…it was in Varanasi (known as Kashi in the scriptures, or more recently Banaras) that the full possibility of what India might be seemed to announce itself. Here was a vast experiment in human cohabitation that had been going on for five thousand years; a river city containing every facet of humanity, every creed, colour, caste, both astonishing beauty and the most harrowing ugliness and desolation. Here was the madness of India, as well as its wisdom, the sublime poetry of its spiritual traditions and the dirty imbalance of corruption. Here were Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Sikhs, as well as infinite sects pre-dating any of these major traditions, but which persisted happily within the larger whole. All of it combined as the city itself: one entity, a composite of spirit and form.
Until then I had supposed India was essentially unfathomable: it was too fast, too swiftly changing to yield to any categorization. In Varanasi….it seemed abundantly clear that there was something unique about the place, an energetic quality….There was an intensity to the alleys and the dust, which was part of the makeup of the citizens themselves, the most passionate, lively people I’d ever encountered
…in Varanasi that energy seems more highly charged: spinning faster, amplified somehow so that basic human tasks such as simply going to buy rice become shattering experiences of navigating two-hour traffic jams, throwing oneself against the side of an alley to avoid being crushed by a roaring Tata motorbike, or weaving between unruly cattle in the course of crossing the street. The crush of human numbers, the crumbling medieval architecture built upon and compressed by concrete structures, the hissing charge of frayed electric wires used as ropes by monkey troupes, the appalling pollution and a thousand other environmental factors combine to make the city an alchemist’s crucible, transmuting all who live there. Should you, after returning home across the city, wipe your face with a white cloth it will be stained black from the traffic fumes. Your lungs burn, your eyes stream, your stomach purges, and yet despite all this your spirit soars.
Though almost everything ever written about the contemporary city seems to use the word ‘chaos’, I found an unexpected serenity in these narrow galis – some of them too slender even to allow two people to walk abreast….Walking these mohallas, getting lost, and almost always finding a profound hospitality and kindness, was a key way I got to know the city.
And yet, despite this, the simplicity of life in the old medieval alleys, the poetry of the city’s rituals and beliefs, seemed to me to represent the best of India, the best, perhaps, of the human condition. There was a straightforward friendliness to the people there, a jocular sense of humour.
Virtue does not grow easily in Banaras. And vice has no better place. For all come here to burn.
- Raja Rao, On the Ganga Ghat
‘Fire has a cleansing capacity,’ continues Gupta…. ‘which is why the bodies of children are never burnt. They’re already clean, you see: their souls are pure. In those cases we merely take them to the centre of the river, attach a large boulder to them with rope, then tip them into Ganga. The Holy Mother will carry them home. Sadhus are not burnt for the same reason.’
…how could a young man bear the austerities such a life [a sadhu’s] would entail? India seems to allow for such behavior like nowhere else on earth, I think.
Though prostitution is officially legal in India, related activities such as pimping and operating brothels are not. Historically this has allowed the industry to thrive, while relegating the sex workers to a murky legal grey area, denied even access to normal labour laws.
A folk saying from these parts warns: ‘Beware the four perils of Kashi: widows, bulls, steps and holy men.’
Between the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries, virtually all of Banaras, was demolished by successive invaders. In the late twelfth century Qutb-ud-din Aibak, a former slave who became a sultan, almost levelled the city to the ground, destroying more than a thousand temples in the process. The sixth Mughal emperor Aurangzeb razed many more, including, in 1669, the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Hinduism’s holiest site