While Banaras prospers gleefully on the West Bank, Ramnagar, on the Eastern Bank of the Ganges lies uncelebrated and barren. I ask my guide to help me source some clean Ganga Jal but he's quick in his reply "Yahan Ki Mitti Bhi Nahin Lekar Jaate Madam. Chappal bhi saaf kar lena." The information overload can at times feel like an assault on the senses but the truth is that it stems from a faith that has been prevalent, recognised and accepted here for several kilo years. I am all for wise passivity.
The city has been a center of knowledge, philosophy, culture and civilisation for over 3000 years. In Mark Twain's words: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Who hasn't heard of Varanasi, the holiest and ultimate Hindu pilgrimage spot? Or not seen it in pictures and paintings!
It's getting darker. The river shines bright with the reflection of firelight as if the brilliance has spilled into it. Dasaswamedh Ghat, one of the 84 Ghats in Banaras, is a visual delight, what with a spectacular Ganga Aarti performed in the evenings with such flair. Floating diyas, flowers and offerings slide into the water amidst frantic clangour of bells and amplified recitals. The air is het up with diesel fumes from the boat jam and when you slap angrily at the army of mosquitoes, you end up hurting yourself. What happened to "Death is everywhere here?" I have unalloyed trust in the capacity of Holy Ganges to purify us inside out but it's about time we cleaned up the mess that we are subjecting her to. I hop across over 20 boats when my guide suggests that it's time to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple now.
The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. I step inside the Sanctum Sanctorum and a smile lights up my heart because I had dreamed of being here since forever. I do not feel like a tourist even though I may look like one, to them. So when a priest mumbles a rushed play of words and hands me Prasad, ushering me to go, I protest softly. He lets me stay.
Banaras is a city with a dense bedlam but an indomitable spirit. The magnitude of death may lie on its Ghats but it's the perpetual show ground in the guise of a city which makes one face the vehemence of daily life. Everyone is just a couple of inches away from everything else and this propinquity roughs you up even if you've seen it before. Picture yourself on a Dodgem in some epochal and cataclysmic turf with toots, shrieks, insane traffic, rancid odour, smouldering crowds interlocked with flocks of cars, cycles, bikes, rickshaws, carts, dogs, cows and auto rickshaws.
The streets leading towards the Ghats become narrow and it's a test of your skills as you sidestep piles of dog litter and cow dung. One understands the glory of this land and falls prey to its frank charms if you remain unfazed and accept the disorder as routine. There's nothing "Bina Ras" ka in Banaras. A city with 10000+ temples, Banaras is all about rituals and my visit includes a key Pooja to be performed in a quaint temple on the banks of Assi Ghat.
A highly recommended breakfast place proudly exhibits semi covered Urns of sweet Lassi. There's a bevy of visitors, both in human form and common flies. The shop manager is matter of fact in his "where else will the flies sit if not on sweet treats"! Predictably, I am violently sick in the next one hour.
Later, as I tell myself, "I could have died", my other side reminds me, "Well, this is what people come here for, isn't it? Death is all pervasive in this town. People are brought in when dead, yes, but it's also believed that the one who is fortunate enough to die on this land attains Moksh, once and for all. On the drive from the Airport into the city one sees every other four wheeler with a securely tied corpse, on it's final journey surely. There's no warmth in being close to lit pyres with singed remains peeping surreptitiously. The two burning Ghats, Manikarnika Ghat and Harish Chandra Ghat witness an endless flow of sombre disposals but one seldom sees a funereal face on these funeral grounds. It's sheer chaos as a new body is brought forward from the queue while the previous "done" ones are prodded into water. O Bewildered Ones, Chant the Name.. "Ram Naam Satya Hai, Satya Bolo Mukti Hai".
Our Odyssey continues to be a cocktail of nightmares, daymares and tranquility but in no particular order. In the midst of the steely stir I look around. There's a man pissing, then two ; the homeless lie curled up on the steps; frail stray dogs have blank stares ; and the ascetics, the ne plus ultras of detachment and spartan living attached to a spot under large umbrellas.
I yearn for quietude. Another boat ride in the middle of the night and I get transported into a vibe worth forfeiting anything else on my mind. Perched on its own ghat, on the edge of the city's historic precinct, many walks away from the humdrum, sits a magnificently restored 18th century Guleria Kothi. Visible effort has gone into turning this 15 room delight into a sassy chambre d'hôte within the protected norms. Hand painted nooks and alcoves are outfitted with a flamboyant mix of antiques and artefacts. The breadth of facilities offered is uber impressive but the charm of the place lies in the heart of the property, where the glorious Padmanabhan ( Lord Vishnu)
Temple is, extending tranquil experiences to the ones that meet His eyes. The knowledgable owner, who's a local and a connoisseur of refined taste, offers a thorough property and city orientation with aplomb. This is beyond boutique. With its own 24x7 private boat service to fetch the guests to and from the designated ghats, Guleria Kothi takes care of it all. The property cannot be accessed by a four wheeler but one can walk down the alleys to reach here. Sitting on the deck with the Holy Ganges stretched beyond, I feel privileged tucked away in a private eyrie. In pressure and pleasure I have lived here for long but it's just been a few days. Right on time, the day breaks through the river mist and my world has come to life once again. "Guru, Banaras Marna Nahin, Jeena Sikhata Hai" ... as a local says!
(Aditti Ahluwalia is a food blogger and freewheeling philosopher. She can be reached at email@example.com)
( With inputs from IANS )