Text by Joyona Medhi | Photos by Abhishek Basu
Legend has it that Prometheus tricked the Gods by tempting them with burnt animal bones, wrapped in glistening fat, as opposed to the real meat that’s served as a stuffing inside the stomach of an ox. He even stole fire back for humans to build civilisations with, by carrying it on a giant fennel stalk — this, after Zeus took fire away from them as retribution for not using it to achieve spiritual communion with the gods.
For some, the etymology of the name Prometheus is ‘forethought’, while many believe it to mean 'pra math', or 'to steal', in Sanskrit. Analogous to this incident is the Vedic episode of Mātariśvan, a messenger of Vivasvan or Surya, who brought fire to mankind. And perched between this realm of men and gods is the ancient city of Benaras, or the ‘City of Light and Lore’ by the river Ganges, archaically known as ‘Kashi’.
With a shrine in every nook of the city, the sound of conch shells rippling through the ghats dotting the mighty river, and barefoot sadhus and pilgrims walking down the same lanes that bear the weight of the heavy footsteps of historical greats — like Buddha and Tulsidas — Benaras is a riot of colours, with a generous dash of saffron. It has been so since time immemorial, or so believe the wandering bards who sing of how the clock first started ticking, and ‘time’ was born during the age of Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.
A rhythmic beat, promising men relief from the cycle of life and death, is performed by the 'sapta-rishis', or the seven chosen sages, as a part of rituals believed to have been passed down to man by Shiva himself. The Dashwamedha ghats are flooded with people, swaying their heads intoxicated by tunes that assure them salvation.
This unwavering faith is reflected in the wrinkles lining the faces of old men and women, who are in queue to shed off their corporal selves by the infamous Manikarnika ghat. Their souls are said to be in search of the answer to the only question Shiva is believed to have asked everyone fortunate enough to be immersed there — where are Goddess Parvati’s earrings?
It's lores — thousands of them — that drive the engines of Benaras, tugging at the strings of the human heart, bringing people back to its washed out shores for millenniums now.
It was fertile land that made Kashi the cradle of civilisations. Today, it’s oozing vermilion.
The first of the Vedic sages had charted astronomical calendars in this very city, in order to bring the body, soul, and mind in sync. Now, after several lifetimes, pilgrims have fallen prey to spiritual corruption. Days go by as devotees lie in the backyard of temples, stripped of bare necessities, waiting in agony for an auspicious full-moon night that would bring them solace.
In the shadows of the 64 yogini temples of Benaras, one may unsurprisingly witness rampant flesh trade. As a black dog sleeps by the burning pyres, beefy musclemen-turned-merchants, cruising on tiny boats, order their minions to dig deeper, as the choking waters are home to jewellery of the dead piled up beside him, ready to be incinerated.
In the exact moment, somewhere in a parallel universe, our mobile screens light up with a notification informing us of environmental activist GD Agarwal's passing away. He had been fasting for a cleaner Ganga.
The ascetic's eyes are lit with the glowing embers of the fire engulfing the dead — the same fire that has fed every hungry, poor mouth.
Covered in ashes, the sage lies at the very junction of the 'prana’, or the mythical spirit that survives outside of one’s mortal self. The fire leaves it unscathed, helping it merge into the smoke rising up from what remains of one’s bones.
Instead of losing himself to the frenzy of the manic beating of millions of hearts, it is in transient moments like these that he is reminded of how humans must be spitting images of gods, or vice-versa.
Maybe it’s myths, or maybe it’s the larger-than-life presence of the tongue-shaped delta region that’s Benaras, which adds to its inexhaustible enigma.
However, most importantly, the ghats of this ancient city shine blindingly, while being wrapped in the humble belief that something bigger than oneself exists. And it is this belief that draws people here, like moths to flames. It is the knowledge that death is at once grand and mundane, and no matter how much one resists, they too might end up resting in the waters of this wondrous place.