Some cities are so old that they outgrow time. Athens, Rome and Cairo, to name a few.
Banaras shows others how it’s done.
People come here for spiritual enlightenment, to wash away their sins, to attain eternal salvation. Whatever you call it, I’m sure even those who don’t have faith in higher powers can feel the luminous reverberations this place emits. A destination to experience the inexplicable. Speaking of the inexplicable, I was amazed to discover the food of one of the holiest cities in the world. This wasn’t the frugal vegetarian soul food I was expecting; in fact, quite the opposite.
There’s a melancholic undertone everywhere, generally. You see people mourning their departed and others eating traditional Indian sweets. It’s confusing. Holy men and sadhus, living off alms and stray morsels, lie on the same streets where scores of people stuff themselves with kachori and tomato rassa (potato and tomato gravy, sweet and sour in taste). All the usual chaats are to be found here, but one clearly stands out — tomato chaat, something like a poor man’s pav bhaji. Bread stalls serving bread with butter, gulab jamuns (India’s favourite wedding sweet and my own as well), even thandai! (the “special” drink). You name it! The place is an endless labyrinth of halwai shops (serving Indian sweets and vegetarian snacks). There’s literally something for every occasion.
With some clarity as to what I’d expect here, I’m afraid I had to stop. All this food makes me happy. It certainly lifted my soul, mood, and cholesterol levels. The fear of heartburn and acidity made me stop eating my way through the city. Accompanied by my thoughts and a few pieces of paan (betel leaf, another Banarasi specialty), I wandered around the city with three hours to kill, and came across an interesting chap. He colored himself blue with dye and was dressed like Lord Shiva.
“Why are you so blue in a city which is full of life?”, I inquired cheekily.
He replied, “In Kashi, Shiva is life.”
To cut a very long story short, here’s what he meant:
Kashi was the original name of Varanasi, which is what Banaras is called today. The people who have lived here for generations still refer to it by its original name. Kashi literally means “city of light” or “shining”. This is the city of Shiva, the Destroyer in Hinduism’s holy trinity. His temple, Kashi Vishwanath, is among one the most famous in Banaras. It is said that Shiva gave life to this city when he brought Ganga, the goddess of the river Ganges, to earth. She manifests into the great river which gives life to over a billion Indians. Quite simply, there would be no life without Ganga.
Shiva is the destroyer in the transformational sense, something like Pluto in Western beliefs. Shiva oversees the circle of life. All religions in the world speak of this “Circle of Life” or something like it. As a matter of fact, Banaras is all about this belief.
Now since I’ve brought it up, I feel it’s my obligation to tell you whatever I know about it. I have trouble unraveling these things in words, and everyone has their own interpretation. To make things as easy as possible, I will tell you where, how and in what context this applies. I’ll also mention the various places I’ve heard this mystical phrase being used. Please feel free to leave if spirituality does not interest you.
1. Near Varanasi is a place called Sarnath, where it is believed that Gautama Budhha had his first public sermon. Gaya is also not far away, where there is the tree under which the Buddha is said to have attained consciousness of the soul or “enlightenment”. Buddhists refer to this “circle of life” as karma. It is said that a soul is judged on the basis of its karma. The thumb rule is, good karma equals nirvana and bad karma equals negative inexplicable events which cause the sinner to wave off their intended spiritual path. Most religions follow this principle. Jainism, too, believes in non-violence and peace of the inner soul. Basically, it all leads to one thing.
2. Guru Nanak visited Banaras before establishing Sikhism. Sikhism lays down guidelines on how a person can lead the ideal life. Again, circle of life.
3. Religions that follow the book — Christinity, Islam and Judaism — also speak of this, in great detail, through stories, hymns, sermons and countless instances; ways to live a worthwhile and honest life. Teaching the values of helping others and to ensure that peace and harmony prevails, keeping this “circle of life” in balance.
4. Hinduism echoes the same beliefs in similar ways, by way of epics, moral stories and religious folklore. The message writ large in the voluminous pages of the Ramayana and Mahabharata is, what you do has consequences (the illustrative examples in them might be a little too dramatic, but the message is crystal clear).
5. Interestingly, karma also finds some kind of validation in Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
6. To end on a sweet note, here’s something that doesn’t strictu sensu involve any of the above. It sounds nice.