Evening worshipPerforming arati

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

After a late meal I roam through the lanes and back ways of Vishwanath Khanda, wondering about buying some souvenirs. I have bought none so far during my stay in the country. As befits a city geared to tourism, there are scores of trinket stalls to be found, offering sandalwood figurines of Shiva and Ganesh, the same gods and others of the pantheon wrought in soapstone, other stone, alongside silver trays with paintings of peacocks, silk brocades, jewellery, saris. The shops are set in open-fronted buildings, catering for the tourists who fill those cramped lanes, Indian tourists for the most part, members of the moneyed and not-so-moneyed classes fulfilling a commitment to their faith: every Hindu hopes and expects to make a pilgrimage to this holiest of cities at least once in his lifetime. The cheap shoddy goods are given a tinselly glamour by the candles in shop fronts and the low watt bulbs.

The crush of people becomes suddenly more acute as I approach Vishwanath Temple, the Golden Temple. Its spire is a glitter of gold plating twinkling in the lighted gloom. Red and orange flowers are being sold from broad wicker baskets outside its entrance, for the Hindu faithful to leave inside as offerings to Shiva. Non-Hindus aren't allowed in.

A few corners along from the temple and the jam of people becomes almost unbearable. There is a mosque here, the Jnana Vapi Mosque, and outside it, narrowing the passageway even further, is a gaggle of soldiers. Most of them lean against the opposite wall with lazy authority. The remainder sit in chairs, rifles idle at their sides. I wonder if something significant has happened. Nothing has. One of the older Vishwanath Temples, which had once stood on the same site, had been destroyed by the emperor Aurangzeb and a mosque built on its foundations. Even after the passage of centuries, the insult hasn't been forgotten: the area remains a flash point.

According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges was brought into being by the prayers of one of the devout, issuing from the foot of Vishnu and flowing to earth through the locks of Shiva's hair. As I come within sight of the river, I can see how such a myth might have originated; the water, flowing sleekly along, is a mass of darkness, billowing like locks of lustrous black hair. The devotions of the faithful are still going on, although the form of those devotions has metamorphosed: instead of washing away sins they are performing arati, evening worship, in which small leaf-boat lamps are set alight and pushed out onto the water. Small children are selling the lamps, fragile things that even the barest of ripples could capsize, each about the size of one of my hands, filled with chrysanthemum petals and a small wick burning in oil.

I watch those that have already been released onto the Ganges. It is a wonderful sight. The river, flooded with darkness, has become an oily ribbon of water, like the sky in a dream, a rippling blackness on which the tiny fires of stars dip and bob as they float away towards the edge of creation.

City of light, forest of bliss, the shining one, the never forsaken: the city of Varanasi has many names. It has as many faces. It has as many facets of beauty.

Read on...

Read the next article about the Lingaraj Mandir at Bhubaneswar.

The Lingaraj Temple is visible in the near distance, or at least its sikhara is, a tower with the same beehive structure as the main tower of the Mukteswara Mandir and most of Bhubaneswar's other ancient sandstone temples. It rises elegantly above the line of buildings on the south side of Bindu Sagar, its crimson pennants astir in the breeze.

Go back...

Read the previous article about the ghats at Varanasi.

There are over a hundred of them in all, steep water frontages platformed and stepped (the word means literally "landing"), stretching all the way from Raj Ghat in the north to Asi Ghat to the south, a total of three miles of river frontage. They are a microcosm of India. Every aspect of life can be found here.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or the paperback from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.


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