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Theatre of excess: The saffronisation of Banaras might result in the erasure of its famous mixed culture

Mystical mornings at Banaras

Mystical mornings at Banaras

The diya- and flower-decked ghats of Banaras usually teem with thousands of tourists and visitors from different backgrounds, religions, sects, and creeds. Today, the same ghats have been pasted over with posters that ban non-Hindus from visiting.

Banaras, known to accept everyone with open arms, is being asked to exclude every person without a Hindu name. This overt saffronisation of Banaras might result in the erasure of its famous mixed culture, the mili juli tahzeeb, which had made Sufi mystics like Sheikh Ali Hazeen call it their home.

Down the centuries, several luminaries of Urdu literature found a second home in Banaras: Mughal princes such as Mirza Sikandar Shukoh Bahadur and Shahzada Mirza Khusrow Jalal Ahmad Khan Bahadur; Nawab Syed Naseer-ud-Deen Ali Khan Bahadur Samsam Jung from the royal family of Doolighat; Asghar Ali Khan, the grandson of Nawab Meer Qasim Aali Jah of Bengal; Mirza Rajab Ali Beig Suroor, court poet of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah; and a lot more. In their works, Banaras became a byword for love, art, literature and culture.

ta’ala allah banaras chashm-e-bad-door


‘May god protect Banaras from the evil eye; What an amusing manmade para dise it is’

Said the legend of rekhta , Ghalib, while being a guest of Shahzada Mirza Jawan Bakht Bahadur in Banaras. Who would have known that such a simple wish of his would not be granted...

Ghalib also wrote a qaseeda (ode) in Persian titled Subh-e-Banaras , where he exhorts those leading boring lives to come and take a look at the lively structures of the city of idols. Though Banaras is a place of idol-worship, for him it is the ‘holy Kaaba of Hindoustaan’. The people of Banaras have smiles that cure every ache in the heart, he says. Ghalib concludes by saying that his sole desire is to get engulfed by the Ganga, so that he can rest in Banaras for all eternity.

Ode to beauty

In the words of another poet, Akhtar Sheerani:

tamam hind mein’ mash’hoor hai yahaan’ ki subah, kuch is qadar

hai saher khushnuma banaras ki

‘The mornings of Banaras are famous in all of Hindustan, such is their beauty’

Which brings us to subh-e-banaras; the belief that the most beautiful mornings are seen in the ghats of Banaras. Allama Syed Ijteba Hussain Rizvi, sitting at Dashashwamedh Ghat, composed a nazm titled Subh-e-Banaras in 1933, where he describes the events that unfold as the morning dawns.

tamasha ki wo arzaani, wo ganga, wo sanamkhaana, banaras ki

saher, asnaan ki taqreeb-e-rozaana

‘It is a theatre of excess, the Ganga here, the temple there, people bathing in the ghats; these mornings of Banaras’

sanamkhaanaharam waale zara kashi ka manzar dekhte jaayen’, kabhi dekheinge

jannat, par abhi dekhein’ sanamkhaana

‘Dwellers of the holy Kaaba must see the city of Kashi; they will see the heavens one day, but let them see the temples today’

Rizvi then describes a young woman who has come to the ghat to worship and pray:

Kanwal se haath mein’ ganga jali, aur phool ki thaali, chali wo

dewtaaon’ ki chaheeti le ke nazraana

‘Ganga water in her lotus-like hands and a tray of flowers; with such offerings walks the darling of the gods’

Hain paryaan’ ghaat par ya maang mein kashi ki taare hain,

banaras khud dulhan hai aur ganga aayinakhaana

‘Are these angels on the ghat or Kashi’s stars adorning the hair; Banaras seems a bride and Ganga a house of mirrors’

Welcome home

Rizvi would not have imagined in his wildest dreams that one day it would become impossible for a person of his religion to write something similar.

In the late Mughal period, with the arrival of Shahzada Mirza Jawan Bakht and Nawab Ali Ibrahim Khan in Banaras, the city emerged as a hub for literature and art. Mushaire (symposiums) on the lines of those held in Delhi’s Red Fort became common, especially at Nawab ki Deohdi, the residence of Ali Ibrahim Khan.

Demolition work at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple corridor

Demolition work at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple corridor

When Ali Ibrahim Khan was appointed Chief Magistrate of Banaras in 1781, he constructed the historic pathway to the Vishwanath Temple that is now being demolished. In 1826, Urdu had become the city’s official language.

Mirza Hatim Ali Beig Mehr, a close friend of Ghalib who stayed in Banaras shortly, wrote:

jab se mujhe qismat ne banaras se chhudaya,

rahta hai zabaan’ par meri bas haaye banaras!

‘From the day fate compelled me to leave Banaras, O Banaras is the chant on my lips’

kaabe mein’ dua mangunga main’ apne khuda se,

ya rab! but-e-kaafir mujhe bulwaaye banaras

‘I will pray to my god in the kaaba;

O god, let me be recalled by the idols of Banaras’

These poets are long dead but the spirit of their poetry should not die with them. Let the narrow lanes of the old city not become a graveyard of all things good, of art and love, and a wealth of culture.

The writer is a theatre artist and a student of Social Work at Delhi University.

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Printable version | Jul 21, 2022 11:35:23 pm |