Tulsi Badrinath experiences something immense on the steps of a temple in Uttar Pradesh.
Past the crowded, pulsing intersection at Godhaulia, a narrow path on the left turns into a vegetable market. This unlikely place opens onto the ghats of Varanasi and the Ganga. On entering the sacred geography of Kashi one is said to become rudramaya, of the essence of Shiva. What does that feel like, I wondered.
Emerging past hanging discs of freshly-cut jackfruit, I saw deep-green water in the distance and reached wide steps that impelled me downwards. I felt I was rushing, running eagerly down to the great river.
At 11 in the morning, the sun was uncomfortably high in the sky. There were few people walking on the platform, mostly foreign tourists. I intended to walk the length of the ghats to the right, but already my sari was absorbing heat and sweat beginning to pour. The southern tip of the crescent that is the Ganga at Varanasi, Assi Ghat, shimmered indistinctly far in the distance.
At Dasashwamedh Ghat, a priest sat in the shade of a flat-topped leaf-umbrella, instructing two men seated in front of him on the rituals to be done. Women drifted towards the Ganga Mata temple visible at a height. Here and there flowers, shining brass pots, other necessities for puja were being sold, placed upon rickety wooden constructions, open-air stalls. A tea-stall drew a fresh group of customers. At Sitala Ghat, a distinctive white, flat-roofed structure dominated the scene, housing various shrines.
Onwards then. Ahalyabai Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Darbhanga Ghat, Rana Ghat. Inexplicably thrilled by the names of the ghats, I silently recited them to myself. Semi-circular columns fell behind, yielding to the brackets and balconies of Rajasthan. At the Chaumsathi Ghat, hallowed steps paved a steep ascent to the temple of the 64 yoginis. Flanked by tall buildings, flights of steps, temple shikharas to the right and the smaller set of steps touching water on the left, the eye was continually led upwards to a height or down, to the flow of people and the slower, almost still, expanse of the river.
A bride, resplendent in a red sari, its fringed tinsel border aflame in the sun, stood beside her turbaned groom, making a solemn offering to the Ganga. Further on, a stout man soaped himself vigorously, leaving a trail of white froth on his bare skin. The smell of Lifebuoy prevailed momentarily over a particularly noxious stench. Buffaloes wallowed in cool depths, while plastic bags, rubbish and a bovine rib-cage, clean of flesh, bobbed against a protruding clay bank.
Assi Ghat seemed to recede further into the distance; maybe I had under-estimated the length of the walk. It was quite hot now. I had crossed Digpatia, Sarveswar, Panda, Khori, and Raja Ghats. So many! To return would be to give in too soon.
Atop a steep set of steps, I saw the familiar red and white stripes of temples in the south and the legend Kedar Ghat. I began to climb, drawn by the place, and the desire to see Kedareswara. The long walk, the unknown place, the height of this ghat combined to make it an arduous climb. There is no break in the ascent and the higher one climbs, the fall of steps conquered, diving into Gauri Kund, and below, is a dizzying sight.
Five steps, then three, then a last one over the threshold. In the dark, cool interior of the temple, a strong breeze blew. It revived, it reassured, conveying a blessing. Looking back, past the doorway — now an oblong dazzle of light, there was only ether. Inside the sanctum, it felt strange to actually touch the linga — gently rounded natural rock — used as I was, in south India, to darshan from afar. Standing beside the Nandi, absorbing the quiet but powerful energies of the temple, I noticed a marble tablet bearing an inscription of Shankara’s Shiva Panchakshara verse. I listened to it at home almost everyday, moved, made rapt by the singing of M.S. Subbulakshmi.
His words, her voice — together they conjured the image of three-eyed Shiva, insouciantly wearing snakes for garlands, applying layers of sparkling ash on his skin, wearing the entire sky as garment. Centuries coalesced; in an instant leap I reached Kashi, where shines light, in my heart.
Later, seated on the heated steps outside, there was an expanded awareness of time and space. Unmoored from the quotidian routine, none of my pressing concerns, not even completing the novel I was writing, seemed to have much weight. They fell away. What entered through the eyes, darshan, and filled me instead was the sense of the sacred river below, the sky clothing blue a larger vastness, the ghats, the fortunate inhabitants of that city, the palpable sense of something immense, abiding, without a beginning nor even an end.
For a brief while, I was rudramaya, a pair of pilgrim eyes gazing invisible upon the eternal, the auspicious, the true.
This article has been corrected for a factual error