As always, click on an image to go to its flickr set
I’ve wanted to visit the mosques at Jaunpur ever since I first read about them in the second or third year of architecture school. This is primarily for the oversized central pishtaqs (a protruding central element on the facade) on the main courtyard facades of the mosques. Since it makes sense to take a train to Varanasi to get to Jaunpur, I decided to visit Varanasi for the first time as well. Varanasi is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, and since it is such a foreign tourist “must see”, I’ve always been pretty skeptical of going there, but I was completely unprepared for what it turned out to be! Most of this post is dedicated to a description of Varanasi, but I’ve added a bit on Jaunpur – my actual reason for making this trip – as well as Sarnath, at the end of the post.
Varanasi: Vegas on the Ganges
There is a word in Hindi that very succinctly sums up what I witnessed at Varanasi, and that word is tamasha. I’m not going to translate that word for those who don’t understand it, but I am going to replace it with a location – Las Vegas.
Varanasi is one of the most sacred sites in Hinduism. It is also one of the “must see” sites on the tourist circuit. It’s on the river Ganges – the most sacred of rivers, and to be cremated here gives one direct moksh, nirvan, entry into heaven or whatever, no questions asked about what your karma score is. A dip in the Ganges anywhere will wash away your sins, but a dip here is extra strong, double action with oxy-burst granules that leave you much more sinless than any other place. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in the world. It’s been a pilgrimage site before anyone knew what a pilgrimage site was. It is the holiest place to be cremated in all of Hinduism.
So much for all that.
The first thing that came to my mind when I reached the business end (and it really is the business end) of Varanasi was another popular tourist site, Las Vegas. And as I kept thinking about it, the parallels just kept coming, till a somewhat serious comparison between the two became apparent. I will lay it out here.
The areas of Varanasi that are important to Hindus and tourists alike (not coincidentally) are the long continuous row of ghats along the Ganges river (ghats are wide steps going down to the water along a river bank, so that the river is accessible to bathers etc no matter what the water level), and the dense urban fabric of narrow, winding pathways just beyond the ghats that are filled with temples, hotels, ashrams, shops and a myriad other “activities”.
I reached Varanasi by train in the morning and after pressing through all the touts (the Varanasi railway station, along with the Agra railway station, is said to be the most densely touted location in India!) made my way to the Buddhist site of Sarnath. I returned to Varanasi by midday, and my first view of the ghats was in broad daylight, at the northern-most extremity of the ghats, where they are isolated and least commercialized.
Nearly as soon as I had started walking southwards towards the more popular central ghats, the same feeling came to me as when I had walked the Vegas strip in the daytime – that I was experiencing something at a time of day other than when it was “supposed” to be experienced, that in the daytime this place was laid bare and naked and you could see the exposed skin and flesh that is usually hidden behind the facade of flashing lights and pomp at night.
As the day and then night wore on, the parallels kept growing and are listed below:
1. Both Vegas and Varanasi are on a “strip”: Vegas obviously has it’s strip, but so does Varanasi. The ghats are all along the meandering Ganga, and they form the “strip” where all the action takes place. The area around the strip then serves the function of servicing the strip, with hotels, restaurants etc etc, in both Vegas and Varanasi. If looked at closely, both these “adjacent to strip” areas are as indicative of the place as a whole as the strip itself (and which is an entire topic unto itself and will be left out here).
The “strip” in the evening
2. Raison d’etre vs tourism: Vegas grew from the demand for legalized gambling near the California border, and Varanasi grew as a major site for Hinduism. However, over the past few decades tourism has become an equal if not more important factor. Gambling Vegas acquired a certain atmosphere over time, which attracts tourists there, just as Hindu Varanasi acquired a certain atmosphere over time, which attracts tourists there. These tourists are not there specifically for the gambling, but partaking in it is part of the overall “experience” of the place, and it’s the same for Varanasi.
3. Gamblers/Hindus vs tourists: Just as Vegas has it’s high rolling gamblers, recreational gamblers and plain tourists, Varanasi has it’s hardcore Hindus, recreational Hindus and plain tourists. The hardcore Hindus go there out of pure devotion, completely believing in the spiritual power of the place, in the river washing away their sins, in cremations there leading to immediate salvation, in the special significance of the temples etc. These are the high rollers and “regulars”, who don’t really care about the setting, they come to Varanasi because it is the place to come to to do what they do.
Recreational Hindus come for both the atmosphere as well as the specific things available there. They aren’t as serious as the hardcores about the Hinduism aspect, but it’s a place that kills two birds with one stone – being pious as well as visiting a tourist destination. For an immersive experience, they’ll join a a meditation ashram, or a yoga ashram, a Godperson’s ashram, attend some prayer meetings and poojas, partake in some of the local hallucinogenics and narcotics freely available there etc. The out-and-out tourists come to watch the hardcore and regular Hindus, and to dip their feet, literally, into the proceedings, just for fun.
4. Spectacular consumption: Both are sites of consumption and spectacle, and consumption as spectacle. Firstly, all transactions are monetized, and there are touts for everything. In Varanasi, you cannot speak to anyone without it involving a monetary transaction one way or another. I asked a fruit vendor for the way to a hotel in the narrow lanes near the ghats, and a kid standing nearby offered to take me there for a price. While watching the evening “Ganga aarti” (which I’ve described below) I asked a guy who came and stood right in front of me to move out of the way so I could get a better view for my photography, and he offered me a really good view of the aarti from a boat at reduced cost. People holding out their hands as if to shake will grab your half-extended hand and start massaging it, and then ask for money for the massage (apparently Varanasi is famous for it’s massages or something). On the ghats you are constantly asked if you want to go on a boat ride, if you’ve got a hotel room, if you want some “creamy” or “Manali special” (varieties of marijuana), “haish” (hashish) etc etc. All in all pretty creepy, and not very holy!
For the hardcore and recreational Hindu, heavy donations are asked for at every temple and by every priest, and as soon as you enter a temple you are assessed for how much the priests can get out of you. Aapparently they thought I was good for a few thousand Rupees at the main Kashi Vishvanath temple – I think I left behind a few disappointed priests (or at least people dressed in saffron and white with tikas on their foreheads), though they were smooth enough to extract about Rs. 500 out of me, and considering I had no intention of donating any money at all, that’s pretty good! It was the single biggest individual expense of my trip, train tickets and hotel stays included! :)
All aspects of the cremations are completely monetized, right from how adorned with flowers and colored cloth the body is going to be, down to different prices for different kinds of wood for the funeral pyre (sandalwood being the most expensive of course).
I guess these things are par for the course at temples and cremation grounds everywhere, but it all seems a little heightened here. And as yet I didn’t even go anywhere near the meditation/yoga/pilgrim circuit for both domestic and foreign visitors!
As for the spectacle, there is plenty of that too! It involves taking in the Hindu bathers and worshipers on the ghats, but also watching the funeral pyres burn, as an experience of Hindu custom and culture (mostly by foreigners), which voyeuristic practice I found utterly creepy. My hotel was near one of the main cremation ghats, so I had to pass the pyres constantly, and there were always a bunch of touts who would keep coming up to me and telling me that I could “watch but no photography”. I never stayed around long enough for them to move on to whatever the the next (involving a monetary transaction, I’m sure) topic of discussion on their minds was.
Since I was carrying a camera and stand all over and was traveling “in foreigner style” (alone and in a t-shirt and jeans, not on honeymoon, not with a bunch of friends, nor with an extended family), half of the touts assumed I was a foreigner too. Even a Samaritan US couple went out of their way to warn me to not take photographs as I walked towards the cremation ghat at night (actually towards my hotel) laden with camera and stand. Part of the code of helpfulness among tourists in strange lands, I guess!
The biggest spectacle though, is the evening Ganga aarti (I believe they have one at dawn as well). An aarti is a prayer performed with a flame in front of a diety or person or thing etc. This particular one is as grand and gaudy as any Vegas show. Instead of a small and simple ritual with one priest reciting a prayer, ringing a bell, throwing some flower petals into the river and presenting a flame in front of the river, this is a prolonged show involving multiple youth-priests, elaborately dressed and on an elaborate stage set, performing a 360 degree aarti that nears calisthenics in effort and maneuvers, while holding different types of objects (including a conical mountain of small fires and another huge flame protected by a sliver shesh-nag (the mythical king of snakes), with prayers blurted out from huge and crackly loudspeakers. I was basically left with my jaw wide open. This was’nt an individual prayer to the river Ganga, this was an elaborately staged, daily-recurring show for the accumulated tourists and devotees.
Here is a video of the Ganga aarti, which I hope will convey the spirit of the event. Video quality is not very good since my internet connection is slow and so uploading larger files becomes a drag. It’s about 3:20 mins long.
Click here to go to the YouTube page of the video.
5. Both Vegas and Varanasi have “shows”: Vegas of course has it’s shows, but as described above the Ganga aarti, the cremation viewing and other assorted “Hindu ritual” viewing are as much shows in Varanasi as anything in Vegas.
6. The place as setting for spectacular consumption: The architecture and setting in both cases are intrinsic to the spectacle and consumption. The ghats, busy narrow lanes, big and small temples strewn all over, and aging buildings are what make Varanasi what it is, apart from the practices performed at the site.
Thus the edifice of spectacular consumption includes the place and setting as well as the events and practices that take place there.
There is the argument about the original fake versus the fake fake, with Vegas being a fake fake and Varanasi an original fake – where the place becomes a commodity that sells itself, as a site whose origins and spiritual potency ostensibly go way back into the mists history, myth and legend, and which is now a spectacle of that spirituality, history, myth and legend. However, as an original fake Varanasi is absolutely a fake, where the primary transaction has become a monetary one, as opposed to the spirituality that it is sold as.
I did find some aspects of Varanasi interesting – some scenes were nice, as were the tiny little shrines all over the place, but these were all too few and far between. Just as in Vegas, I found the daytime much more interesting than the night, when the “show” is not yet on.
In conclusion, I was apprehensive of going to Varanasi because I thought it would be too “touristy”, but thought that it might have some charm, some atmosphere that would be pleasing. Maybe I went there too much as a tourist, maybe I went there with too skeptical a viewpoint, or maybe I was unimpressed with what Varanasi had to offer because I had experienced everything one way or another already, together and/or separately, and so it was laid bare as a complete spectacle, but in this first visit to Varanasi, what I experienced was a complete tamasha.
Postscript: On a more serious note
I have mentioned my visit to the Kashi Vishvanath temple already, and that place has a more sinister side to it. The fact that the temple and the Gyanvapi mosque are side by side is well known, and I wanted to visit both. As I made my way towards the temple, I had to pass by at least 3 police security checks. Both I and the priest who latched on to me at the temple were frisked inside the temple as well! All this was explained to me when the priest offered to show me the “old temple” (that is what he told me he would show me).
He led me to one edge of the temple complex, and through a barbed wire fence that would rival anything dreamt up for the US-Mexico border, he showed me the mosque, saying that this is where the old temple used to be, and Aurangzeb (that favorite punching-bag of the Hindutva crowd) had razed it and built this mosque over it. The temple and mosque complexes share a long edge, and the fence runs the length of it. When I asked if I could go to the mosque, the guy said I couldn’t, and it seemed completely deserted, though well maintained.
If there is anything that screams “flashpoint”, this is it.
So as I said before, this trip was originally planned as a trip to Jaunpur to visit it’s 14th/15th c. mosques, and I visited two of them – the Atala Masjid and the later Badi Masjid. Both were in active use as mosques and madrasas, which architecturally primarily means that there are a lot of modern modifications to both, but they were still pretty interesting, though overall a shade isappointing. However, since they are connected politically and architecturally to Delhi’s own Tughlaq and Sultanate architecture, it was a worthwhile trip overall!
Badi Masjid is a bigger successor to Atala Masjid, and I liked it better as well. The main attraction for me is the oversized pishtaqs, which is what these mosques are famous for.
I also visited Sarnath, 10km from Varanasi and an important stop on the “Buddhist circuit”. It’s the place where the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. The site mainly contains the large Dhamek Stupa and a monastry/temple complex, but after being to such sites as Sanchi, Ellora and Ajanta, I was not very impressed with this place.
According to some, part of what galvanized the Buddha to seek truth and enlightenment was the corrupted philosophies and practices of the (Hindu) sages and priests of his time, and from the look of things, it seems to me that Varanasi and Sarnath still represent the same poles that existed during the Buddha’s time. Am I being too harsh on Varanasi? Perhaps! :)