A city older than history
by Jaswant Singh

A Banarasi on Varanasi
by Kunal Sinha. Bluejay Books, New Delhi. Pages 276. Rs 495.

A Banarasi on VaranasiVaranasi and the Ganga, on the banks of which the holy city is situated, together tell the story of India’s civilisation and culture. The city, known to be the abode of Lord Shiva, represents the richness and fulfillment of life as well as renunciation. Every stone on its ghats tell the story of India’s past and the faith that has drawn millions to this river for generations, particularly to the city of Varanasi where every pious Hindu aspires to die and be liberated from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Among them are ordinary citizens, writers, singers, monks and mendicants, looking for salvation or even inspiration. And this has been going on for countless centuries, long before history came to be recorded. About the antiquity of the city, the author quotes Mark Twain who said: "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

The book is mix of mythology, legend, history and the current situation. It notes that it has not been possible to establish the time of the founding of this city, yet historians believe that the city might date from the time the Aryans spilled into the Gangetic plain from their settlements in north-western India in about 2000 BC. The author runs through the centuries quickly, and beginning with the days of the Janpads he reaches the modern times, listing the ups and downs of history that have impacted the life and culture of Varanasi. He recounts the conquest of the city by the kings of Magadh. The arrival of the Buddha at Sarnath, a suburb of Varanasi, the rise and fall of the Mauryan Empire, the rise of British power, the exploits of Raja Chet Singh, who drove Warren Hastings out of Varanasi, and the eventual control of the city by the British and reaches the present day set-up in which the city is presided over by a District Magistrate.

From here onwards, the book describes the city of Varanasi as it stands today with its modern colonies and shopping centres, as well as its ancient streets, lanes and landmarks with which he snows a remarkable familiarity. The numerous temples, their significance to the devout, their condition today—nothing escapes his observant eye. He takes the reader on a conducted tour of the ghats, starting with the southern end of the city. To a Banarasi, the ghat is not just a place to take a dip, it also is a meeting place in the evening to exchange the gossip of the day. In the morning, the ghat is a place for exercise and bodybuilding.

Varanasi has never been known as a centre of learning like Takshila, Vikramshila and Nalanda. Education here was imparted by individual gurus and acharyas, and most of it centred around the Vedas and the Upanishads. These acharyas were mostly Brahmins from Maharashtra and Kannada, who kept alive the tradition of Sanskrit learning. Later they were joined by Pandits from Bengal and Mithila. But today, Banaras Hindu University (BHU ) has on its rolls about 15,000 students, about 1,700 teachers and a non-teaching staff of 8,000. Its 1,300-acre campus holds three institutes, 14 faculties, and 124 departments that teach humanities, religion, social sciences, science and technology, medicine, fine arts and performing arts. The book describes the university in great detail, almost taking you on a round of the sprawling campus. Besides BHU, there are the Kashi Vidyapith, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Krishnamurthi Foundation, Panini Kanya Mahavidlaya and Jana Pravaha, which all add to the appeal of Varanasi as a major centre of education and culture.

The book in fact leaves no aspect untouched—culture and folklore, the musical tradition of the Banaras Gharana, craftsmanship and the famour Banarasi Sari. The presnt state of the Ganga does not elude the author. He lists the government’s "Ganga Action Plan" and points out that the sewage treatment facilities set up under this plan have not relieved river pollution effectively. How a "Swachha Ganga Abhiyan" launched by the citizens hopes to make the cause of cleaning the river better known and understood.

The author concludes with the hope that people will not allow Varanasi to degenerate into an urban mess. To visitor, his advice is to be prepared, haggle at every step and learn from friendly locals and other travelers. He goes on to describe the facilities and options and gives other relevant information that a traveler might need when he visits Varanasi.