Hordes of people sit patiently on the steps in front of a makeshift stage. They seem unfazed by the chilly weather on a December evening. Men garbed in dhotis, sherwanis and turbans are already on the stage gearing for a performance. Suddenly the sound of cymbals fills the air, and the men on stage start swaying to the music. With lighted lamps in their hands, they gracefully perform the arathi. The stunning show of sound and light goes on for nearly an hour. At repeated intervals, the sound of the drums reaches frenzied heights. My family and I are on a boat along with a group of friends watching the scene unfold on the Dashashwamedh ghat. The sound of cameras clicking in the background is a mild intrusion. The city of Benares — known for its spirituality, saris and paan — has begun to weave a spell on me.
When we drove through the city earlier in the day, I was startled by the picture of incongruity. SUVs and jeeps rubbed shoulders with two-wheelers and cows on the road causing traffic pile up at several junctures. The mall with its flagship stores of international brands stood out like a sore thumb in a neighbourood of dusty ramshackle buildings. The sylvan surroundings of the Banaras Hindu University gave me a sense of a wormhole. Tree-lined avenues, endless rows of playgrounds and distant buildings greeted me at every turn. The Birla Mandir, a white sandstone building stood tall, like a sentinel guarding the campus.
At the crack of dawn on the second day of our trip, we head towards the famed Kashi Viswanath Temple.
Our guide who whisks us as soon as we step into a bustling thoroughfare near the temple is on a roll. ‘As today is Monday, its very crowded here, come quickly!’ he mumbles as he deftly steers us through narrow lanes. I walk through a labyrinth of small streets jam-packed with stores. Chants of “hara hara mahadev” echo in the air. Any semblance of a single line queue becomes distorted as we get closer to the sanctum sanctorum. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple built by Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore is believed to house the first manifestation of Lord Shiva in the lingam. I barely catch a glimpse of the lingam on the ground, when I am jostled by a burly man chanting feverishly under his breath. The devotees are unmindful of the slippery ground or the lack of breathing space.
“I’m ready for some lavanga latha!” my husband says. When I give him a bewildered look, he explains in detail about that special Benarasi sweet. After that surrealistic visit to the temple, I’m having a hard time making that transition back to the real world.
A quick stop at Pahalvan’s eatery outside the BHU campus reveals a hole in the wall, nothing fancy. Tossing aside all concerns of hygiene and willing my stomach to behave, I dig into the kachoris, the jalebis in hot milk and the frothy lassi. It’s a gastronomic delight. When I look back at the campus behind me and the dusty roads ahead of me, I realise the city has multiple facets.
The town and the village trying to meet halfway on one of Hinduism’s hallowed grounds, even as visitors come here seeking answers to the mysteries of life. My sticky fingers holding the jalebis keep me grounded though.
That’s when I remember this is Benares, the city that makes one think beyond the mundane. Even as it offers a feast for all the senses.
This article first appeared in the Hindu Metro Plus.