It was getting a bit too much that Madhusree was yet to see the Viswanath Temple of Benaras. So, braving the hot and humid weather, we set afoot in the city, booked a day taxi travelled across its lanes and made a visit to the temple just as it opened for the devotees to pour yet another bout of water on the Lord’s head. We were sweating buckets, so was our driver and the heat made him so irritable that he drove the guide out of our way, leaving us to make sense of the relics all by ourselves.
I realized, especially after reading B.C.Bhattacharjee’s book, Sarnath published by the Pilgrim’s Press in 1942, that essentially Sarnath is the ancient city upon which the city of Kashi came up only in the early medieval era. Sarnath was originally called as Mrigadaya, renamed as Sarnath during the medieval era after a yogi turned minor God, called Saranginath; possibly because he played the sarangi. This was the place where Buddha first became a religious leader and a small sangha was formed with five disciples among who one was named Bappa. Since this name is very common among Rajasthanis of the time, it is possible that he was a Rajasthani; of the rest, one sounded a Sinhala, but the rest were Sikkimese or Tibetans. Interestingly, one wonders that during the time of Buddha, what were so many ethnicities doing in India? I read in Niharranjan Ray, that after the Aryans, the next stream of migration, and indeed a heavy were the Sino Mongolian races, and this may have had something to do with those who gathered around Buddha as he preached peace.
Buddha is clearly against the Vedic Hinduism of the Aryans that involved sacrifices and war. He seems to belong to a culture that belonged to India before the Aryans came in, invaded or migrated, or just flowed in, whatever and had a lot also to do with the fire, were essentially violent people. And these kings also hunted a lot and such a lot that they killed the innocent as well as the intended prey. The Ramayana too started with the killing of an innocent boy by King Dasarath who came on a deer hunt. The great epic, for all practical purposes ended with a deer too when Sita made Ram run after an exquisite looking golden foal. Mrigadaya suggests that the place originally was a land grant to the deer, which means a protected forest. Buddhists who do not believe in killing life and did not know yet that plants had life too, were ones to protect and nurture forests.
The layout of the monasteries at Sarnath are so like the construction and architecture of the Buddhist monasteries and temple of Thailand and burnt brick is the material. The burnt brick was the foundation of the Indus Valley civilization, it has braced the Buddhist sites of Sarnath and the temples of Thailand, it has been found in many sites of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The pieces of architecture added during the Gupta period were stone works. Would that mean there is a connection between the burnt brick economy and Buddhism? What could that be?
We visited three temples of the Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan; architecturally these followed the architecture of the different cultures. But most interesting were the icons; for the Japanese, it is a Buddha lying on his side, emaciated and wasting away. Buddha is in his death bed, facing his end which is also a conclusion and a signing off his life. The Japanese celebrate death for it is only in the ending that the whole life becomes evident. I can’t help but notice out of my incorrigible habit that this is also the motif of many of Amitabh Bachchan’s films where the hero dies in the end, bringing the adventures of the hero to a philosophical home. Japanese novelists desire lissom beauties only to discover that they were ghosts. Japanese have a problem with concrete bodies; they love fine airy essences instead. The Chinese create the Buddha out of white marble, perhaps of porcelain in their land. Here he is a teacher, filled with gold, surrounded by disciples and students, the insignia of royal patronage, well looked after, well respected, well fed. In most cases, he is potbellied and all smiles, the laughing Buddha. For the Tibetan, he is a remote deity, endless in stature, all bronze and gold when one can afford it. Dalai Lama is the avatar and the temple really is dedicated to the Dalai Lama. The campus contains hostels and there seems to be an active teaching programme in the temple. Buddha is like Shiva here, remote and yet all pervasive, distant and yet all controlling and always too big to be gauged wholly through senses. The statue of Buddha is in bronze and is huge.
Interesting are the frescoes on the wall containing the images of Tibetan Gods. There was a figurine that looked like Kali fierce and most terrible but around her were three deer and a hermit, looking totally assured and rested. Whoever had to fear her would be the oppressor and not the ordinary mortal in the ordinary business of life. There was a figure which resembled Vishnu with someone who could be Naradmuni; then there was someone who could be Shiva or even Brahma. Tibet has a lot to do with Indian religion, its idea of Gods and Goddesses, iconography and classification of life, death, dangers and godsends.
Benaras seems to have been originally a Buddhist site, gained its importance as a Buddhist headquarters of the Sangha. It remained a major nadir of a grand loop of the Buddha trail that started from Darjeeling through Sikkim, ran through Benaras, went up to Punjab, Kashmir, Central Asia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and back through to Darjeeling. Indeed, in Bishkek, which is the abode of Lord Shiva according to the local mythology, because Bishkek means the staff which is used to stir the elixir to separate the venom out of it. Lord Shiva, known mainly in present day Kyrgyzstan was most probably brought by Kanishka. Buddhism was the reigning religion of its times and all kings had to pay tribute to the Sangha. Hence the Kushanas did pay obeisance to the monastery at Mrigadaya, but it is he, who encouraged the worship of Shiva at Benaras. During the Sungas, Hinduism revived through the revival of the sacrifice, for those were more closely associated with the Vedic Brahminism rather than the worship of Shiva in a temple. It was more towards the end of Harsha’s reign that the Pratihara kings, especially King Bhoj seemed to have pampered Shiva. Notwithstanding its rather secondary status, the temple of Shiva must have made some mark because Mahmud of Ghazni and Qutubddin Aibak demolished the same. The Pratiharas seem to be in control over the land because the last ruling dynasty to lose the privy purses were Pratiharas, namely the Narain Singhs. Benaras, with religion its core business, seems to be a business hub; in medieval days it must have been something like Bombay.
Our driver was a die-hard Modi fan, never finding enough words to praise him. The real reason for his praise were the clean, wide and cemented roads that led from all sides to Benaras. He was a youngish person with fair skin and sharp features, very tall and lanky and looked the right kind to be an RSS pracharak. He praised Modi for converting the ancient city to a modern one though all that we could see that the city was shorn of its ancient pride to emerge into a tacky wannable class III town that could be Muzaffarnagar or the outskirts of Meerut. Benaras was an ancient city but it had a sophistication. But now in the anxiety to belong to the mainstream of modernity, people constantly run after chimera images while all the time hating themselves. The self-hate becomes a hate for traditions, hate for parental authority, hate for the familiar and a strange attraction for an unattainable state of being. I saw Benaras exactly in this sleepwalking state of inebriated desire to be someone else and to belong to some other time.
So gone were the paan masala and achaar shops, the glass bangle stores, the sari shops, shops for shawls and blankets, of upholstery and fabric, of brass curios and utensils used in puja rooms; there were mobile shops, T shirts, sequined suits for women and that’s about all. I wanted to buy Banarasi paan masala; I found none. Even eateries were conspicuous by their absence and talk of public toilets and drinking water, I found none throughout the city. So much for the toilet movement. I was stunned at the state of “fall” of a great city.
We drove through something called a weaver’s village and our driver became very conscious of its Muslim inhabitants. He seemed almost embarrassed at the prospect of our eyes seeing so many Muslims with burqas and skull cap, more so because it was a Friday and people were out because of the prayers. Weaving, Banaras’s principle industry lies in shambles now; though the purchasing power of the people have increased, demand for the textiles increased as well, size of the market expanded and yet there is a problem of extreme poverty among the weaver community in the city. This is typically the problem of overproduction. This syndrome affects all industries; steel, cement, sugar, in short everything else. Once overproduction sets in bringing in its onset recession, incomes, occupations, after that communities and societies collapse.
We drove through the BHU premises only to find that in terms of spaces, buildings, road networks, colour schemes of the buildings, signages and even the vegetation, the campus was a mirror image of Viswabharati University. I think that Viswabharati was not only the benchmarked standard for academics but for design and architecture as well. The structure and the organization of the space and the nature of academic discourses are somehow connected perhaps through the Kantian ideas of the concepts of the mind.
We arrived at the temple precincts when it was about 1 pm. One had to park the car quite a way before the temple from where we walked with our guide, the petite young Brahmin boy. I had been to Benaras a year before I graduated and now, I visit again, just a year before I retire, with my entire working life as an interlude. During this period, I am supposed to see India grow, steel production has grown over twenty times, so have the number of cars on streets, almost the entire country has electricity, many more have access to health care and education but the city of Benaras has been stunned and stunted by modernity into looking like a pathetic and a nowhere mofussil trying to imitate the world and yet unable to clear the exams. In every which way we see, Benaras is a failed city. Modi has been here for the past five years, but there are no toilets, no drinking water, hardly any shop from which one can buy a bottle of water. Yes, the roads are clean but not walkable because the traffic is chaotic, traffic control is non-existent as ever before.
In a bid to reposition Benaras as an international tourist destination, the government has mowed down the quintessential maze of lanes known to all Bengalis as Biswanather Goli. The labyrinth of narrow streets of the temple premises have always held magic to the Bengali mind; not only do we have Biwanather Goli as a figure of speech, but Satyajit Ray seems to have permanently etched the images of these lanes into our minds. But Modi’s idea of development has razed over 300 homes in these lanes, crushed markets and shops under the bulldozers and with heavy earth movers, dug out houses from the plinths extracting out over a thousand temples from homes. In all more than 2000 families are displaced and while the owners have some compensation, the tenants are devasted. Gone are the kachuris, the jilipis (jalebis), the rabri, the flowers, the bangles, the cloth, the condiments, churans, paan masalas and even the electronic markets, earlier this used to be calculators, radios and small cameras, imported from Singapore. There is a Singapore shop selling purses, key chains and some sundry stuff outside on the main road. The maze of lanes that was the magic of Satyajit Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath now lies in debris like Mukul’s Sonar Kella. A township of 600 years is wrecked in order to make way for the VIP car parking and a road that connects the temple straight to the river.
There were protests, but the water and the electricity were cut off, soil dug around the plinth of these houses, protestors jailed and fined. No one took the matter up, it was too small a scale to be of notice. When the males refused to part with their homes, the girls were brought in, promised money and asked to give consent. Since even married women have legal shares in ancestral property their rights were used to gain access to homes in the temple campus. This has created an intense hate of brothers towards their sisters; women are seen to have betrayed men in joining hands with Modi; the triple talaq seems to have worked in this way as well. No wonder then that the streets of the city are now invaded by hawkers, parked cars which serve as shops, the city looks quite dead, a ghost of its former self without the lights, the smell, the flavours and the sounds of these small lanes. The core of its beauty, the temple township is gone forever; the road to the temple is now by boating through the river, then climbing up on a rampart and then viewing the God which is in the form of a linga sunk into the earth.
The locals are upset at the community of the temple town being so displaced but finding the State to be too powerful have paradoxically voted for the very party that inflicted such a pain on them. This is perhaps called the Stockholm syndrome; victim’s love for the oppressor, for that love is the only way to overcome one’s victimhood. They were all echoing the same thing; one must forget Gandhi, one must forget the past, one has to change, one has to evolve and for this icons must be broken just as their own temples over generations and crumpled into ruins and loaded on to trucks as garbage. In this helplessness, in this forced submission to change, humans are emerging as intolerant hatemongers; the very promise of development of infrastructure is searing through our social and national fabric.
A sail on the river by the ghats is so revealing of the power structures of the city. The city and the temple as we know it today was built by the Holkars, Ahalyabai Holkar to be specific. Hers is the massive ghat, tall, broad and majestic. Then there is the Scindia ghat, elegant and tastefully done up. There is the Bhosale ghat, the descendants of Shivaji, bare, minimalistic and barbaric, much like the persona of the Chhatrapati. As the Marathas are ascending, the Rajputs are declining. The ghats of the Rajput princes are modest while there are wannabes and nouveau rich from Bihar and Bengal who squeeze in their ghats as well. The Manikarnika Ghat, the Assi Ghat and the Dashaswamedh seem to be ancient ghats which perhaps predated the Marathas and were more concerned with ablutions and cremations in the river Ganges rather than obeisance to the linga of Shiva. As the sun goes down resplendently costumed Brahmins choreograph an arati to the Ganges. Sanskrit has always been a poetic language and lends itself beautifully to the metres of the mantra, the chime of the bells and the swirl of the lamps made for quite a heady experience.
With the decline of its heritage and the death of its galis, kachauris and jalebis no longer taste the same. The potato stew is tasteless though the service is as cordial as ever before. The thick sugary and milky tea is tolerable, but the crockery of tacky stainless steel is reprehensible. Back to the hotel, we rejoiced over a buffet of the most resplendently cooked kebabs; Benaras has little competition where Mughlai non vegetarian food is concerned. The following morning, we hit the highway again, the very system of highways on which India’s fleeting growth depends on. We reach the airport much before time with ample opportunities to blow up money on yet another round of shopping. I buy a liberal pile of books among which is Roerich’s travels in the Himalayas where Varanasi is an important node in the circuit of trans Himalayan transactions of ancient times. They say in Kyrgyzstan that since Bishkek and Kashi are on the same longitude, the Ganges starts to flow back towards Bishkek in Benaras. That flow back is thought to be an attempt of the Ganges at connecting with the original stream which ended in the Lake of Issykul before the Himalayas rose out of that tectonic shift taking the Ganga with it. Bishkek is imagined to be the abode of Lord Shiva, who looks so much like Buddha as well as Ganesha in Central Asia. Iravati in Myanmar is yet another arm of the Ganges which rises again from the Arakans after it is hived off by the rise of the Himalayas.