The Holy Ganges

Benares, Varanasi, Kashi. These are all names of the same city which, to every Hindu, symbolizes the ultimate destination, the holiest of the holy cities.

Each year, more than a million pilgrims visit this ancient Indian city. They pay homage to the Hindu gods and goddesses in its 1,500 temples. And they wind their way down the many ``ghats'' (steps leading to the water) lining the banks of the Ganges River, to bathe in the holy waters of ``Mother Ganga.''

Varanasi symbolizes the energy of ancient Hindu learning and art. Situated on the confluence of the Ganges and the Varana River (from which it gets its most common name), Varanasi is one of the few cities in the world that still lives by its ancient traditions -- which date from the 6th century BC.

Today, the former Maharajah of Benares continues to hold a mythical grip on the psyche of the city. Standing on the breeze-filled verandah of the Ramnagar Fort, his royal residence built on the banks of the river, he looks out over the Ganges.

Stripped of his title and power, the maharajah looks like an ordinary man -- dressed in a white, hand-spun cotton coat.

But it is the cap of ochre and gold, that touch of brocade, casually resting on his head like a forgotten crown, that lends him an air of distinction. And his eyes -- gentle, solitary, lived-in, the eyes of a man who has reflected on the experiences that have been a part of his life.

``Benares is not a city but a state of mind,'' he tells me, gazing distantly at the river. ``If you have reached this terminal city you cannot go anywhere else; you cannot be reborn. When the river washes away the good and the evil, there is no rebirth. Once you know this you can abandon yourself to the freedom of who you are.

``Every Benaresi knows this and indulges in it. You can listen to music all night and wake up early to see the sun rise, have a cold bath in the river and watch it flow, ever changing and yet the same. You rise to see the sun and return to see it set and you tell yourself that like the sun man too must go. But while he lives in this city he lives fully for he has the paan, the sweets, music, brocade, and the Ganges. What more can a man want?''

But for one merchant family, that has made a fortune from the selling of the legendary saris of Benares, there is another side to this holy city.

Varanasi is decaying, the river is polluted, and the people are decrepit, says the family patriarch who, having made his fortune, has retired to preside over a large white house tucked in a narrow, dark city lane. It is a city where trucks honk all night, where streets are filled with nothing but shops whose keepers haggle and sell at all hours, where women buy so many saris, and men do nothing but chew the betel leaf.

The women of this household, dressed in nylon saris, speak pidgin English and sit in wicker chairs on the verandah, looking urbane. The river in this house commands no reverence, just a massive indifference.

What does the city mean to them?.

``Nothing,'' they say looking bored.

Do they bathe in the holy river? ``No. We take the children to swim when we go for picnics in the summer on the other -- the cleaner -- side of the ghats.''

``We want the city to become modern,'' says the eldest daughter-in-law, deemed the most ``modern'' in the family. She runs a factory that produces the famed Benaresi silk saris, but chooses only to wear synthetics made in Japan. ``We have started a ladies club,'' she continues, her voice betraying a sense of mission.

``The club arranges swimming classes in the Ganges.'' Do the ladies of Benares wear the swimming costume, I ask. ``No,'' she giggles, embarrassed with the image of women in semi-nude. ``We have taught them to wear blouses and half-pants,'' she adds.

As I say goodbye I ask the family patriarch if he ever leaves Benares. ``I am an old man and I don't want to go anywhere lest I die in another place and miss out on my `moksha', [liberation] '' he says with a laugh.

His words trail out of the large white house and follow me through the dark lane that leads me back to the ghats and the holy river. . . .

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