Banaras, Varanasi or Kashi is the eternal city that has always existed and will ever exist. It is the most sacred and revered city in the Hindu culture. Mark Twain wrote, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
It is the abode of Shiva, the God of destruction and rebirth. Banaras is the city of redemption and transformation. The Gods weave the Brocade of life and death here. It is believed that dying here will bring salvation. The famous Manikarnika Ghat is the most revered Ghat on the banks of River Ganga. Pilgrims and seekers of salvation wish to be cremated here as this Ghat is considered to be the bridge between life and eternal death.
Dina Eck, the author of Banaras, City of Lights, writes, “To linger in Banāres is to linger in another era, an era which one cannot quite date by century.”
The world of art and fiction has also fallen prey to the charms of Banaras. Many books and movies have depicted the beauty of bylanes and ghats of Banaras. To me, Banaras symbolizes the cosmic cycle of life, death, and resurgence. As Eck writes, “Death, which elsewhere is feared, here is welcomed as a long-expected guest. “
Mukti Bhawan or Hotel Salvation, a movie directed by Shubhashish Bhutiani is a brilliant, innovative and emotional tale of family relationships in the urban India. A son is in a dilemma where his father makes an unusual demand that he wants to spend his remaining days in the holy city of Banaras. The two of them check into quaint little hotel Mukti Bhawan where people spend their last days waiting for death. But one can only stay there for two weeks. Either one has to die (no suicide or mercy killing is not allowed) or vacate the hotel after two weeks. Below is the official trailer for the movie.
Masaan (Crematorium) is another beautiful movie directed by Neeraj Ghaywan. Two parallel stories wherein one a low caste boy Dom family of corpse burners is in love with an upper caste girl and the other a high caste girl and her father are tormented by the moralistic codes of the society converge in Sangam. Below is the official trailer for the movie.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer is a wonderful novel around the story of spiritual yearning and sexual fulfillment. It is a story of a journalist who in the first half of the book is in Venice, the city of love, arts, and music. In the second half of the novel, he is in on the journey to find himself in the streets of Varanasi. It is a bit of a travelogue, a bit of a romance novel and a bit of a journalistic account.
Tahir Shah writes in Sorcerer’s Apprentice “Enlightenment, and the death which comes before it is the primary business of Varanasi.”
One can witness life, death, and everything in between in Banaras.