ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kashi

"Venice is a fantastic place, reminiscent of Banaras... and equally photogenic!" -Satyajit Ray

I was briefly in Kashi/Banaras in mid-March. To those who might wish to know in depth about the Kashi, sacred and secret, let me mention the highly detailed and sympathetic 'City of Light' by Diana Eck.

Ganga is mostly dried up. What remains of it is mostly sewage; several immense towers stand as remnants(?) of the quarter century old Clean Ganga Scheme - which probably was a non-starter. I did not explore much of the city but did the five kilometer riverfront walk from Asi Ghat to Panchganga Ghat thrice. Do it with the rising sun and one sees a miracle. None among the bedlam of buildings rising sharp and high above the ghats has any serious claim to beauty (possible exception: the observatory 'Man Mandir' with its carved windows and neat sandstone walls). But in the warm glow of a spring dawn they collectively alchemize into a magnificent spectacle. I did not get to see how the waterfront looks in moonlight. Maybe...

Upwards of a dozen funeral pyres burnt at Manikarnika. A big white man with matted locks and wearing a black lungi was to be seen squatting amongst the fires - a convert to Kapalika-ism, I guess. Harishchandra Ghat, the city's other famous 'Soul School' (as a godawful Mallu film song from the 1950s put it) was a comparatively low-key affair. Miraculously, there was no stench whatever of burning flesh in either place.

However, there is plenty of bad odor elsewhere, with Chet Singh Ghat, fronted by a substantial, two or three century old red sandstone palace, the smelliest. Someone had painted pictures of Gods on the walls but people had shat all over.

The weather was quite pleasant very early in the morning but would blaze down for a good ten hours thereafter. The city was host to several thousand Firangees and a goodly number of Japanese (most Japs wore masks). Most foreigners in town must have been out on boats to watch the Ganga Arati at sundown at the Dasaswamedh Ghat - nearly a dozen richly dressed and surprisingly athletic young fellows (from my distance, one of them looked a bit like Pak cricketer Afridi) perform a well-drilled routine that lasted an hour or so, swinging and whirling an assorted set of massive lamps to the tune of filmy-ish bhajans. The show seems sponsored by - among others - the Sai Baba of Puttaparthi.

The wooden mace swinging, kachha-clad wrestlers have almost disappeared from the Ghats. All I saw was a single batch of young boys and a Jap-looking woman performing some calisthenics to the instructions from an elderly Guru. The parasols, numerous in old photos of Kashi, have also dwindled.

Most parts of the core city were desperately crowded (even by Calcutta standards) but the very holiest site, Vishvanath temple was not - got done with the Darshan in 10 minutes flat. Siva's 'Shakti' counterpart here is called Annapurna although those from the South often accord that honor to Goddess Vishalakshi, who presides over a separate temple that I did not visit. Vishwanath temple is separated from the Gyanvapi Mosque by a towering fence. A large, unruly troop of monkeys were trying to cross over to the other side and a lone mosque caretaker was seen fighting (to the extent I saw) a successful defensive action against them, armed with only a long staff.

The energetic temple-building Maratha queen Ahilyabai (18th century) features as a blessed donor in many of the popular icons of Vishvanath. Many temples and ghats in this city were her creations.

At Sarnath, I saw a strange ritual being acted out by a large troop of probably Thai devotees. In a long procession, they circumambulated the main Stupa and proceeded to the ruins of the Vihara nearby chanting an assortment of strange nasal sounds and parked right there and then, someone was seen making a speech. I dunno what followed. There are many East Asian temples here. The Burmese temple had larger than life statues of Buddha preaching to a tight group of disciples; all of them have been given very oriental facial features.

Most holy places derive their sanctity by associations with some god or saint. Kashi is very different - the place is so pure and holy in itself that gods and saints crave to simply be there. Buddha preached nearby. Most Buddhist Jatakas center around a 'Kashi ruled by king Brahmadatta'. Diana Eck narrates a legend which strongly indicates that the city predates popular Hinduism: long ago, the city was ruled by the virtuous but non-Believing king Divodasa; then, Siva, with the assistance of Vishnu, disguised as a devious Buddhist monk, sneaked in and took over the city (shades of the Maveli legend of Kerala there). There is another legend: Parvati reported her gem-studded ear-ring ('Manikarnika') missing and asked Siva to find it. It was a clever ruse - the goddess, who loved the city and did not ever want to leave it, did such a thorough job of hiding the jewel that her harried husband (*) still walks the city, searching the Gallies, the Ghats, the temples,...

The Bharat Kala Bhavan is an impressive museum. The grandest and best-known exhibit there is the colossal Gupta sculpture of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana. Here I first saw the work of Alice Boner - especially awe-inspiring was the painting 'Vishwarupa of Krishna'. An ancient Vamana Avatara sculpture was notable for the realistic and unflattering portrayal of the chubby dwarf's sagging belly - I remember seeing similar effects on some load-bearing dwarfs at Sanchi and also a Vamana at Rani Ki Vaav in Patan, Gujarat. (Note: Ancient Indian sculptors often went to Rubensian lengths while showing - especially female - flab but to my knowledge, never ever bothered to sculpt idealized male muscularity on Greco-Roman or even ancient mid-Eastern lines. Our best-built male figures - like the Krishna mentioned above or any of the thousands of Natarajas - are merely sleek and slim, even androgynous. This seems to have been the fashion even in South East Asia).

In a metal curio shop near Vishwanath, we saw several curious folksy sculptures, thin figures with long tendril like limbs (the name "Giacometti" comes to mind). The finest of the lot - a horse headed (he also had seven horns - the phrase "When horses sprout horns" signifies utter impossibility in Malayalam) dholak player, sitting crosslegged with an upthrust shaft-like phallus. His price, a cool 7000 bucks.

During one of the riverfront walks, an old man asked me for alms and I gave him a coin. Returning an hour later, I saw him squatting at the same place and resolved: "If he does not ask for money again, I shall give him another coin". He definitely saw me approach but ignored me.

At Chet Singh, I saw from afar a masked fellow sitting on the steps, patiently sketching the palace. I mused: "These Japs really are something. Mask or no mask, I can't last a minute in this field of shit but look at this guy...!" Approaching, I was even more impressed to see that the guy was Indian. The sketch he had made was sadly, rather banal.

Somewhere else I saw a small group, a Japanese guy and two Indians. One of the Indians, obviously Muslim, was playing a classical piece on a flute. Later, I saw the party at the same place. The Jap was now playing the same flute and it was a very popular Desi Bhajan tune.

Chunar fort occupies a hilltop with impressive views of the Ganga. A very Muslim looking building has now been converted to a Krishna shrine (maybe it was a 'reconquest' - the site is associated with legendary sage Bhartrihari, says our guide). There is also a deep and now waterless well; in its wall, about twenty feet below ground level is a little niche - according to our guide, this niche, which can be accessed by a secret tunnel, is where a queen of yore used to have her bath. There apparently are secret underground passages that link the fort even with Delhi. There also is a platform on the bastions from where kings used to decapitate and throw prisoners into the Ganga.

Towards the end of the overnight train journey from Calcutta, I saw the endless straggle of railway installations at Mughalsarai pass by in a foggy glimmer. The return to Cal was a ride on the newly introduced Yuva Express - an awfully uncomfortable but mercifully fast train (**)(I timed it at over 130 kilometers an hour). Near Parasnath, we skirted hillsides aflame with Palash trees in riotous bloom.

And while in Allahabad, I saw some of the finest Indian academicians red-faced, then with their faces blackened - Holi. I also saw 'Seventh Seal' for the first time and also a lovingly cut emerald of an animation film, the 'Secret of Kells'. Thanks to who made all that happen!

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(*)A severely henpecked husband leading a successful coup can also be seen in 'Tintin and the Picaros'

(**)A description of Yuva express: "Sixty per cent seats will be reserved for youths and passengers in the low-income group. To avail of the special rates, a youth has to carry proofs of birth and unemployment."