The planks in the floor of the boat creaked, and the boat rocked in the water as the whole entourage got on to their respective barges. Soon we were on our way, but where? The question popped up in my mind. We had had our lunch on the boat itself, on our way from the Tulsi ghat to the Kashi Vishwanath dham corridor, and our dinner was booked at the beautiful heritage building, the Goleria Kothi. But it was not dinner time yet, it was still early evening, and a warm, dark orange sun shone from over the rooftops in the western sky, refusing to leave the firmament, highlighting the ancient city’s skyline, its more than ancient buildings, its temples, and their spires……and the dust that rose from the millions of feet which walked this immortal city……
‘Where are we going Papa,’ Vandita asked me.
‘Where indeed,’ I murmured under my breath, looked around, and then replied, ‘I think we will just sail around for some time before going to Goleria Kothi for our dinner. You guys do remember that place, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ the two nodded in unison, and then Vandita, looking at the string of ghats, asked, ‘how many ghats are there in Varanasi, Papa?’
‘Eighty four,’ I replied without thinking, almost as a reflex.
‘From the Assi ghat to the Raj Ghat, or, I think, the Adi Keshava ghat. I think they have added a few more ghats in the recent past, but the traditional number is eighty four. The Assi ghat is named after the Assi river which is an apabhramsha, (‘You know what an apabhramsha is? I asked Vandita) a distortion of the word Asi, which means sword.’
The story had started again……
‘Varanasi has been defined as the piece of land lying between the Varuna river in the north, and the Assi river in the south. Both the words are apabramsha, or distortions of their former selves. The original words, I think, were Varana which means something like to protect or to maintain or to defend, and Asi which means sword. The piece of land thus protected from two sides by these two rivers and flanked in the east by the upturning of the Ganges which flows from south to north here, was called Varanasi. ‘
I paused, and looked at the direction that the two boats were taking……
‘Are we?’….my thoughts trailed off……’This cannot be. And yet the boat is definitely going there. And do I see people there, on that side? Really? Have things changed so much in only a couple of decades?? Kashi isn’t unchanging, immutable, immortal anymore???’
Thoughts upon thought assailed my mind, silencing my voice…..The children followed my gaze, and spoke up, ‘Are we going to that side of the river, Papa?’
Their collective query broke my reverie. We were indeed going to the ‘other’ side of the river, the eastern bank, the forbidden land which I had trespassed upon in the ages gone by, in the dead of the night, with a couple of friends, and had lived to tell about it. The ‘opposite’ bank of the Ganga in Varanasi, had always been out of bounds, left barren, uninhabited, for the yogis, and the aghoris, and the kapaliks…….
We were transcending traditional boundaries, desecrating sacred grounds…..and we were not the only ones……there was a veritable fair, a melee, on that bank…….
My mouth went dry, and my eyes stared, unable to believe, my reflexes dulled with the shock, I froze ……..
To be continued…..
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