Considered the oldest surviving city of the world, Varanasi is deeply entrenched in antiquity. The sacred town has survived the test of time, remaining an eternal witness to the unending cycle of birth and death.
But it has also been savagely ravaged by those who live in it and are responsible for its well being. A trip to Varanasi had evoked in me an extreme sense or inquisitiveness; after all, it is one of the most visited pilgrimages of the world. And despite warnings of the existence of the extremities, I was not prepared for such great a disappointment.
Undoubtedly it is a land of holy sites, but these are buried in layers of dust and are a picture of remorse. Varanasi continues to receive lakhs of pilgrims by the virtue of its famed existence and nothing much more.
The ghats, the much talked about narrow by lanes, the historical temples are a spectacle of filth and neglect. The roads are in a horrific state of disrepair and non-existent in places.
I went to the Assi ghat with ardent fervour to see the celebrated location where Tulsidas would have sung the sweet chaupais of Ram Charit Manas, but was unable to sit by the banks of Ganges even at a single spot because of the pervasive dirt. The next day I carried a bundle of newspapers to lay before I could settle down anywhere and drink-in the poignant moments during sunset. It is worth adding that the administration of the area has not bothered to even mark out the area where Tulsi resided.
Ironically enough, as I attended a ‘Save Ganges’ forum organized on the ghat of the holy river, people had no compunction in urinating in the open on the ghat or throwing bottles and wrappers in the flowing stream of Ma Ganga. What to say of the putrefying bodies that are sometimes abandoned in the river.
Shockingly, open urinals are located very close to the approach of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the lanes leading to temple are so wet with muck that one needs to wash and rewash one’s feet after ‘darshan’.
During evening Aarti at Dasaswamedh ghat and visit to Tulsi Manas Temple, it was pitch dark as there was a power cut. Beggars and the homeless who had made themselves comfortable in the constricted paths leading to ghats were more than willing to share that this was a daily affair and electricity vanished for 3-4 hours every evening.
At the Manas temple, there were mosquitoes swimming in the Charan Amrit and one didn’t know whether to accept it or not. Hordes of monkeys greet you at the Sankat Mochan Mandir; nothing wrong with that one may say, but how about cleaning up the mess they create!
After being exhorted to try of the supposedly sumptuous delicacies served from virtual holes in the walls of old <i>galis</i>, I was once again appalled at the swarms of flies and insects buzzing around. Their tremendous army would have put even their winged relatives in Old Delhi sweet shops at shame!
The close-by area of Sarnath fares no better. For a place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon, it is dusty and broken. You can see oriental pilgrims by the hundred making their way through the settlement with great difficulty and with their mouths and noses covered. There is hardly any public transport available and there is not a hotel worth the name in Sarnath. The guest houses are dingy and unkempt and only faith keeps Buddhists of all nationalities going. Even the deer park where Buddha had sat in quiet tranquillity pouring out his rare words of wisdom, there are hardly any green patches; urchins chase you and it can get fairly noisy! The small Sarnath museum is possibly the only oasis of peace and learning, as is the Benaras Hindu University in the main city.
Being custodians of our cherished civilization, we ought to be outraged at the fate of such a holy city. Having visited some of the very consecrated towns in South India and around the world, I noticed how ardently our southern compatriots and foreigners guard the sanctity of these places and ensure that absolute inviolability is maintained.
The point is that too few among us speak out at Varanasi’s derelict condition and crumbling destiny. We accept things as they are and even celebrate the paradox, as is evident in several travel columns!
Our indifferent attitude does only disservice to our own heritage and is deplorable to say the least. Before we talk about the hallowed existence of a town steeped in the celebration of an omnipotent power, we could do well in realizing that cleanliness is next only to godliness.