Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together- Mark Twain
My revisit to Kashi or Varanasi as it is known today, happened precisely ten years ago in the year 2010, when I was invited as a Guest Speaker in one of the National Geriatric Conferences which was being held at Banaras Hindu University. It was an opportunity that I was more than inclined to take, as I was getting a chance to revisit this Holy City after twenty-eight long years. It was between 1982 and 1983, that we had spent a year in Benares as it was then called, thanks to my father, who was posted there as a Sr. Divisional Manager of Life Insurance Corporation of India. It was here, in one of the holiest cities of Hinduism, that I did my XIth Standard, from one of the oldest premier Institutes of girls’ education, the Central Hindu Girls’ School.
Kashi is also known as the winter abode of Lord Shiva, and is often referred to as the “City of Light”. It is not merely a city, but has a magnetic attraction which appears to link it to the larger cosmic phenomenon. They say that the vibrations of the city of Kashi is like the pulse of the Universe. Lying on the Western banks of the holy river Ganges, this city has its own unique magic and is tagged as one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Life exists here in all its stark reality. It is a melting pot of life and death itself. Kashi is a place where death stares at your face and one is reminded of the mortal nature of human beings. My distinct memories of Benares almost 38 years ago, reminds me of my first reactions of moving to the spiritual capital of India. At seventeen years of age, when life was just beginning to get exuberant and unraveling its colourful plethora of the new consumerism era, we were moving to this ancient, legendary city. Frankly, it didn’t create much of a flutter in me, and I was sceptical about this move, without having much of a choice though. In fact, I was the first one to move in there with my Dad, due to my school admission issues, while the rest of the family would follow. I had a very unique and different experience during this brief period, where I was to stay with another North Indian family for about a fortnight, within the LIC Colony, until my Dad would return again with the family. Needless to say, they ushered me all their love and hospitality, and this was one of my first practical lessons of assimilating in any circumstances or situations, irrespective of barriers of culture, language, food and tradition.
Apart from the endless number of temples, one of the first things I had noticed in this city amidst all the chaos and the hustle, were of the open cremation grounds which take place at its famous Ghats. It is said that the funeral pyre never ever ceases to burn out in Manikarnika Ghat as someone or the other is always being cremated. At that time my paternal grandmother used to stay with us and I remember how delighted she was about the prospect of shifting to Benares. For her it was the ultimate resting place, as people would often go and spend their remaining years, to ultimately die in Kashi. That of course didn’t happen for her, but she did feel a sense of gratification to have spent some time there and visit the holy shrines, as her memory was also beginning to dwindle away, with Alzheimer’s Disease setting in. Probably for her, in her fading memory, Kashi was indeed her last resting place.
Although our stay in the city of Benares was one of the shortest stints, it was packed with a bundle of diverse experiences. I remember the visits to Vishwanath temple at the Dashaswamedha Ghat, and at that time, as a young teenager, I really couldn’t figure out what was it that attracted such a huge crowd, from the humble Indian pilgrims to the international tourists from world over, who often eventually made Banares their permanent residence. So intense was the pulse of the city.
I remember looking forward to the trips to the BHU campus and the Viswanath Temple in its premises which was quieter and cleaner, not to forget the stopover for the famous Benarasi Kulfi and Rabri on our way back. I also vividly remember my XIth Standard to be a pretty challenging year for me, as I was trying to adapt to the Science Stream in a city where the medium of instruction often slipped to Hindi, as it was more familiar for the teachers as well as the local students. So, there was little time for distractions. Over and above, my father ensured that I completed my Visharad in Indian Classical Vocal Music from the Prayag Samiti University, and hence that entailed intense ‘Riyaz’ or practice alongside academics.
28 years later, in the year 2010, life took a full circle taking me back once again to this familiar city, albeit on work. But, apart from the Conference, I had a mission, to visit my old school and if possible search for the house where we once lived.
In between the conference, I along with two of my colleagues from Chandigarh, decided to visit Sarnath, the seat of Buddhism where Gautama Buddha first taught Dharma or “Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma” where he gave his first sermon. Silence has its own vibrations and this is what we experienced in Sarnath. Although this was my second visit to this place, this time it evoked a sense of peace and tranquility which I probably hadn’t experienced earlier. It was overwhelming to just sit and appreciate the stillness of the environment. To be in the moment in the same spot as Lord Buddha, was indeed a divine blessing.
Revisiting the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the BHU campus and a trip to the Dashaswamedha Ghat rekindled my memories in a flash. Though the name of the city had now changed to Varanasi, it still carried the same old world charm. It’s vibrance is a snapshot of life in all its adversities. Not much seemed to have changed in all these years. Tourists in colourful pyjamas, chunnis and beads, thronged the streets in very much the same way. Sadhus and Yogis found solace here. The city embraced everyone who came its way.
The last day of my trip was devoted to exploring my old school and house. I took a rickshaw ride and headed for Bhelupur where my school was located. I was once again in awe of the journey I had made to stand in the front gates of the school which had contributed in shaping me, after 28 years. Central Hindu Girls’ School was started by none other than Dr. Annie Besant in 1904, and this was one of the pioneer institutes in women’s education in our country. I walked in to meet the Principal, introducing myself and it was a pleasant interaction. It was a poignant moment to remember some of my old teachers, many of whom had left this world. Although it was an unannounced visit on a working school day, I was grateful to the Principal for the time that I was given, and also the opportunity to interact with some of the students and teachers.
I was now in the last lag of my trip and once again took a bumpy rickshaw ride through the bustling streets of Varanasi, to the Life Insurance Office. I sought for an appointment with the current Divisional Manager, and as I waited outside the room, my eyes caught a plaque where my father’s name was engraved along with the others who had held the chair of Divisional Manager. I was wondering if there would be anyone in the office who may have worked with my father, but all I could see were young faces around. Many of the young officers were introduced to me by the Divisional Manager, and they said that although they had not met my father, they had heard phenomenal stories about his work ethics and dedication in serving the Corporation. It was not just a mere coincidence, but part of a larger cosmic plan that I was told about Mr. Vohra, one of my father’s closest confidant and friend who was still in service. It was a tearful reunion with Vohra Uncle. He found it unbelievable that I took this journey after 28 years. I had very little time in hand as I had an evening flight, but Uncle took me on a brief nostalgic journey to the adjacent LIC Colony, to show me the old house where we lived. It was exactly the way I had imagined it to be. The little kitchen window facing the front yard, brought back memories of the whiff of dal and curry which my mother would cook, as we would return from school. We slowly took a walk across the colony and sat for a moment at the little kid’s park ( fondly called Panghat), and were immersed in our conversation about the years that went by . Time stood still for a moment and everything was just like the way it was.
With a sense of deep satisfaction, I felt that I had completed a very important journey of my life. The end of this trip was the beginning of revived bonds. My reconnection with Vohra Uncle remains as strong as ever, and he continues to shower his blessings on me and my family, specially my children. As I pen down this piece, I realize how several decades of our lives unfold just like chapters of a book.
I may have left Benares almost four decades back, but a part of my soul will always remain connected to Kashi.