A Sacred Diversity - The New Indian Express

A Sacred Diversity

Published: 08th June 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 07th June 2014 12:02 PM

Here the Ganga received every sinner with forgiveness. Taking the boat from Dasaswamedh Ghat, rowing along the eternal river, I felt I was being taken through the currents of myth and history. My boatman Shankar became my sutradharak. He narrated the significance of each and every ghat. I laughed when he told me about Narad Ghat, claiming that anybody bathing here with his or her spouse risked separation and possible divorce. Manikarnika Ghat looked haunting, as if it was filled with the shades of the departed; not a moment passes there without a departed soul being set free by the fires of cremation. The enterprising Shankar suggested that I hire his boat again before sunrise, so that my camera could witness the dawn breaking over the ghats. We floated past them one by one, seeing the elaborate rituals; pilgrims from all over India taking holy dips, offering prayers, as locals gather, swim, pray, play and even dance as they have for millennia. The river sutra also encompasses the mundane—dhobis washing clothes, buffaloes being bathed, sacred cows wandering by, and fishermen casting their nets for their morning catch. The ghats are the essence of the eclectic—babas, pundits and the faithful sat besides the ghats while Muslim kids played and swam in Ganga’s gentle tides. In places, Muslims performed their ‘wazu’ (the ablution before namaz), and the azaan resonated over the ghats. Everywhere in Varanasi, people talk animatedly about faith and spirituality, and also a little bit of politics after the city made Narendra Modi the Prime Minister.

After the feast for the eyes, it was time to feast on piping hot puris and aloo dum followed by “garma garam jalebis”. Everywhere in Varanasi—the city of Lord Shiva—the chants of “har-har Mahadev” resonate. If I returned even a bit spiritual, blame it on Varanasi. One cannot resist the temptation of taking the intoxicating route to devotion through bhang and Benarasi paan. Paan and thandai, a cooling drink containing certain ground spices and seeds, were sold at shops every five steps I took. There were two types of thandai: marijuana mixed in milk—bhang, and Sookhaa Mevaa—both considered Shiva’s main prasada. One can never overdo the divine. I gulped down four or five glasses of thandai. My consciousness welled up with laughter and I remember staying happy through the day and well unto midnight. Naturally, my spiritual repast ended banally, but happily with Amitabh Bachchan—‘khaike paan banaraswala.’

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