India Dreaming
Accounts of previous tours to India by Sundaram



Part Nine: Varanasi, “City Of Light”


The oldest & most spiritual name for Varanasi (Banaras) is Kashi, literally. "City of Light." This is Shiva's city, the oldest, continuously lived- in city on Earth. It is well-known to readers of "Autobiography of a Yogi" as being the home of Sri Shyama Charan Lahiri Mahasaya. Varanasi is so-named because it rests between the Varuna & Asi rivers, both tributaries of the Ganga. It is universally accepted as being the holiest city in India: a must-go-to pilgrimage destination! Lord Shiva has promised that whosoever leaves his or her body in Kashi while reciting the Taraka mantra, will receive moksha (freedom from rebirth) -- & He won't let them forget the mantra, either! Once, when Sri Ramakrishna was on a boat in the Ganga, looking at Manikarnika Ghat, the cremation ground, he actually saw Lord Shiva going from corpse to corpse, whispering the mantra in their ear. This, it is said, is God's covenant with man in this holy place.


Here is a well-known poem which describes the spiritual glory of Varanasi:


Are there not many holy places on this earth?


Yet which of them would equal in the balance


One speck of Kashi's dust?



Are there not many rivers running to the sea?


Yet which is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?



Are there not many places of liberation on earth?


Yet which equals the city never forsaken by Shiva?



The Ganga, Shiva and Kashi:


Where this trinity is watchful


No wonder here is found the grace


That leads the soul to perfect bliss.



We arrived in Varanasi on Dusshera: "Victory Day!" It was being celebrated on a field in a village a few kilometers outside of the city, so we decided to go. At the end of the field was a huge effigy of Ravana, the demon-king, who had abducted Sita, as told in the Ramayana. He stood fifty feet in the air -- soon to go up in fire & smoke! Sita, herself, (a young girl in regal attire) was in attendance, as she sat on her throne above the mela grounds. The Maharaj of Banaras would soon ride in on his royal elephant with his court & attendants on their elephants to honor Sita & watch the spectacle, when once again, Rama (God), will triumph over the forces of darkness.


We watched & walked around the mela grounds, ate hot roasted peanuts & waited. There were also a number of sadhus in attendance, camped under nearby trees. As the sun was going down, the Maharaja & his entourage arrived on their gaily decorated pachyderms. As they were arriving we decided to leave. It was either that or stay all night, as the roads would soon be impassible. We did miss the main event, but had an interesting experience just the same. It was just a sampling of what was to come, for the next night was Durga Puja, one of the main holy festivals of India, celebrated in grand style here in Varanasi.



Part 10: Durga Puja