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  Books   03 Jan 2020  Call of the river, of Kashi and the burning ghats

Call of the river, of Kashi and the burning ghats

THE ASIAN AGE. | SUDEEP SEN
Published : Jan 3, 2020, 3:17 am IST
Updated : Jan 3, 2020, 3:17 am IST

The hotel itself is housed in a heritage property of the erstwhile family of the Muksudpur Tekari state of Bihar.

The hotel is situated on the banks of the river Ganges at Asi Ghat, which is said to be one of the five most sacred places of pilgrimage — Pancha Tirtha — in Kashi (or Varanasi). (Representational Image/ PTI)
 The hotel is situated on the banks of the river Ganges at Asi Ghat, which is said to be one of the five most sacred places of pilgrimage — Pancha Tirtha — in Kashi (or Varanasi). (Representational Image/ PTI)

Walking along the ghats in Varanasi, along its ancient living alleyways, to the cremation spots, to the temples, to the food stalls — the boat rides along the river at dawn and dusk, seeing the spectacular arati — one is transported into a different realm and time. It is no wonder that great Indian seers, thinkers and writers dating back to Kabir Das, Ravidas, Tulsidas Kulluka Bhatt, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Jaishankar Prasad, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Tegh Ali, Kshetresa Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Acharya Shukla, Munshi Premchand, Vagish Shastri, Baldev Upadhyaya, Sudama Pandey, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki Nandan Khatri and Vidya Niwas Mishr have lived in this city.

I was staying at the beautiful Hotel Ganges View, an intimate museum-like complex where part of the royal family still lives. Their personal artworks, artifacts, books and furniture are an organic part of this place — as is the exquisite freshly-cooked local vegetarian fare they provide to the guests. The hotel is situated on the banks of the river Ganges at Asi Ghat, which is said to be one of the five most sacred places of pilgrimage — Pancha Tirtha — in Kashi (or Varanasi). The river Asi used to merge in the waters of the Ganges at this very place marking the southern boundary of the holy city. Local lore has it that the saint-poet Tulsidas wrote a part of his celebrated epic, the Ramacharitmanas, at Asi. It is also said that the queen of Jhansi, Laxmi Bai, was born at Asi Ghat.

The hotel itself is housed in a heritage property of the erstwhile family of the Muksudpur Tekari state of Bihar. Its ancestors immigrated in Varanasi in the late 19th century. In 1870, Dulhin Radha Dulari Kuwari — a princess of the Sursand state of Bihar, widow of Srimant Damodar Dev Narayan Singh of Chainpur State in Bihar — settled down at Asi and became involved in philanthropic activities. Local pundits of that time suggested that she reconstruct the Asi Madhava shrine and build the ghat overlooking river Ganga.

After the death of the princess in 1927, her son-in-law, Kumar Kailash Kinkar Narayan Singh, and her grandson, Kumar Keshav Kinkar Narayan Singh immigrated to Varanasi. Known for their great love for music, art and literature, the family continued the patronage of the arts. And the result of this can be seen all over the family-home-hotel. Painted walls, ceilings, door arches, artworks, sculptures adorn every room. More artworks are stacked waiting to find space.

It is no wonder that a number of well-known contemporary artistes, scholars, photographers, painters, designers, filmmakers, writers and poets have gravitated to this place. On the walls and in the library — I saw a series of stunning black-and-white images of Dayanita Singh, books by Raghubir Singh, Raghu Rai and Sudhir Kakar, and many others. Unsurprisingly, my sojourn there resulted in several new creative pieces of writing and many art photographs. One of them that follows, sums up — Varanasi, the ancient city of Kashi — for me. It is titled, “Burning Ghats, Varanasi”:

“My back, over-heated by the flaming pyres of the burning dead, / shields my sight of river Ganges — / its fast muddy currents eddying the floating lamps, bathing humans, / remains of corpses, and flesh-and-bone ash. //

In Manikarnika Ghat, a mixture of sanctity and stench / rises from the silted sands and wooden armatures — / fire-aided decomposition of human flesh — / the offerings swiftly lapped up by roaming animals. / An emaciated sadhu with wild-knotted dreadlocks, / perched precariously on a bamboo frame / on the edge of the river, / dreams of alms that might come his way, even at this late hour. //

Presiding priests, feed with ritual ghee / the burning of wood-and-dead — / the constant flames forming huge flares, / fragmented waves of golden-amber spark, / electrifying helical fire-flurries — a crematorium. //

A young boy scratches his newly-shaven head, / a pot-bellied man immerses himself in the water, / stray dogs bark, cows groans, loudspeaker bray. / Amid so much noise, / the business of death being transacted / carries on, without any emotion or fuss. //

Saffron-robed holy men on the ghat steps / sit in yoga postures praying for something, / a silent selfless quest — / what does prayer amid all this din and commerce get you anyway? //

This medley of bells, conch, lamps, chanting, fire, water, boat and people / ceases to be a cacophony after a few hours — / all variant noises melding into a drone, a trance — / where the only balance that exist, is in our minds. //

Young bareheaded bare-bodied men, draped in swathes of pure white cotton, / foreheads smeared in sandalwood and vermillion / carrying ash-filled earthen pots — / walk past me towards the river-edge with a sense of detachment. / As the eldest sons in their family, Hindu strictures demand / that they perform the last rites for the dead. / White-robed teachers / sitting under large circular cane-parasols on the ghat / impart philosophical teachings from the Upanishads and Vedas / to the young priests-in-the-making. //

There are illuminated cane lanterns / hung on long bamboo poles curving skywards — / homage to the memory of martyrs — / and floating lamps to light the journey of the spirit / as they sail upstream towards its source. //

In the super-heated pyre, I hear another ritual pot break, / another skull crack, another soul taking flight. / I see some shore-temples slow-sink into the swallowing river, / effects of unpredictable tides and climate change / taking with them both the mortals and the immortals — / ashes to ashes, dust to dust — / water to heavy water, life to after-life.”

Sudeep Sen [www.sudeepsen.org] is an award-winning poet, translator, editor and photographer; whose most recent book is Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms (Bloomsbury)

Tags: asi ghat