Why looking at Varanasi through the prism of its views on the ruling party is disrespectful to its pluralistic character

Varanasi has witnessed the coming and going of many empires and dynasties, kings and queens, all leaving their mark for posterity but ultimately overshadowed by its magnificence.

Archive image of the Gyanwapi Mosque in Varanasi. Image Courtesy: [email protected]/Wikimedia Commons

Images of Varanasi on social media often fetishize naked sadhus wielding trishul with ash on their bodies, pilgrims taking holy baths in the waters of the Ganges, corpses burning on the ghats and cows wandering the alleyways. . An overabundance of such representations constructs this vibrant multicultural place as predominantly Hindu, instead of celebrating the diversity that thrives there. Things on the ground are often very different from what they look like online.

As well as the massive Kashi Vishwanath Dham project inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which draws hordes of devotees to Varanasi, there are plenty of other things to do. Even a brief encounter with this ancient city affirms its rich pluralistic character built over centuries. I was there just three weeks ago and was mesmerized by the beautiful mix of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Muslim and Christian influences – almost a microcosm of India itself.

Besides experiencing Ganga Aarti – a feast for the senses and a gateway to the sublime – I went to Sankat Mochan Mandir. Being there was special because this temple established by Goswami Tulsidas, who composed the Ramcharitmanas, hosted performances by some outstanding exponents of music and dance including Kelucharan Mohapatra, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Rajan-Sajan Mishra, Ghulam Ali and Birju Maharaj.

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While their annual Sangeet Samaroh is scheduled for April, I found a bhajan mandali immersed in chanting and playing harmonium and manjeeras when I visited in December. I also encountered small groups of people huddled together, talking animatedly, playing cards and enjoying mithai. This view reinforced the social and cultural role of religion in people’s lives, in addition to its spiritual, emotional and political significance.

I also visited Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first teachings after enlightenment. The archaeological sites and the museum made me slow down and reflect on how lucky I am to live in a country where I can access these places so easily. As I walked around the Dhamekh Stupa, I bowed in gratitude to the countless people who had to work in the construction, excavation, restoration and maintenance of these structures.

One of the finest collections of Buddhist art in the world is in the Rubin Museum in New York, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that being there was like being in a shrine. The Sarnath Museum may not be as fancy or well funded, but what makes it sacred to people like me is to stand where the enlightened stood and renew our commitment to walk on the way he showed us to end our own suffering and benefit others. sentient beings.

Sarnath happens to be the birthplace of Shreyansnath, on the 11thand Tirthankar in Jainism, while Varanasi is considered the birthplace of the 13and Tirthankar named Parshwanath. I was able to stop at the derasars built by their followers for a brief darshan, thanks to Ola bicycles which offered me a cheap and efficient mode of transport during my stay. A rare stillness descended on me as I quieted my restless mind and lingered in the present moment.

Apart from these, I managed to incorporate Gurudwara Guru Bagh – which commemorates Guru Nanak’s visit to Varanasi – and St. Mary’s Cathedral into my itinerary. At the gurudwara, a kind gentleman helped me tie a cloth around my head before entering to kneel and offer prayers. The cathedral had a more festive atmosphere when I showed up on Christmas Day – people eating chaat, lighting candles and enjoying the nativity scene on the lawns.

I was unable to pay homage to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir and the Gyanvapi Masjid. I’m sure neither Bholenath nor Allah would care since I said hello from a distance. The huge crowds roaming the newly constructed hallway made me grab a rain check and head straight for the Kabir Chaura Math. It’s an oasis of calm, a stark contrast to all the chaos that surrounds it. I suspect that this place, which celebrates the life and work of the 15and century poet and mystic Kabir Das, is not on most visitors’ to-do list.

He was a great inspiration to me. I often think of this couplet attributed to him: “Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein, Maange Sab Ki Khair/ Na Kahu Se Dosti, Na Kahu Se Bair”. (Standing in the marketplace, Kabir seeks the welfare of all/He cultivates no allies, he makes no enemies.) It’s not a tramp’s voice but someone’s wisdom one who refuses to participate in power games. He prefers to withdraw into himself rather than join a camp.

These words remind me of another beloved poet, Shantideva of the 8and century, the text of which Bodhicharyavatara (An Introduction to the Bodhisattva Way of Life) traveled with me to Sarnath. In one of the verses, which Raji Ramanan translated from Sanskrit into English, Shantideva says: “Having left this life / And of all my friends and relatives, / If all alone I must go somewhere else / What good is making friends and enemies? Indeed!

Looking at Varanasi through a narrow ideological lens based entirely on one’s allegiance or antagonism to the ruling party – is a disservice to what the city has to offer. Its history is too vast and impressive to be documented on its own, even by the most learned historians. It has witnessed the coming and going of many empires and dynasties, kings and queens, all leaving their mark for posterity but ultimately overshadowed by its magnificence.

The author is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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