Pristine as the age-old traditions and contemporary as the new world order – if ever there was a perfect blend of two ends of the spectrum, it is here. Varanasi is, as commonly said –older than history, older than tradition, older than legends and looks twice as old as all of them put together. This being the poetic abstract of the spirit of a culture, an ideology and a set of people bound by it, takes its share of creative liberty, yet isn’t far from the truth. A city located in modern times and geography by relativity, yet caught in a time warp of its own, Varanasi, or Benaras as its people call it affectionately – is a beautiful bundle of paradoxes, a curious collection of contradictions and a delicious design of dichotomy – of religion and spirituality, of advances and soul-searches, of faith and rationality, of Gods and humanity. As a result, what transpires is a beautiful bonhomie of various colors of chaos, bound together by as aspiration towards a common purpose – some call it salvation, some moksha, some nirvana, and some simply love.
The holy river defines, guards, purifies and herself becomes the city itself – Ganga is Benaras and Benaras is Ganga. There are many cities that the mighty river has given birth to, by purifying and fertilizing the soils around it and inviting the native dwellers to reside by its side and develop their settlements, but none of them shares a connection deeper than what links the soul of this city to the river. The eighty ghats (places for religious activities along the riverside in form of stairs) that form the lifeline of the city may be the only land pieces which actually touch the holy Ganges, but the soul of every resident is drenched by the pious water, and as they reverently call her, Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges) remains the essential part of the people’s life and practices. The city that is sprawling now beyond its borders and stretching its feet to accommodate the growing influx of people from all over is also at the same time striving to preserve the richness of its ancient form, and that is something difficult to take away from it. So strong are the footprints of mythology and history of world civilization here, with the everlasting impressions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam among other faiths, that it is impossible not to feel the presence if you take a casual stroll along one of the lanes in the city. From the tales of Lord Shiva’s and Goddess Parvati’s union to the destruction of the 80 devils or asuras on the ghats; from being Shiva’s favorite place to place where Gautam Buddha first taught the dharma; from witnessing the attacks on its heritage by invaders to preserving the relics of even the faiths that damaged it, along the original symbols of its faith – this city has the tales of past written all over it so clearly that it always has and will keep inspiring the artists to express its story, and often finding their own stories in it, expressing it in most beautiful forms. No wonder then that the city has been the hosts of some of the most revered musicians, writers, dancers and men of spirituality in recent history. A city which inspires others to find themselves, however, is not easy to find its own way. Varanasi is not easy – with its small lanes that try to fit the wisdom and history of centuries within them, it is easy to lose your paths here. With a temple on each corner, and lanes and settlements named after Gods, and often vice versa, it is often disorienting to adjust to the places here. With humans, cows and the river cohabiting a limited space, which also is trying to adapt to the progress in the worldly sense, it often screams of a chaos. But what meaning does peace hold without experiencing chaos? Who has even found his way without choosing some wrong paths first? And there was no one who attended salvation before unlearning all that was assumed true. Therein lies the soul of Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi.
Welcome to Varanasi, it is a world where you can lose yourself, physically and metaphorically, to the endless trips of all pleasures of life – sight, food, pleasure, love, lust, pain, injury, salvation, and realization, that the answers lie within us. If a city from 11th century B.C. with its 2000 odd temples and the ghats that date to the period as old as humanity can cohabit its relics along with developing its new temples of modern times – of education, entertainment and employment, there is nothing that stops us from being what we want to be, without losing what we are.