Varanasi: The Race To
Sorrow, Suffering, Sacrifice
The oldest in India. One of the oldest in the world. The cradle of the oldest religion.
The city of Varanasi is peppered with all things ancient.
Even its name elicits a feeling of queasiness; if you know what it means, that is. In the ancient Sanskrit language, Dashashwamedh roughly translates into “ten sacrificial horses” which Brahma is said to have rendered. Any signs of horses have long since disappeared, although the word “sacrifice” finds a new meaning on these ghats of Varanasi. The ghats, if you aren’t familiar with the word, is the edge of the riverbank where typically a broad set of stairs lead the way to the water.
Known often by its original name of Kashi, visiting Varanasi isn’t just a walk in the park. The path leading up to the ghats is riddled with potholes of every shape and an ungodly state of continuous disrepair. Within the confines of this narrow lane, motorcycles, moving in fits and starts, compete for space with ramshackle bicycles maneuvering through a sea of people, serenading along every inch of the way. Then there is the sound of empty pots and pans from the beggars who line up the street.
During my stay in Varanasi, I had walked along this path enough number of times to tune in one particular kind of clink-clank that seemed to be ever-present. It was the sound of friction from a misshapen bowl being thrust forward on the ground by a figure barely recognizable as human. He moved fast, part crawling, part rolling, but mostly dragging his multiply amputated torso over the merciless randomness of concrete, mud, and urine. But on this path of penance and sacrifice, he was just one of many lepers, social outcasts, and pariahs finding a permanent abode near the ghats of this ancient city.
No, Varanasi wasn't the city I imagined it to be and didn't live up to its reputation, at least in my mind; but on the other hand, Dashashwamedh Ghat, for all its exuberances, appeared cleaner than I honestly expected it to be.
Once I waded through the crowd ignoring the persistent calls of everyone from boat owners to massage practitioners, at the end of the road, the ghats revealed themselves in all their glory. My senses quickly got into overdrive. Yes, the aromas, the sights, and the noises might not make the last few steps leading to the Ganges an inviting one to all visitors, but they sure make them an unforgettable one.
It was early in the evening, and as I got closer, a flock of birds took flight from their food-laced concrete perch.
Stray dogs skulked around in the hopes of scavenging their last meal of the day. Men and women lit up hundreds of lamps in preparation for the aarati, an elaborate and choreographed offering to the gods, one of the highlights Varanasi.
But then as I wandered around, soaking in the comings and goings of the place beyond the boats, the ghats, and the crowds, I quickly noticed that somewhere along the way, Varanasi’s religious landscape had taken a duplicitous turn, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why. The city’s claim to fame lies not in one, but two of the oldest and most revered religions of the world; this second one is Buddhism, with a web of intertwined roots to boast.
In fact, only a few miles south is the town of Sarnath, a place where Buddha delivered his first sermon in the 6th century BC. Throughout its treasured history, Varanasi had continued as the premier center for religious, educational, cultural, and artistic activities, and had drawn numerous learned men from around the world. Among the many celebrated luminaries to have visited the city was the great Chinese explorer Hiuen Tsang.
Despite the general decrepit conditions of some quarters, all was not gloomy and wretched, however. In fact, upon a visit to the city some 125 years ago, none other than Mark Twain mentioned that he found that “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The sharp irony in his words, of course, is that while the city of Varanasi may have continuously been inhabited for over three millennia, Twain himself hailed from a country that at the time was a mere century old. But that’s hardly a cause to not celebrate the great antiquity of this city.
As a microcosm of the oldest religion that humanity has known, Varanasi has been imbued by the traditional ethos of Hinduism and regarded by all Hindus as their holiest city. The countless religious scriptures of the Hindu mythology have long weaved an elaborate web of allegory through the clammy byroads of this city, and for its part, the city has attracted droves of worshippers, pilgrims, and devotees, a significant portion of its loyal base coming out of the western hemisphere.
The dead are brought here from the far reaches of India for open air cremation, a tradition going back many millennia. Meanwhile, there are rooms for rent for the living “dead” – folks who are brought to the city alive but are teetering near the edge of their lives. Perhaps to make the process as streamlined and painless as possible, these hapless residents are groomed and primed for their impending afterlife while they still live their miserable last few days on this planet in these morose quarters.
Varanasi, it appears, is a city as much for the living as for the dead.