwamedh is the second the five tirthas
on the holy river, the first being Asi. It is said that Lord Brahma
performed the ten horses sacrifice here. The narrow road
connecting it with the heart of the city, Godaulia, was a little
stream hundreds of years ago and was named Godavari after the sacred
river of Central India. Thus Dashashwamedha was at the confluence of
the Ganga and the Godavari rivers!
In the early hours of the
morning, it appeared as though the ghats had become an extension of
peoples homes as the entire city appeared to be present there.
The cool wind had turned
chilly but bathers were not discouraged and boatmen kept persuading
Indians and foreigners alike to come for a ride. I sat bemused on the
ghats watching a panda (priest) trying to persuade a Westerner
to undergo a holy ritual. Nearby another foreigner, dressed in
kurta-pyjama was reading a local Hindi daily! A barber,
sitting on a brick was busy shaving a customer who too was sitting on
a stone. Pandas sitting under wooden umbrellas continued performing
rituals in return for a small fee. It was indeed business hours for
Soon the sky began to
turn blood red and like a ball of fire, the sun rose into the
firmament. Pilgrims rushed to the water so that they could offer it
to the Sun God. I decided to take a walk along the ghats and
witnessed some people meditating or doing aerobics while others
sipped cups of tea.
Next to Dashashwamedha
Ghat is Man Mandir Ghat, famous for its towering fortress with
exquisite, ornately carved windows and the 18th century
observatory built by Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur. Then comes Mir Ghat
where the temple of Vishalakshi is located. Along side is the Shiva
temple of Dharmesha where the Lord of Death, Yamaraja received his
jurisdiction over the fate of the dead (but he is deprived of this
power in Varanasi!) Then there is the Lalita Ghat, where one comes
across the Nepali Temple enshrining the image of Pashupatinath,
Nepals most famous manifestation of Lord Shiva.
I had by this time
reached Manikarnika Ghat, described by the tourist guides as the big
burning ghat where the fire on the funeral pyres never dies
out. But this ghat is more than just a mere burning ghat. Manikarnika
is said to be the place where the earth was created as well as the
place where the earth will be destroyed. Containing both the sacred
well, dug out by Vishnu at the beginning of time and the cremation
ground where creation itself burns out at the end of time, it is here
that life meets death.
Death, unlike anywhere
else, is not feared in Varanasi but is welcomed like a long awaited
guest and in Manikarnika the dead attain moksha or liberation.
This influence extends itself all over Varanasi.
Varanasi is a city of
narrow and even more narrow lanes and by-lanes where even the sun
does not easily penetrate. It is very difficult to keep track of the
complicated network of lanes which no map seems to plot accurately.
And it is in these lanes that the city lives and thrives. There are
lofty houses made of red sandstone and dazzling shops selling the
famous Banarasi silk, brocade, handicrafts and brasswork. The winding
maze of long lanes finally leads to the famous Vishwanath Temple, the
abode of Lord Shiva.
Varanasi is the city of
Shiva who is considered the Lord of Varanasi. It is said that when he
married Parvati, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas, he scanned
the entire earth and choosing Varanasi decided to settle there. Today
there are thousands of Shiva temples the most famous of them being
the Kashi Vishwanath Temple situated in the extremely narrow and busy
Vishwanath Lane. Here the Shiva linga is the jyotirlinga
or Linga of Light and is installed in the seat of divine
energy or shakti personified as Shivas female half.
perform puja here every day after taking a bath in the Ganges.
The present temple was built in the late 18th century by
Queen Ahalyabai Holker of Indore, and in 1839, Ranjit Singh got the
spires over the temple plated with gold.
Paying no head to the
calls of shopkeepers, I emerged from Vishvanath Lane where dozens of
shops selling all kinds of religious paraphernalia nestled
But everything in
Varanasi is not religion and even though it has no instant gimmicks
to offer the first-time visitor, it is a city that has sheltered
innumerable poets, scholars, musicians and artisans making it a rich
repository of Indias cultural traditions. And even today as you
wend your way through streets, flanked by flower sellers and halwais,
you will chance upon the residence of the shehnai maestro
Ustad Bismillah Khan.
Wander further a field to
Mandanpura or Alaipura or indeed any suburban locality and you will
discover the magic of the Benaras brocade.
This then is
Varanasibewildering, breathtaking and an utter contradiction.
Raas is the
essence of all the rasas (emotions) and leela is the
depiction of episodes from the life of the Lord.
The story goes that raas
was performed some 5,000 years ago by Lord Krishna and his brother
Balaram with Radha being Krishnas main partner. One day,
however, Krishna deserted Radha and the weeping maiden with her
friends enacted episodes from Krishnas life in order to keep
his memory alive. And so, as legend has it; the first raas leela was
In the Shrimad Bhagawat
Gita there is a description of a maharaas in which over 1,600
gopis (milk maids) are said to have participated, along with
Krishna, on the banks of the river Yamuna on full moon night. Lord
Shiva dressed up as a gopi just to take part in the event and a
number of gods and goddesses are said to have descended from heaven
to witness this unique moment.
Raas leela was
really a figment of the imagination of the great saints and scholars
who wrote our ancient texts, contends Mr. Jiwan Pai, Director
of the Kathak Kendra, New Delhi. It symbolized the achievement
of divine sublimation through graceful rhythmic movements
Tangible enactment of raas leela first came about only in the 16th
century during the Bhakti renaissance.
The Bhakti renaissance as
we know involved figures like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu from Bengal, Guru
Vallabhacharya, the great saint-musician from the south, Swami
Haridas, the guru of Tansen etc. These leaders toured the plains of
north India to identify the holy land of Braj and places where
Krishna performed the raas.
The first raas leela,
that we that we know of, based on episodes from the Shrimad Bhagawat
Purana, was performed under the auspices of Guru Vallabhacharya and
his poets including the famous Surdas, at the Vishram Ghat in
Mathura. This sowed the seeds of the raas leela tradition.
Today, there are over 100
raas mandalis touring India and abroad. They converge on the
sacred Braj-bhoomi during the auspicious months of August and
September to relive the time when Radha and Krishna reveled in their
romance. For 45 days and nights a different episode in the lives of
these great lovers is enacted by each mandali in a huge pandal.
Entrance is free and all the artists are male in keeping with the
tradition of the first raas at Vishram Ghat 500 years ago.
References to Hardwar are
extremely scanty, in spite of the existence of many ancient sites in
the region. Mayapur, Gangdwara, Kapila and in earlier travelogues
even Mo-yu-lo were all names given to Hardwar. The towns
special position as the principal gateway to the Himalayas made it of
strategic importance and its antiquity is proved by its close
association with early Hindu mythology.
Abul Fazl, during Akbars
reign, refers to Maya or Haridwar, and Tom Coryat, who visited the
place in the days of Jehangir speaks of Haridwara, the capital
of Shiva. It is said that there was a mint for copper coins
The first of the sacred
sites is the Bhimgoda tank on the north side of the pass. The next is
in the town itself and consists of a well within a small temple
called Brahmakund, which possibly marks the site of the great temple
mentioned by the Chinese traveller, Hsuan Tsieng.
Towards the south is the
Har-ki-pauri or bathing ghat, so called from the imprint of Vishnus
feet shown on a stone built into the wall. This ghat, the most sacred
of all the holy places at Hardwar, was originally very small, and had
a width of only 34 feet at the top with 39 steps. This resulted in a
mad scramble as the object of the pilgrims was to reach the sacred
pool as soon as possible. The end result was, more often than not,
disaster. In 1820, a desperate surge killed over 400 people.
Consequently, in order to prevent such disasters, the present ghat
was constructed with a width of several hundred metres.
Close at hand is the
Gangadwara temple, the largest and the most important of all shrines
here. To the south are a succession of temples and monasteries ending
with the shrine of Sarvanath, which is at the junction of Lalta Rau
and the Ganga. At Mayapur too, just below Gangesh ghat are the
headworks of the Ganges canal.
Among the snows of
Garhwal nestle Badrinath and Kedarnathtwo of the most sacred
Hindu shrines devoted to Vishnu and Shiva. At the foothills of
Garhwal stands Rishikesh. It is here that the Ganga changes character
from a fierce mountain stream to a placid river, meandering through
the vast plains.
Further downstream is
Allahabad. Prayag, as it is normally called, marks the sangam
(confluence) of the life givers Ganga and Yamuna with the mythical,
underground river Saraswati. A bath at the confluence offers complete
absolution from a lifetime of sin.
Ayodhya is inevitably
linked with Shri Rama, just as Mathura and Vrindavan are linked with
Shri Krishna. Besides these major places of pilgrimage in the State,
there are numerous other smaller, localized centres, albeit outside
the scope of individual detailing.
ALONG THE MANDAKINI
To see a river for the
first time as its confluence with another great river is, for me, a
special moment in time. And so it was with the Mandakini at
Rudraprayag, where its waters were joined with the waters of the
Alaknanda, one having come from the glacial snows above Kedarnath,
the other from the Himalayan heights beyond Badrinath. Both sacred
rivers, both destined to become the holy Ganga further downstream.
While the Alaknanda
valley, especially in its higher reaches, is a deep and narrow gorge
where precipitous outcrops of rock hang threateningly over the
traveller, the Mandakini valley is broader, gentler, the
terraced fields wider, the banks of the river a green sward in many
places. Somehow, one does not feel that one is at the mercy of the
Mandakini whereas one is always at the mercy of the Alaknanda with
its sudden landslips and floods.
Rudraprayag is hot. It
is probably a pleasant spot in winter, but at the end of June it is
decidedly hot. But as one travels up the river, making a gradual
ascent of the Mandakini valley, there is a cool breeze coming down
from, the snows, and the smell of rain is in the air.
The thriving little
township of Agastmuni spreads itself along the wide river banks and
further upstream, near a little place called Chandrapuri, we cannot
resist breaking our journey to sprawl on t he tender green grass that
slopes gently down to the swift flowing river. A small rest house is
in the making. Around it, banana fronds sway and poplar leaves dance
in the breeze.
The road climb gradually,
still keeping to the river. Just outside Guptakashi my attention is
drawn to a clump of huge trees sheltering a small but ancient temple
dedicated to Shiva and in the courtyard are several river-rounded
stone lingams on which leaves and blossoms have fallen. No one
seems to come here, which is strange, since it is on the pilgrim
route. The trees seem to be magnolias. But I have never seen magnolia
trees grow to such huge proportions.
Guptakashi in the evening
is all a bustle. A coachload of pilgrims headed for Kedarnath has
just arrived and the tea shops near the bus stand are doing brisk
business. Since there is no cinema or public place of entertainment
at Guptakashi, the town goes to sleep early. And wakes early.
At six, the hillside,
green from recent rain, sparkles in the morning sunshine. Snowcapped
Chaukhamba (7140 metres) is dazzling. The air is clear; no smoke or
dust up here. The climate, I am told is mild all the year round
judging by the scent and shape of the flowers, and the boys call them
Guptakashi has old
double-storeyed houses which are built of stone, with grey slate
roofs. The blend well with the hillside and cobbled paths meander
through the old bazaar. One of these takes you up to the famed
Guptakashi temple tucked away above the old part of the town. Here,
Shiva is worshipped as Vishwanath and two underground streams
representing the sacred Jamuna and Bhagirathi rivers feed the pool
sacred to the God. The temple gives the town its nameGuptakashi
or Invisible Benares.
From Guptakashi pilgrims
proceed north to Kedarnath, the last stage of their journey, about a
days march, which must be covered on foot or horseback. The
temple of Kedarnath, situated at a height of 11,753 feet is encircled
by snow-capped peaks. The temple is dedicated to Sadashiva, the
subterranean form of God who fleeing from the Pandavas took refuge
here. Finding himself hard pressed, he dived into the ground, leaving
the hinder parts on the surface which continue to be the subject to
The other portions of the
God are worshipped as follows: the arms at Tungnath, at a height of
13,000 feet; the face at Rudranath; the belly at Madmaheshwar, 18
miles north east of Guptakashi; and the hair and head at Kalpeshwar
near Joshimath. These five sacred shrines form the Panch Kedars.