Discovering Varanasi

I WAS fortunate that, during my first experience of Varanasi, we did not have to go to the cantonment side where they said, "all the five star hotels were". We were in the literary and cultural heart of the city, in the Benares Hindu University's guesthouse, situated in 14 acres of greenery. They said (and Benares is full of stories of the past mingling with the slow drawl of its present) that when Madan Mohan Malaviya wanted land for the University from the then Maharaja, the latter jocularly remarked, "Take as far as you can walk! I'll accompany you." Malaviya led him across the 14 acres. The land was his!

We were to attend the 18th Annual Convention of the Society for the Promotion of Indian Culture and Music Amongst Youth (SPIC-MACAY). This 25-year-old organisation has stirred a revolution of sorts in creating potential connoisseurs of the arts. As usual, there was a tight and rich five-day schedule of dance, music and theatre workshops, lectures, craft demonstrations — early morning yoga sessions onwards to performances every evening by leading musicians and dancers from all over India. "All this is fine," said a friend as we shuttled from one inspirational art happening to another, "but what about the real Benares?"

"You cannot know Benares unless you walk its lanes and by-lanes," said a local enthusiast." "But we don't want cars here, we don't want to have the roads broadened and ruin the feel of the old city." So we juggled with the convention's schedules and began to play truant to savour the feel of Benares.

We walked in the hot June sun, in the narrow streets, amidst a cacophony of sounds. We walked with the scooters hooting and the rickshawwallahs cursing in the drawling rhythms of Purabi phrases. We walked amidst the teasing aroma of newly arrived Benarsi langra mangoes which at their best look heavily pregnant, and the sleek, taut Dusseris, the colour of sunflowers. We found every second shop selling the famous thandai, every third one, the famous rabri and, all over, the famous Benarsi paan shops.

I realised that, in Benares, you don't just eat. You let your tongue linger over each subtle flavour and only then can you identify like a local gourmet, whether that little pinch of saffron in the thandai is from Kashmir or Spain!

Discovering Varanasi

The nearness of the ghats of the Ganga and the constant flow of death as part of life seems to act as an antidote to fear for the local Banarsi babu. He has lost his awe of death because it is all pervading, as is the cosmic presence of the Shiva in the city He is said to have ruled over since times past. So the local inhabitant views life with the sanguine belief that what will be; will be.

And life, in the narrow, meandering, chattering streets of the old town, is aglow with what panders to the senses the most — not sex, but food. Benares, or Varanasi, as it is now called, was a revelation. On one more sojourn in the search for that penultimate source selling the best thandai, we landed up finally at Misrambhu's. It was a tiny place. The owner, Misrambhu himself, was mixing and pouring the aromatic liquid into kulhars, the large, mud-baked bowls. "Guess what?" whispered my friend as we sipped the creamy concoction, "The proprietor is a disciple of Ravi Shankar."

"Who?" I couldn't believe it.

"Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro. He was born here. I'll show you his house."

We did not see Panditji's house, but we visited the tabla king Pandit Krishan Maharaj. It was late evening, and the streets were narrow in an area called Kabir Chaura. The car had to be left behind, as we walked into the shrunken, unlit alley with space barely for two abreast. There were six of us — Uma Sharma, the Kathak dancer; Jwala Prasad, the singer and composer; Mubarak, also a tabla player; Khalid Mustafa, the sitar exponent and my friend, philosopher and guide to Benares, Hindi journalist, Ravindra Mishra. Would Krishna Maharaj be living in a tiny little house, commensurate with the size of the lanes? Would there be place enough for all of us to sit?

We stopped in front of an unlit door in a cul-de-sac. Pandit Krishnan Maharaj himself opened the door when we rang the bell. We stepped in.

And there in front of us, stretching far into the dark was a garden! Tall plants and flowerpots were spreading the aroma of greenery. "I water them myself," said Krishan Maharaj proudly, as he led us into a spacious, carpeted room, which could seat not five, but 50 people.

We sat cross-legged on the floor. The sound of the tabla came from another room. "My grandson is practising", said the maestro and then added without batting an eyelid, "there was a time when all my three wives lived happily together. Now there's only this one's grandmother!" And his eyes twinkled. He is 80 years old, but his face glows.

As we walked back through the tiny, dark lanes, they seemed to spring alive with the sounds of the past, as Krishan Maharaj had described it... "The yearning tones of the sarangi from one corner, the tinkling of ghungroos from another where Sitara used to live, and the soft bols of a thumri from yet another and, of course, the tandav beat of the tabla..."

The evening performances on the open-air stage of the Convention seemed only to be a more intellectually framed counterpoint to this religio-cultural ambience of Benares. The stories sung or enacted on the stage spilled over into the incidents around the ghats — real, fictional or mythological.

Like that of Raja Harishchandra who was cursed to do penance at the ghat named after him. Or the Manikarnika Ghat where eternity rules in the form of a continuous burning of pyres. For the last two years, there is a Maha arti performed at Dashashwamedh Ghat, which we thought we must see. We left the car at Assi Ghat and took a boat.

It was 5:30 p.m. The sun was setting. By the time we reached the venue in the slow, meandering pace set by an old boatman, it was getting dark. The full moon was rising. The Ganga's waters lapped darkly over its secrets.

Discovering Varanasi

A little girl sold us mud diyas with little candles in them. The arti was led by six pujaris lined up on the ghats with fires burning in cauldrons near each one of them. Each held a mashaal aloft. A string of lights lit up the area above their heads in a kind of ceremonial d�cor. And then came the recitation — in rounded syllables and in the utterly devastating rhythms of Sanskrit when it is pronounced with ritualised ardour.

But this was a unique one. The text they were reciting was one written by Ravana in praise of Shiva after the Lord had blessed him. The verses rolled over the waters and across the reflection of the moon now in its full effulgence. Aurally and visually it was breathtaking.

As we were rowed back to the Assi Ghat, the boat veered a little towards the shores where the funeral pyres were burning. "Don't", screamed Uma Sharma in distress and covered her face with the pallu of her sari. "I can't bear it."

But this is not a negative scene, I thought. This is not a negative city. Even death here is a celebration of life. There is always the sense of a continuum.

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