If you asked the tourist or the pilgrim to tell you about Varanasi, they will give you a geographical answer. Country, State, proximity, accessibility, facilities, attractions, will be listed with veracity and great enthusiasm. But ask an explorer or a seeker, the response will be assuredly more than what you bargained for- only if you try to measure the immeasurable.
Varanasi is less of a dot on an atlas and more of a milestone marked out on mind maps crossing borders and continents.
To try and depict her using the paltry stock of words one knows is a task. That is why I shall resort to describing her with metaphors, symbols and her possessions, for she is one giant melting cauldron of varied ingredients still bubbling over.
Varanasi is a story
The ancient city with its ringing temple bells and ghats resonating with the sounds of water and fervently whispered prayers for wish fulfilment, is a story that unfolds to the heart and soul that is tuned in to listen. She is the story of a God who is benevolent , compassionate, simple and yet terrifying in His righteous rage. She is the story of a mighty River which flows from the locks of that God, and is now a young woman in all her voluptuous glory, spanning the banks on which mortals throng to worship her every single day.
She is also the story of these mortals on the banks. The hermit, the recluse, the doms at the crematorium, the bangle sellers, the sellers of flowers and lamps offered in worship, of believers who seek peace and happiness. She is their story too.
The other River of Varanasi
If you have taken the boat ride down the river in Varanasi, you will spot another river. A relentless river that defies gravity and flows into the vast spaces above the spires of temples, mosques and havelis. The river of smoke from the burning pyres of Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats. People often choose to Varanasi as their place to spend their last days on earth, before passing into the realm they hope to be residents of. One can be led into a deep sombre melancholy by this all pervasive feeling of death lingering in the air. One is never more conscious of mortality than here because the crematorium is right in the hub of human activity. But the contrast is never more visible elsewhere. Right through this river of smoke, fed by tributaries of mortal remains that are consigned to the flames, one hears the hubbub of daily life. All the sounds of life and living, melt into this grey gloomy river and soar up to the blue skies that overlook the other River.
The moment is like a phoenix- it rises from the ashes of the has been to the now and beyond. This is also Varanasi.
The maze of life is a metaphor writers have explored in various ways, and ironically the famous ‘gullies’ or narrow lanes and bylanes of this City hold up the metaphor to be true. Capillary thin lanes, that branch off into thinner by-lanes are the veins of this heart called Varanasi, bringing and taking back life blood , and crisscrossing her terrain. These cobbled lanes, are a magical realm in themselves and one can spend an entire day losing one’s way in them, and chancing upon some amazing discoveries like the ornamental doors to houses or a beautiful shrine tucked away in some corner.
Varanasi lies in her lanes
There is a bird atop a flag, fluttering in the mild gust of the Ganga. A little bird, who has paused mid-flight to rest atop that simple flag. They are both creatures of the wind. They both soar and fly with its aid and know its value. For me this is the most powerful symbol for Varanasi. She is the wind, the flag is the world as we know it, and the little bird is our soul. The world, for all its materialism knows the value of this City while the soul rests awhile here in peaceful bliss too.
I shall not invite you to visit Varanasi. It is a calling that will come to you at a time in your life, when you will be destined to hear it. All I can say is hear that call and heed it. And watch your life change.