If the world is ending, then how fortuitous that I had the absolute pleasure of seeing you a few months back. It is said that in your city the boundary between life and death is so thin that the difference blurs – and in a time when we could all do with some wisdom (only our life depends on it now), you taught me lessons of what we most desperately need in the world right now – love.
Benaras at Night
You’re an ancient city, possibly the most ancient we have known. I’ve had many heated conversations with many of your Banarasiyas there on this front – we simply cannot agree to place an age on you. Depending on how devoted we are to you – the answer varies between the mathematical “4000 years” to the spiritual “who are we to tell?”
Oh, but we can tell.
Along the Ganga, all your 88 ghats unwind for kilometres, never letting her out your embrace. And you, Benaras, embrace with the beauty of a world gone by. Even the walls between century-old homes close in the closer you get to the Ganga from the ‘city’ – so much so that nothing larger than a cycle can get by. I learnt to never judge your roads by their widths, but to always account for the cow sunning herself inside by the third left, right before the group of small children who lie in wait with a stick thrice as tall as them, to block your way home with fistfuls of Holi powder as warnings. You must part with 10 Rupees – your ‘chanda’ for safe passage home. I must admit, living without human interaction in our metropolises has accustomed me to carrying my money in my phone (I know – that took me a while to get as well) – and so I was without passage fare a few times. However, your children are always persuaded with an offer of friendship instead, especially if you’re also simultaneously opening a box of sweets in your hands.
Haveli Cobblestones after Holi
All your children love sweets – even us older ones. The delirious bhaang at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the gujiya for Holi cooked by the wife of our boatman who lived next to us at Panchkote Ghat, the holy prasad at Kashi Vishwanath temple – everything is sweeter than a smile.
However, your paanwallas frown if asked to increase the sweetness of a meetha paan – and explain how no flavour must overpower the other – it’s what it gives it the perfect equilibrium. Benaras, this also taught me the beauty of how we must celebrate our differences, not tolerate them. In the bylanes of your most celebrated artistes, Kathak extraordinaire Vishal Krishna spoke to me of how Kathak was preserved in the durbar of the last nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who despite being a Muslim king danced as the Hindu God himself, Krishna. Vishal’s grandmother Sitara Devi, exhorted by Rabindranath Tagore had broken the shackles of dancing professionally as a woman back in an era where any freedom was seen as unbecoming. Has anything really changed decades later? Nonetheless, today Vishal wears his ghungroo and dances on. Two and a half hours away from here, in the city of Jaunpur, the children at the school at Lal Darwaza Masjid, one of the city’s many spectacular mosques, also taught me the same lesson, without any words. As we walked into the inner courtyard, they shyly ran over to ask where we were from, and then followed us around, until they finally couldn’t anymore, stopping at the gate of the mosque where they all gathered to wave goodbye and ask again as if they couldn’t believe it the first time, “Where are you from?”
With the children of Lal Darwaza Masjid Madrasa
It made me wish that I was from wherever they were, close to you, Benaras, where I’d walk along your ghats at night starting from Darbhanga Ghat to first be served on silver platters at the fabulous Brijrama Palace, where every evening the inner courtyards ring with the ghungroos and thumris of your wonderful Kathak dancers, sitar players and singers. I’d then make my way home, walking along all your ghats, even passing by Harishchandra Ghat, where the dead burn every day and night, to find the best lemon masala chai I’ve ever had (actually, it’s the only one I’ve ever had, and more’s the pity) being sold by a hawker at the stairs leading up to Chet Singh Fort. If I could I’d walk till dawn, finally reaching the incredible Ashish Café at Assi Ghat for its Banarasi thali.
The Benarasi Thali at Brijrama Palace
On the terrace of the Brijrama Palace
A boat at Harishchandra Ghat
Benaras, you’re so beautiful and so are your people. Banarasiyas are rasiyas after all, they have a slow, sensual appreciation of all pleasure. And so I dressed every day like it was a celebration, even though I was advised by an older friend in Benaras on day one to tone it down for my ‘safety’. Banarasiyas are known to be a rowdy lot, he said. But I didn’t. Instead, I amped up the volume, wrapping myself in only the most exquisite Banarasi silks from the beautiful store Anjora at Assi Ghat, and your rasiyas were so happy to see it, they told me so every day. Because I think they saw I was happy too. Your patina is as ageless as your handwoven silk and your temples, your mosques, even your winding alleyways are exquisite in their ancient, divine beauty. Did you know I always wanted to get married on your ghats, at dawn, when the mist of the night still hasn’t let go of the Ganga?
Benaras’s Ghats at Night
I met with your incredible weavers in Lallapur, the artists bent over handlooms to this day weaving your beauty in silk and gold into the irreplaceable Banarasi sari. These Muslim weavers learnt their trade on their father’s laps in the same homes which now thunder with power looms taking over every free corner. In a world where they are paid by numbers, not by craftsmanship, their sons now run the business. When I stepped out of one of the weaver’s homes, I ran into his neighbour, an 86-year-old man who was introduced to me as one of the neighbourhood’s best weavers in a different time. His hands were raised towards me – the same proud ones that spun spells – now raised spontaneously to beg. He was smiling.
A handloom weaver in Lallapur
Even though your roads may be narrow, the Ganga flowing through you is a limitless thoroughfare. Its boatmen sing to you (if you sing to them as well). They sing of the Ganga as they drop you to Kedar Ghat, where, as I entered the Gauri Kedareshwar Temple, I met a giant woolly ram eating Lord Shiva’s prasad off the head of the stone Nandi. No one gave the ram a second look – it was Benaras – and once it was done, it weaved its way through people’s legs and vanished into the inner sanctum.
Our boatman, Bhume (who lived next door to us) said he had never heard or seen of such a thing – but it was Benaras, anything was possible. He then sang to us of life and death as we rowed to Manikarnika Ghat, the cremation ghat where it is said that the funeral pyres have burned continuously, consecutively for many, many centuries. It’s the one ghat I can never cross through on foot and so I looked on silently from Bhume’s boat, feeling the heat from the flames across the chilly Ganga.
At the very end, as I walked up Panchkote Ghat, the puppies I’d befriended on it all gathered around, all of us listening to Bhume the boatman one last time, singing to us as he rowed away into the night “O sakhi, kal sham milo re” – Dearest, will you meet me tomorrow evening?
Yes, I will.
I will meet you every evening, Benaras.
See you soon,
All my love,
Photographs: Courtesy Kaustav Dey