Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Varanasi Diary, Day 5: The eternal flow of time on the banks of the Ganges

The timeless zone
4th March: By the time the sun peeked from behind the clouds around 6.30 in the morning today, it was shorn of its usual full-bodied glory and glare of its crimson-red hue. The clouds on the sky absorbed most of it while the crowds on the boats, all stretched in excitement for the early-morning boat-ride, kept the rising sun behind them to instead click pictures of the early-morning activities of bathers on the ghats as well as the old buildings that appear to jut above the mark where the ghats end. The bathers at the ghats counted the quick dips that they took at the steps. Some cried themselves hoarse shouting , “Mahadev, Mahadev (O, Lord Shiva!).” The cries appeared more to be pleading for Mahadev to appear rather than praying to him. Ganesh later informed me that the boatmen too cried out the same phrase whenever they were apprehensive of  colliding with another boat.
Bathers near Asi Ghat
A Sadhu at Asi Ghat

 After watching the activities at the ghat below from our balcony while sipping glassful of hot Chai (tea) , brought from Bangali Tola, we decided to embark on our own boat-ride. We hired a boat on an hourly basis hoping to make it a short & quick ride but as usual it turned out to be a long one as we first embarked at Asi Ghat for breakfast. Asi ghat is at the southernmost tip of the stretch of ghats where the Asi river meets the Ganges. The Varuna river flowing into the Ganges similarly demarcates Varanasi at its northern end.
Sant Tulsidas's house at
Tulsi Ghat (Asi ghat earlier) 
Grilled window at top floor of Tulsidas's house

 But we were at Asi ghat, hungry for food. A quaint restaurant, Festive Villa, fed us with snatches of English breakfast along with glassful of black coffee. A French toast and a smoke later, I found myself isolated from the group inside the nearly 350 years old house of Sant Tulsidas, the first writer of  the Sanskrit epic Ramayana in a vernacular script (Awadhi) called Ramacharitamanas. Although legend has it that Tulsidas was the reincarnation of Valmiki, the original writer of Ramayana; history suggests that Tulsidas was a scholar and poet of many other scholarly & literary works. Allowed by the Muhgal emperor, Akbar, to pursue his religious and academic activities unhindered; Sant Tulsidas wrote his last major  book of poems in Brajabhasha called Vinaya Patrika (A petition for humility) at this house in Asi ghat asking for Bhakti (devotion) from Rama. Tulsidas, Kabir & Chaitanya Dev were all part of a spiritual renaissance (called Bhakti movement) across India, around 15th &  16th century; preaching the message of love and often breaking down barriers of caste, community & religion among their followers. They were philosophers, poets and social reformers all clubbed into one. Its not a surprise that the populace regarded them as saints.

A view of the Ganges from Sant Tulsidas's house (an eternal flow of time)
Anyway, spent a few minutes at the top floor of Sant Tulsidas’s house looking at the flowing Ganges through the grilled windows and then I was back with the group on the boat drifting away to the other bank and later to Daswashyamedh Ghat as the boat moved downstream.

Deepak, a professional photographer was clicking the colourful spectacle that the Ghats offered on a cloudy morning. So were we and it was nearly four hours before we embarked on Chousatti Ghat & left our boatman.

A glass-and-steel building next to centuries-old Kedareswar temple
We had Idlis with chutney  for lunch on the ghats along with Seine Ke, a Dutch lady whom we had befriended on the  first day of our stay in Varanasi. We talked about the architectural defacement of the ghats. About how a glass-and-steel building spoils the time-continuum of traditional brick-and-mortar structures exemplified by the oldest temple of Kedareswar on the Kedar Ghat. Although one cannot but accept a point that the flow of civilizations on the banks of Varanasi should also accommodate the works of the current civilization.

A sunk temple at Scindia Ghat
Floating lamps carrying wishes for the departed souls at dusk

As evening approached , we once again strolled the ghats and lanes behind for the last time in Varanasi; soaking in the ethereal experience of eternity on every stone slab that we stepped on.
As we retired early in the day in our hotel room, we were greeted by strains of Reggae music floating in from the ghat below. The street musicians were playing Small Axe and other reggae tunes amidst strumming of guitars, violin and of river water slapping gently on the steps of the ghat. 

For me, the visit to Varanasi was qualitatively enhanced due to the fortuitous presence of this band of street-musicians and their splendid performances on the ghats.       

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