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Prelude to eternal life

Prelude to eternal life

Author: Anuradha Dutt
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: February 13, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/156137/Prelude-to-eternal-life.html

Kashi is central to our ethos; we must revive this city

Two senior Spanish diplomats are so enamoured of Varanasi that they are determined to try their utmost to revive it. Mr Ion de la Riva Guzman de Frutos, Ambassador of Spain to India, and Mr Oscar Pujol are engaged in mobilising funds and technical expertise for developing the great pilgrimage as a world heritage site. Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage is also involved in this task. Both had studied in Banaras Hindu University, and have deep regard for the city's history and culture. But they find its present condition, as of the Ganga, upon whose banks it stands, quite dismal. They feel that if Europe's historical cities, say, Salamanca in Spain, could survive the wear and tear inflicted by time and vandals, Varanasi too should be restored to its past magnificence.

Varanasi is certainly unique, representing the final post for myriad believers. It is commonly said in Europe - "See Venice and die". In Varanasi, hordes of people flock, driven by the belief that giving up the breath in this ancient pilgrimage sanctified by Shiv and his consort Mahadevi as well as a host of deities, saints and savants, assures deliverance from the cycle of existence. The fabled temple of Kashi Vishwanath is dedicated to Shiv as the cosmic emperor, and the mother as bestower of food is worshipped in the shrine of Annapurna nearby. While scholars quibble over the precise nature of freedom, assured by dying here - with some citing scriptures to claim that it is a progressive liberation, requiring sojourns in higher realms, the city holds an unequalled attraction for seekers and tourists alike. Possibly the oldest settlement in the world, its antiquity is credited to the view that at the time of dissolution, which occurs periodically, Shiv perches Banaras atop his trident, and then restores it to its place after the waters of the great deluge have receded. It thus surmounts time.

Standing on the banks of Ganga, between the confluence of Varuna with this great river to the north and of Asi to the south, the city derives its name from the two small rivers. In the past, it had various names of which Kashi and Mahashamshan are still in use. The former signifies city of lights with the devout followers setting diyas afloat upon Ganga every evening, as the ceremonial aarti is performed along its banks. As darkness gently falls, the frieze of narrow lanes comes alive with gaiety, music, dance and blazing lamps. After attaining nirvana, Gautam Buddha chose Sarnath, on Kashi's outskirts, for delivering his first sermon. This was because some of India's greatest intellectuals lived in that area. It is now a major Buddhist pilgrimage.

Kathak evolved as a classical genre in these lanes, crammed with shops of silk saris and handicrafts, as did the Banaras Gharana of Hindustani music. Goswami Tulsidas wrote Ramacharitamanas in Banaras, thereby rendering the saga of Ram in the spoken tongue. Other savants dwelt here too: Kabir and Ravi Das, litterateurs Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla and legendary dancers and musicians.

Even as Kashi dazzled with its brilliance, the city's other name, 'Mahashamshan', indicated its sombre aspect. People came here to seek salvation on the ghats of Ganga. Ramakrishna Paramahansa, after visiting one of Banaras's burning grounds, recounted to his disciples that he had seen Shiv whisper the Tarak mantra of liberation into the ears of the dying while goddess Kali stood nearby.

About a hundred ghats line the riverbanks. Most are used for bathing and sacred dips. Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats are deployed for burning bodies. They are holy for left-hand practitioners, tantriks and aghoris, whose mystifying path to truth lies through the burning grounds. Harishchandra dwelt as a Dom for seven long years on the ghat that bears his name after he gave up his kingdom, as directed by his preceptor, and sold his wife and child into slavery. After the pre-ordained period of suffering was over, he was miraculously restored to his former state, along with his queen and child, though the latter had died of snake bite.

Thousand of years later, devout followers converge at this place with reverence. For them, death is the prelude to eternal life.

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