The Reunion XXX – Visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple

And thus, the cars sped that morning once more, through the crowded and familiar streets of Varanasi. Crowded, but less crowded than we remembered them, and much cleaner. Familiar, but less familiar than before. It pained me to realize that I had started to forget the streets of Banaras and, if left alone, may not be able to find my way around the same streets where I had roamed around for so many years. Banaras formed an indelible part of all of us; all of us came to Banaras as children and left it as adults, leaving our childhood here, in its streets, and taking a little of Banaras with us, making it a part of our memories, part of our childhood. Banaras also took a part of us, to keep with itself. It took the best part of us and made it its own, never to give it back to us again. Thus, Banaras complemented us, and we complemented Banaras. 

I am sure this was a feeling echoed by everyone who ever lived and studied in Banaras or Varanasi, the city founded by Mahadev Shiva, the God of Gods. The city has a timeless quality of its own, a strange sort of warm familiarity floats around in its air, sits on the stone steps of its numerous ghats, hides behind its ancient stone temples, and swims around on the waves of Mother Ganga. History is still young here, even though it is thousands of years old. Men have lived and died and married and procreated and cremated their dead here on the holy land of Kashi since times immemorial. Poets have sung songs in the praise of Kashi, pilgrims have yearned for one look of Kashi, the devout have always wanted to live and die here, and saints have studied and preached and found the true meaning of life here in the numerous hermitages and temples and sanctuaries that line the streets of Kashi. Kashi was, is and will be. Men will come and go. Kashi is timeless. 

And thus, humbled by this realization, I sat in the car that morning and looked out at the streets of Banaras once more.

The children, as usual, were with me in my car, and they chatted and played and laughed while listening to the stories I told them. Soon the cavalcade of the cars stopped and all of us got down for our visit to the Vishwanath Temple. I herded the children together, while Tej Singh addressed all of us about what was going to happen now and what we were expected to do. 

‘We have to form a line from here,’ he said, ‘I have arranged for a darshan of the temple through some authorities so all of you just follow me, and don’t get lost here.’ 

‘Here’ meant Godowlia, the area of the city where the Gyanvapi or the Vishwanath temple was situated. An area as densely populated by mendicants as by merchants. If one walked west from the main ‘chowk’ or intersection of Godowlia and kept going straight, one would end up on the ‘Dashashwamegha Ghat’ on the bank of the Ganga. Legend has it that in ancient times, there were no man-made structures between the Gyanvapi and the Ganga which flowed a short walk down from the temple towards its west. Thus, one could have a dip in the Ganga and carry ‘Ganga-Jal’ or the holy water of Ganga to offer to the ‘Shiva lingam’ installed in the Vishwanath temple at Gyanvapi. Over a period of time, however, this changed as the population of the city grew, and, later, as the temple was threatened by repeated assaults over it by religious bigots. In a bid to protect the temple, people started living around the temple and slowly, over a period of time the temple was hidden behind a maze of structures. Now it was not possible to see the Ganga from the temple. However, the devout still took a dip in the Ganga at the Dashashwamegha ghat and then visited their deity at the temple. We, however, would not be doing that. 

Following Tej Singh’s instructions, a loose queue of sorts formed, with people holding on to their children or instructing their spouses to do the same. I held Mithi’s hand and that of Vedant, Appu’s son, the two youngest children in the group that followed me. Other children also stood around me; Shubhi, Sona, Nil, Mon, Puru’s daughters, and the elder daughter of Sridhar. There were other children too, some whose name I knew and some whose name I did not know. But the children knew each other, and they preferred each other’s company to that of adults. And since, I was in charge of children, it so happened that I found myself in the midst of a huge group of children. I was happy, but also concerned lest the children get lost in the streets of Godowlia on the way to the temple. 

The streets were crowded and, as is typical of Banaras, all sorts of characters roamed around here and there. Take for example this person, who, lured by the prospect of some monetary profit, started applying tilak or vermilion paint to everyone’s forehead, murmuring incantations. It was obvious to me that he was no holy man, but a charlatan who wanted to earn some money by fooling the ‘visitors’. The children endured this curiosity for some time, and even some adults got their foreheads smeared, but soon the fellow started getting more aggressive and thus, I had to shoo him off using some ungentlemanly Banarasi epithets. Banaras was, unfortunately, full of such people. Criminals in the garb of a renunciant. One needed to be careful of them. 

After getting rid of this character, I looked around me. Vaishali was nearby, as was Swati. Sutanu and Sudeepa stood little ahead of us. I called out to everyone to keep an eye on the children who were nearest to them. This was the only way we could keep them together in the winding lanes and by lanes of Banaras. Soon, this human chain started to move through the streets of Varanasi. I tried to recognize where exactly we were, but it was of no use, the landscape had changed too much. I gripped Mithi and Vedanta tightly and kept moving. 

To be continued………………………………….

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