Banaras is the India of one’s imagination, but leaves much scope to discover a place beyond one’s own imaginative limits.
I have travelled Varanasi as a pilgrim before and now I travel in search of exquisite handlooms. As a pilgrim, Varanasi for me was embodied by the Ganga, Ghats and Kashi Vishwanatha temple. It was only when I started my journey in search handloom that I discovered the different layers of this holy city. Be it music, cuisine, universities, they are unique. I always wondered what drove this place and people to be so.
As one walks through the busy, narrow winding lanes of Kashi, it unveils its nuances and displays the earthly drama of from birth to death. As I understand a layer, there is another and many more that unfold, pushing my curiosity. Do Banarasi feel the same way too, I wonder. The possibility of new discoveries drives me to visit this city often. As I walk through narrow lanes, I see shops selling various artefacts. The shops are landmarks and suggest they have been in operation for a few generations. The traders take pride in whatever they do, to proudly proclaim that they are Banarasi.
These streets finally lead to the ghats of the western bank of the Ganga, which extends to a stretch of six kilometers. These steps built in stones, bordering the holy water of the river Ganga are remarkably versatile constructions adapting to highly variable water levels, as well as to sacred and profane functions and rituals.
Imaginations and representations of the city are many and the colorful play between the waters, the sun, the city’s physical and human monuments have shaped people and their place in the holy landscape.
As the sun rises, the pandas begin setting up their place with flat-topped leaf umbrellas with a layer of bright colored fabric to shade the pre-defined space. As the sun moves towards the west they keep turning this umbrella, which dramatically changes the river scape. Pandas sit in front of the little linga shrines, decorated with flowers and wait for people.
Here and there flowers, shining brass pots and other necessities for puja are being sold and placed upon unsteady wooden constructions. Open-air stalls, and few tea-stall draw a fresh group of customers. In the middle of all this, some kids dressed up like gods and goddesses appear like fire flies, as ephemeral as life in a city that seems to have always existed.