Varanasi trip : Kanika Agarwal
When TALF NU announced a heritage trip to the ancient city of Varanasi or ‘Banares’ (as it is locally known), i knew i hade to take the opportunity to experience first hand , the spiritual prowess of ‘The Land of Temples’ that draws pilgrims and believers from all over the globe.
Our group of 17 embarked on 27th Oct’15 from NU and reached the Benaras Hindu University Guest House on 28th October, 12:30 pm. The university seemed to recognized the positive effect of greenery on productivity of mind and peace of soul, for it was full of trees and seemed to throb with life of its own. The guest house was very cosy and (as we were about to discover), conveniently close to the Ghats and other places on our itenary.
We had lunch in the guest house dining hall, where among other distinguished professors, we made acquaintance of Prof . He accompanied us to Bharat kala bhavan, our next destination.
The museum boasted of an impressive collection of total 1,04,376 artifacts, telling of life and culture from two millennia. When the director of the museum Dr.Ajit Singh told us about it, I was certain there was no way for me to even graze upon the ocean of information contained there, in as little as an hour. We saw a collection of sculptures, from all times, geographical locations and regilous systems, coins, robes, daggers and jewellery made of ivory, crystal toys, paintings exhibiting characteristic styles of their era(mughal period, gupta period, etc) or location( jodhpur style, benaras style, pahari style and many other styles), with minute details like the position and style of drawing trees, or the way the eye was drawn or the subtle presence of heavenly creatures distinguishing them from each other.
I noticed most of the sculptures were of gods and goddesses sculpted with physical attributes that were symbolic of their qualities, and surrounded by mortal men positioned near their feet (which disturbed me a little) which was indicative to how people perceived themselves and the ideals they wanted to preserve in these idols.
Prof and Aditi ma’am educated us on the meaning and significance of these artifacts. Among others, the metal idol of dance king Nataraja caught my interest. According to professor, it was one of the greatest creations of the past millennia, and for the reason why, he asked us to identify different components of the idol and contemplate it’s meaning. I realized the nataraja was dancing on one leg, placed on a child that symbolized ignorance. His posture was poised and perfectly balanced, indicating the thoughtless and still state of mind. Around Shiva was a circle alit with fire, the same fire that was in his palm too, Fire: the Purifier, purifying Shiva and the world (shown by circle). This, I could connect to the Buddhist saying “Eventually every tree and every blade of grass will be enlightened”, the concept of universal consciousness, where the purification or awakening of one being contributes a little to the universal awakening. This was a moment of epiphany for me, and this was just the beginning of the trip. Since i pondered over this idol for long and then spent most of my time cruising through the Buddha sculptures that seemed to radiate calmness, i had to rush through the painting section, determining to come again soon and learn what they had to teach me.
I was in a meditative mode, pondering upon what i saw in the museum when we set out for assi ghats. It was still drizzling and the ghats were quiet, except for a program conducted at the reception of Indian air force at Assi ghat. These were 30 men from Indian air force who were swimming the entire length of river ganga to promote it’s cleaning campaign. We got to be an audience to them narrating their experience, talking about narrow escapes from ghariyals and meeting dolphins. Members from Indian army, Indian navy and Indian air force were present along with school children who they had an interactive discussion with, sensitizing them to the cause of cleaning ganga.
We roamed on the ghats for about an hour, during which we enjoyed lemon kullhad chai, and took pictures. I took this time to just look at the vastness of ganga and trying to figure out what the barren land on the other side was. I saw bright yellow spots, that on closer examination seemed to be emmiting smoke, and i realized those were dead bodies being cremated on (i later learnt) the cremation ground of manikarnika . I wanted to witness it more closely for some reason.
Soon our ferry “bajra”(local name) arrived and we wasted no time climbing onboard. Drifting atop river ganga, feeling the light spray of rain on my face and wind in my hair, i took a plunge in the moment, in the holiness of ganges. All thoughts in my head ceased and i surrendered myself my senses. Neither thinking , not judging , just feeling. I watched the ghats slowly pass by and found that simple sight to be extraordinary. That was probably because i was really looking at them, without being distracted by thoughts. I could sense a distinct stillness ‘thehraav’ in the river, like that of a poised sage. It was a trance like state and yet i was more aware of my surroundings than i had ever been before. It was both a collective experience with my friends (the group) and a very private session with ganges at the same time. It intrigued me but i wasn’t about to try and understand it, I just let myself be amazed .
We stopped after a while and our companion Miss Sriparna Nandi, a gifted and passionate classical singer, sand kabir dohas and Krishna Raas to the tune of an electric tanpura. Dusk was giving way to night and the wind was whisteling over the river, attempting to match notes with sriparna. Meanwhile the yellow dots continued to glow brightly, filling me with a sense of finiteness,the truth that every moment, every person, everything comes to an end, and that is all the more reason to cherish them while they last, to be in the moment and live it to the fullest before it is lost.
We returned to assi ghats as the evening aarti commenced at Dashashwamedha ghat. Several other boats were gathered at the shore with ours and many other people were gathered on the ghats.Despite this crowd, there was no noise in the atmosphere, as if all were under a spell.
It wasn’t about floating diyas and flowers on ganga, as i had imagined, but two groups of pundits, starkly different, in every way, from their appearance to the rituals they were performing, chanting on the ghats . One group was lavishly dressed in shiny clothes, standing straight and worshipping lord Vishnu, while the other group was performing Agni Pooja, clad in orange dhoti and chanting while moving the Agni lamp with a lot of vigour, yet in a synchronized manner, to appease lord Shiva, Agni dev, Mother Ganga and the entire universe.
When we got off the bajra, we experienced the agni poojan more closely, collected Prasad and headed out to a food joint. Our first day in Varanasi had ended and i had found something new within. I realized how i am always surrounded by wonder and inspiration but make myself unavailable to them by immersing myself in thought and cutting myself from reality, except for bare minimum survival sensing.
Next day began at 5:00am, to reach Vishwanath temple before it starts getting crowded. It was huge and it’s lanes, thin, winding and confusing, much like most of banares. I had always respected the sanctity of temples, but never been one to put much faith in them. Kaashi Vishwanath, renowned as one of the 12 jyotirlingas and the holiest place for hindus, was a collection of temples dedicated to Bajrangbali, Durga and Shani dev, in addition to Lord Shiva. Devotees were required to remove their slippers outside the entry gate and walk barefoot in the lanes, which though wet and very dirty, people seemed very happy to walk. Vendors were selling flowers and other offering along the way, going as far as giving them on credit. It surprised me because the exit gate was different from the entry gate of the temple, and their confidence in our honesty could only be attributed to the reputation of the temple. We (devotees) dared not lie here, where God’s power and justice flowed.
I came across s small shani temple and as i stood there with folded hands , the pundit noticed me there asked me to light a diya. I realized it was going to cost money and politely refused, as i was carrying none. The pundit realized this and smiled as he simply placed an oil filled diya in my hand. “Offer what you have, offer your bhav, they are more precious to god than money” he said, and made me realize that money is much more trivial than we make it out to be. Human goodwill can never be bought with money, because when money comes into play, the sentiments that were between people shift to being between person and money.
Getting out of the temple was a little difficult and we lost our way a couple of times, but we were back at the guest house by 8 o clock. At 10 we went to IIT BHU, for an interactive session with their Director Prof Sanghal. I have penned an article on the pearls of wisdom he gave us. Not answers, but the right questions that he made us ask ourselves. I cannot do it justice to it with a mere mention here.
Next we headed for Ramnagar, an old city on the outskirts of Varanasi and former home of Kashi Naresh . Here outside is the museum called Saraswati Bhawan, former Darbaar Hall of Ramnagar Fort. The museum held old vintage cars, rath and palinquins that were used before those, and hath gaadi earlier yet. They seemed abnormally large to us who were used to compact designs with smaller engines. The most remarkable thing after the astronomical clock was the collection of firearms and weapons. From small fancy guns, they went to gynormous rifles with seemingly endless barrels, meant for hunting big game. Most of them were from Japanese, Burma and even Africa. The aforementioned big game was preserved after killing and we saw some particularly huge tiger-heads and anteler-heads decorating the walls there. Since the fort was located on the eastern back of ganga, back of the fort opened to a magnificent view of ganga, a place so open and windy, you’d think you could fly (do the impossible) .It was incredibly liberating. When this moment ended, we set out for our meeting with Mr. Amitabh Agarwal, MD NIIT Varanasi.
Amitabh sir was a mighty jolly fellow who had a lot of knowledge and passion for Varanasi and a very interesting yet systematic way of delivering it. He occasionally used stories or instances from his own life to put a point across. In my opinion, while Varanasi showed me my inner self, Amitabh sir taught me the most about Varanasi. He talked about how this sub civilization began, why it sustained and flourished , and what the current condition of Varanasi forecasts about its future. I cannot emphasize enough on how clear the understanding of people there was, about things that are really important in life, and are worth preserving. Rest everything comes and goes, it’s nature being,to flow. Materials cannot stay, neither with nor away from you for long. So it is a fool’s errand to focus your efforts and actions on material. They will soon turn moot. Instead find the immaterial, the reason for whatever you do, your true quest and you will develop that which will not only be eternal but also hold the power to control the flow of materials. Living for a cause beyond oneself, living for others is what makes a person larger than life and that had been at the core of varanasi’s growth. This was a common sense that people in banaras seemed to share and sir put it to us very nicely through a short story. The story had shiva cursing a merchant with wealth and blessing a poor devoted Brahmin by taking away the very last of his possessions. That story will always act as my litmus for testing what i am building attachments with and recognizing how giving it up will prove a blessing.
He also discussed in detail about various artforms and revered artists banaras is home to, from music to pottery, metal crafting to silk sarees, no efforts are spared in bringing out the most beautiful of any artform.
On the last day of our stay, we went to the ghats to witness the sunrise and morning rituals performed by locals bathing in ganga. We also went to Sankat Mochan Foundation Ganga Cleansing project lab, situated above Tulsi, ghats. We learnt about the causes and nature of pollution, ongoing struggle for clean ganga, the help they were getting from government and what they were doing by themselves.From here, taking a zayka of the favourite local breakfast of chola samosa and doodh jalebi, we got ready to say goodbye to Varanasi.
Last thing was the trip to Sarnath that took about an hour to reach. This was the place we shopped at before visiting the archelogical site containing the great Dhamekh stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa from the pre-Ashokan Era, the base of the Ashoka pillar, which was broken during Turk Islamic invasions and Brahmi Inscriptures on the pillar. It was like taking a dive in our social science book. Sarnath was also where i saw a silk saree being made on a handloom, ever so delicately, ever so dedicatedly.Leaving Sarnath in about 3 hours, we were headed for the station and i knew this trip had changed me in a lot of ways.
It gave me some answers, a lot more questions, about myself, my culture, my country and my history. And i realized i will find the answers right here too.I came back with great memories of Varanasi, but memories are, but dead mental images, so i took care to have a greater time living those moments while there.