"Travel is glamorous only in retrospect." ~ Paul Theroux


Kashi Vishwanatha Gange

Romola Butalia vists the ancient city of Kashi, also known as Benares or Varanasi, and writes her impressions of this eternal city.

I had passed the station of Varanasi innumerable times on the Delhi-Kolkata and Lucknow-Kolkata rail routes. With a documented history of 3,500 years, Kashi is credited to be the oldest living city and is revered as an eternal city. Known as Kashi in ancient times, in reverence of the supreme light that leads to salvation, it later became Varanasi, because of its location between two rivers Varana and Asi. Later called Benares, in 1956 it was re-named Varanasi. Kashi is mentioned repeatedly in the scriptures - the Brahmanas, Upanishads and the Puranas. It is the oldest center of learning and the University here is still widely respected for its Sanskrit, Philosophy, and Arts faculties. Hyuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller visited Varanasi in the 7th century. Home town of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, the poet Tulsi Das, novelist Prem Chand, and literateur Bharatendu Harischand have also lived here.

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Vishwanath temple For whatever reason, I had never visited Varanasi. When I did visit, it was to Kashi I went. I had spent much of the past two years in the company of sanyasins who venerated Kashi-Vishwanath as they did Annapurna, and it had become habitual for me to remember the prayers they recited to both, before partaking of food. The temple of Vishwanath houses one of the 12 sacred Jyotir Lingas. The temple of Annapurna represents the Shakti peeth at Kashi, where Sati's left hand is said to have fallen.

I had long respected the city of Kashi, aware that among towns, this is the chosen of Bhagwan Shankar, who is believed to cross devotees across the ocean of samsara with the Taraka mantra. Here, the image of Lord Shiva, covered with the ashes of cremation grounds, assumes a very real significance - the transcendental becomes immanent. Lord Shiva is worshipped as the embodiment of the primary elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space which lie in this great cremation ground. The funeral pyres here are seemingly sanctified by the very vibrations of the place, and the sense of continuity that is all-pervading.

VaranasiI spent a few days soaking in the vibrations of Kashi in a timeless trance. I visited the temples and the ghats, wandered the narrow by-lanes, amazed by the variety of shops, the smells, the colours, the flavours. I revelled in the horse-drawn tanga ride to the Benares University - the Vishwanath temple here is a delight - students sitting at corners studying, groups having philosophical debates on the lawn, silence to meditate within it's portals - a rare atmosphere in a temple of today. I wound my way down Bangali tolla to discover Lahiri Mahashaya's old house and join the handful there for an evening aarati.

I visited some ancient maths and ashrams, spent time in the company of some deeply revered sages. The recitation of shlokas and mantras, the spiritual conversations, the silence, must all have worked it's own magic.

KashiI watched the sun rise over Kashi as I watched it set. There was something intangibly different about Kashi that I am not able to define. Perhaps it is the fact that here one is compelled to see beyond the vision of the eye which becomes so irrelevant. It is as though there is a greater meaning, a deeper significance behind all the everyday activities that one indulges in here and Kashi never lets you forget it, gripped by the spell of this eternal city, where death itself becomes a blessed event.

It was as though, Kashi, so seemingly ordinary, just another Indian town, with teeming crowds, the fervour of worship, the inescapable squalor and dirt, attracts you like a magnet, so the boulevards of Delhi, the bright city lights of Mumbai, the intimacy of Kolkata, cannot begin to compete. It is almost as if Lord Shiva's favoured city, Kashi-Vishwanatha-Gange, has cast a spell and I cannot view the city with a travel writer's discerning eye and I cannot describe it glibly for I did not judge it with my mind, a part of me connected to something familiar, too precious to address beyond the sanctum sanctorum of it's hallowed grounds.

Photo Gallery: Sacred Waters of Varanasi

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.