Varanasi: The City Where Hindus Come to Die

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View of the Golden Temple of Lord Shiva from the Ganges

On DRIVE with Sham Samaroo
India, October 20, 2023

From Lucknow, I traveled to Varanasi (Benares), India’s spiritual capital. At least once in their lifetime Hindus hope to visit Varanasi, walk on the Panchakosi pathway, and if possible, to die there in old age. The city sits on the left bank of the Ganges River. I found out that the correct name of the river is actually Ganga Ji. Due to its sacred nature, Indians use the suffix Ji to show respect and reference. But the supercilious Brits called it Ganges thinking the “uneducated” Indians simply mispronounced it. Talk about the arrogance of ignorance. Mind you, just 200 kilometres away was Nalanda University, the first university and one that preceded Oxford and Cambridge by some 500 years. In its heyday, ten thousand students were in residence from across the world.

The archaeological ruins of Nalanda University are a UNESCO World Heritage site. The University was burned to the ground by the Muslim Ruler, General Bakhtiyar Khilji, wanting to extinguish all Buddhist and Hindu learning. History records that the fires lasted more than three months destroying over 10 million hand-written books. One’s heart sinks when one looks at the archaeological ruins. Socrates was right: the only evil is ignorance. Varanasi, historically Benares, is the oldest surviving city in the world. Throughout its existence it has been a city of learning with countless schools headed by learned scholars.

Seeking purification in the holy waters of the Ganges

The father of Indian mathematics, Aryabhata is believed to head Nalanda University around the 6th century. Aryabhata is famous for giving a value to zero, an idea that revolutionized the teachings of algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and the foundation of today’s computer.
In Varanasi history and spirituality blend seamlessly. It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism, and home to the Golden Temple of Lord Shiva and the Ganga River. Hindus believe that visiting the Temple and bathing in the Ganga River are stages on the path to Moksha (end of the cycle of rebirth). My eldest sister often told me of a legend that holds that Lord Shiva unleashed the waters of the Ganga River from a knot of hair on his head. Hundreds of tourists and locals visit the river daily. Once a year, thousands of lamps are lit and set afloat on the river on the day of the Ganga festival when the city pays homage to Mother Ganga.

Sunrise on the Ganges: A veritable sanctuary of peace and tranquility

There are about 80 ghats (steps) that lead down to the Ganga River. A few are designated cremation ghats where relatives bring loved ones to be cremated. Cremation is round the clock and the eternal flame that feeds the fires is said to have been burning for centuries. I was told by the locals that there are boarding homes in the city where the elderly from across India come to spend their last days hoping to die in Varanasi and be cremated there. This may sound sad and foreboding but actually the city is vibrant and full of life. Of course, it’s a very different way of thinking about life and death. One must remember that for Hindus to die and be cremated in Varanasi is a chance to achieve Moksha. This is a great honour, the very goal of existence and something to be celebrated.

Archaeological ruins of Nalanda University – the world’s first university

At sunset, we sailed on the Ganga River catching a glimpse of bodies lying on pyres and heavy black smoke and ashes filling the night sky. Talk about a reality check. Dawns the realization that one fine day this is how it will all end for each of us. And suddenly one wonders just how important are the things that we argue, fight, and kill about, and we ask ourselves: Do we ever really own anything? The house we live in belonged to someone before us, and will belong to someone after us. The divine richness of nothingness, remember!

Varanasi is also known as the city of Lord Shiva. Legend has it that he once walked the old city. Every year the city celebrates Mahashivaratri, the great night of Lord Shiva, at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple: its spires and domes of gold plating rising majestically on the west bank of the Ganga River. Hindus have been worshipping Lord Shiva for hundreds of years at this very temple, considered one of the most sacred in all of India. The temple was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times throughout its history. The Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, one of the most enlightened rulers of that time once had it rebuilt in 1585, only for his grandson, Aurangzeb, to demolish it again in 1699 and use the materials for a new mosque. It was Aurangzeb who murdered his brothers, seized power and imprisoned his father, the Emperor Shah Jahan. Today the temple is known as the Golden Temple of Lord Shiva because of the gold plating used in its final reconstruction in the 18th century.

Its 4 AM and Varanasi has already come alive. Visitors making their way to the Ganges River

Hundreds of devotees visit the temple daily for darshan: for a glimpse of the inner sanctum of the temple and behold the image of the deity, the Vishwanath Jyotirlinga – a reverential representation of Lord Shiva. It is a smooth black stone about three feet in circumference and two feet high. The experience is reciprocal in nature with the viewer receiving the blessing of the deity. Within the temple courtyard one must go bare feet, and there are numerous smaller lingams (phallic-shaped symbols) and small shrines where one can worship with a priest. To the north of the courtyard is the Wisdom Well where the Shiva lingam was reputedly hidden when the temple was first sacked, and its waters is believed to be a liquid form of enlightenment.

*Footnote: On the way to Varanasi, we passed by Kanpur and my thoughts went to Rohan Kanhai – my childhood hero – and his recollections of his “personal feud” with Subhash Gupte in Kanpur, and the “hello rabbit” jibe. From Kanhai’s autobiography, Blasting For Runs, I quote: “We didn’t exactly hit it off on our first meeting. Subhash Gupte is the greatest leg spinner I have ever played against – a man with enough mystic powers to perform the Indian rope trick.” “In the next test at Kanpur he bowled me neck and crop for a blob and as we came in for tea he sauntered up to me and sneered: ‘Hello rabbit’. The jibe brought a giggle from the rest of the players in earshot and set my blood boiling. I managed to mumble through clenched teeth: ‘Just you wait until next time. I’ll get after you.’ The next test in Calcutta: “Sobers went down with stomach trouble so I batted at No. 3 – and by the end of the day was 203 not out. My century made in 132 minutes was the quickest of the series”. The President of India presented me with a stuffed tiger’s head in appreciation for what he called, ‘a fine innings played in the right spirit’. “But mastering Gupte was my real prize …the tiger head hangs proudly in my mother’s home in British Guiana.” “Since those early flare-ups I’ve got to know the cagey Gupte fairly well and what happened is all water under the bridge now.”

*Excerpts taken from Rohan Kanhai’s biography, Blasting For Runs.