Thursday, May 31, 2007

Myths and Memories: Benares May 2007


From ever since I can remember, I wanted to visit Benares. But now that I've been there and done that, it's a bit tough to write about. That's mainly because so much has been said and done on the city that I'm groping for some new idioms and symbols to make my own inner peace with this ancient and holy pilgrimage.A good start here was watching Satyajit Ray's Joy Baba Fhelunath & Aparajito all over again. Both the movies use Benares as a very strong symbol and the magic of Ray's camera captures the fascination of the ghats, the river Ganga and the lanes and bylanes of the city even better in some ways than one's own imagination.

The flight of doves that Ray has used in both the films was, however, missing from the ghats of Benares and I wonder whether the birds find the environment less hospitable now. A paddling of ducks out on a stroll by the river, of course, made my day when I visited the Ramnangar Palace. The building is a formidable fortess from where steps lead right down into the waters. The descendants of the former ruler of Benares still live in the palace - in what appears to be a kind of splendid isolation. This family, it seems, has not gone in for converting their palace into a heritage hotel as some of those in Rajasthan have done.
Of course, Benares is now covered by a security blanket and the narrow lanes adjoining the city's most powerful symbol - the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir - almost feel like an airport check-in. My hotel by the Assi Ghat provided a deckside view of the ephemeral Ganga and took me back all the way back to memories of a relative's house at Baranagar near Kolkata by the Hoogly. Living in a house which gives you a view of the river from almost every window and listening to gentle waters lapping around at night probably has a calming effect on everyone - but for my sister and me as children, the majestic view of the Dakhineshwar temple on the other shore was even more fascinating. And the ulitimate treat was when my father rowed us in a country boat to the opposite side even as the boatman himself stretched out and relaxed. My father had been a skilled oarsman in his salad days and had won rowing competitions in Kolkata. He often told us about the famous Head of Thames boat race in England where he had participated. Since my trip to Benares was in many ways inspired by him, the river flowed through my consciousness with its flood of memories of Baba and of happy childhood years. As I went on boat rides on the river and even took the proverbial holy dip to cleanse myself of my sins, I didn't feel any sense of filth or dirt that travellers to Benares often come back with. I would like to hope that this has something to do with the government's efforts in cleaning the river, the ghats and the city. And no, there were definitely no dead bodies floating by though the boatmen like to point out the Manikaran ghat to visitors as a place "where dead bodies are burnt round the clock". An interesting aspect of life by the river is that it has an early start. Even before day break, the river and its ghats are bustling with activity. If you're not performing the pujas yourself, just watching some of the ceremonies being conducted by others is interesting and non-intrusive. I found a couple of foreign tourists watching the sunrise sitting atop the rampart of the fort at Chet Singh ghat. The heat (abover 40 degree C) at this time of the year, doesn't seem to bother the American and Europeans, who form a large part of visitors to Benares.
My sister had given me the tough job of finding a Benarasi silk sari for her which matched one that came to my mother with her wedding trousseau decades ago. Armed only with my impressions about the sari's colour, weave and design, I undertook a journey into the other side of Benares - narrow gallis where Muslim weavers lived and created the fascinating saris on their looms. It takes them about 10 days to weave one sari, one of them told me. I didn't exactly find the twin of my mother's sari - though I did bring one back which is close enough! Benares has a very large community of Bengali immigrants from areas such as Malda and Murshidabad. A couple of Bengali rickshaw drivers took charge of my sight-seeing around Benares, when they found that I too spoke their language. In fact, after I had convinced then that I wasn't a foreigner, they shared with me the stories about how their parents had moved to Benares years ago in search of a livelihood. And on a rickshaw tour around the city, I discovered Banaras Art Culture, an art gallery housed in a 275 year old building. The owners, Shree Gopla Ji Goel & Shyam Das Agrawal are running a project to revive folk art and crafts in and around Benares. The large number of foreign visitors to the city probably provide a customer base for local artists.>
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