Banaras – the city is ancient in the most profound sense of the word. Time is the greatest foe of civilization; it wields a megalomaniac influence. It is the one true hallmark of strength, of endurance, of relevance. History is witness to countless lives, to innumerable cities buried under the harsh tides of time. And yet, stands a city which is unfazed by this cruel dimension. It seems like this city precedes time; it has never daunted this extraordinary city. Instead, time has stood as a sentinel to Banaras, gently bowing its head to generations after generations of humanity that has passed through its gates. It is not difficult to infer the tremendous value family name holds here. Older the family, greater is the respect accorded. Understandably so, after all they are accomplices in nature’s greatest feat – conquering time.
Banaras wears many hats. Not only is it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities, it is believed to be created by the Gods themselves. With the holy Ganges gracing the city, the mystical aura surrounding it draws millions of travelers in search of divinity and salvation. I have always struggled with religion and still don’t fully grasp the purpose of it. I get baffled by the ease with which people around me have taken to religion and God while I grapple with the most basic principles. Thus, when I was planning the trip to Banaras, I did not expect it to be a sacred experience. But I was counting on it to provide me with some perspective on religion, to give me a spiritual context which I could build upon.
My first reflection of Banaras was that it was unbearably hot and delightfully chaotic. One has to tear through a sea of humanity and an army of cattle to discover the serene quality Banaras is famous for. This did not come as a surprise to me because I know that like the rest of India, madness can seamlessly coexists with the mystical here. We made our way to the famed ghats and as I descended the ancient stairs to make our way to the river, I could not sense an air of divinity right away. It was business as usual as we haggled with a boat owner to take us on a ride along the holy river. As I sat on the boat, I wondered if this was underwhelming for the rest of the visitors as well or was I just not spiritually qualified enough to appreciate the beauty of the ghats. But as we rowed along the river and I looked around, I realized that the entire circle of life was unfolding right before my eyes. I could see children learning to swim, people making a living, some sadhus meditating, worshipers taking a dip in the river, newlyweds seeking blessings and dead bodies being cremated; all in a single panorama. What a complex, profound sight it was; people going about the business of life and death with an equal degree of diligence and sense of duty.
Hindus believe that being cremated in Banaras brings salvation and sends them straight to heaven. Many come to die here, it consummates their lives. Out of the 85 ghats, two of them are dedicated exclusively to cremating dead bodies. Cremation is a lucrative business run by some of the oldest families, responsible for providing livelihood to thousands. This is the most striking aspect of the ghats; in a way it honors the starkest, deepest meaning of life – death. Even death is a ritual laden affair executed with a businesslike stoicism. One slip in the ritual and the path to heaven may close. Hundreds of pyres burn along side each other, difficult to distinguish one body from another. What is the point anyway, they are all going to the same destination.
All the hustle and bustle at the ghats culminates at dusk in the grand Ganga Arti where six priests offer their prayers to the Ganga, the giver of life. This is a sight to behold; a beautiful contrast is created with heavily lit lamps against the background of the darkening sky and the resting river. For about an hour, the air is charged with the sounds of conch shells, bells and chants as thousands of people gather to witness this spectacle. The arti is a classically Indian affair, a perfect blend of spirituality and splendor. The atmosphere is a melange of deafening noise and dignified prayers and falls into silence after it is over. The devotees then bid adieu to the river for the day, leaving her in the presence of the faint smoke of incense sticks and gradually dimming lights.
Mark Twain said that Banaras is older than history, time and legend put together. This land has fascinated many; from scholars to commoners, from saints to sinner. It promises to hold the answers we all seek, the secrets to the truth of life. Many people wander around in the city, scouring its dusty, time honored alley for divine wisdom and spiritual illumination. I did not have the good fortune to spend more than a day here and am hardly an authority on the limitless wisdom the city holds. But I am happy to say that it brought me a small step closer to appreciating the greatest creation of all – life.