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KASHI THE CITY OF LIGHT

To linger in Varanasi, so called even Banāres, is to linger in another era, an era which one cannot quite date by century. And, Banāres is a magnificent city, rising from the western bank of the River Ganges. where the river takes a broad crescent sweep toward the north. There is little in the world to compare with the splendor of Banāres. The rays of the early-morning sun spread across the river and strike the high-banked face of this city, which Hindus call Kāshi—the Luminous, the City of Light.

I had come to Varanasi to understand, if I could, this most ancient of cities - to breathe in the pungent smells of its labyrinthine streets. I wanted to see kites flying on the flat roofs and buffalos submerged in the muddy river. I hoped for conversations at paan stalls that might illuminate the threads that pass - as if from a weaver's loom - through the interconnected pieces of this Hindu Jerusalem. I yearned for the coolness of its temple stone beneath my feet, the tones of a conch shell blown at dawn.

More than this, I wanted to know the city's secrets, press my ear to its heartbeat. What was it that made this unique amongst cities? What characteristics separated it from its peers? Every city is remembered for certain innate hallmarks: special foods, buildings, weather systems, a thousand upshots of geo-politics and happenchance. These are the qualities - like those of some cherished vintage wine - peculiar to this place and none other. They're the substance of the songs and artefacts, they're painted and danced about, and the inhabitant of the city - away on some journey - will bow his head to think of them when he hears the word "home." For the visitor, these are sometimes the hardest things to recognise, far harder still to put into words. Only the city itself, perhaps, knows the covert language with which to express them. Nevertheless, I was prepared to try.

Looming large amongst these quirks of Varanasi is its association with death. For the visitor to the city, especially from the West, the ubiquity of death here can seem shocking, and one of India's greatest contrasts with our own deeply private traditions. Like so many travellers, I'd already gone to see the cremation Ghats on my first visit, eager for this rite of passage into the city, but this second time was different. I rose at six o'clock one morning, and strolled down to the waterfront where I engaged the services of a boatman. Mist pooled over the river, and the air rang with the plaintive cawing of crows. The boatman was an aged fellow, who drew the oars through the water with a look of excruciating effort. Veins stood out on his forearms like threads of wire.

As we drew close to the city's most esteemed Manikarnika Burning Ghat, I could make out the orange glow of a funeral pyre on the shoreline and trembled to notice the body on fire, the smell of smoke in the air. A skyline of soot-darkened temples formed the backdrop, and I couldn't help but wonder how much of that carbon deposit was formed from the dust of human bodies; the wind pushed it back into the very structure of the city. Amalgamations of history, cities are constructed of the dead as much as the living. Varanasi, perhaps, most of all.
For some time I sat and watched this primal scene: families arriving with their departed loved ones, some glimpsing the Ganges for the first time in their lives. The resonant clanking of temple bells, the low tones of Vedic chanting. White birds flying over the river, tourists wrinkling their noses in disgust. It seemed intensely poetic, but also without artifice; nothing is concealed. "Everything ends in this place," said my boatman on that first morning." But also everything is beginning. Bodies end their journey here and return to spirit. This is what we have always been, of course, but while living we forget this."

I let the words sink in, my spine tingling a little as their resonance coursed through me. These concepts, if believed in fully, could change everything; that death would cease to become a conclusion, but merely a crossing place from one world to the next. And that the human form, so tangible and solid, might simply be a costume to wear for a time then drop like an old suit of clothes. I looked down at my fingers with a newfound suspicion, imagining myself, at some future time, burning on these Ghats, and this world dropping away.

"Everything ends in this place," said my boatman on that first morning. "But also everything is beginning."

To comprehend the ancient association between Varanasi and death, one must look back several millennia. No one knows exactly how old Varanasi is but it may be as much as four thousand, its present shape reaching back to the 6th century BC in a continuous tradition. For much of this period the city has lain at the heart of the faith we now call Hinduism, standing as the place of creation, representing the whole of the universe in a single symbolic circle, a mandala. It is according to this tradition, still practised by the majority of the world's one billion plus Hindus, that the cosmos is composed of a cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. This notion lies at the heart of the Hindu faith, and is the basis for understanding religious life here. In human terms the ultimate goal of this life is not paradise, as in the Abrahamic traditions, but liberation from this never-ending wheel. Called moksha in the Sanskrit texts, this "liberation" means to merge with Brahman, the Ultimate Reality itself, never to be reborn.

Into this picture, the mythology of Varanasi adds an all-important twist. For it is said that if one should draw one's last breath anywhere in the city, the entire cycle of death and rebirth can be side-stepped: moksha is granted regardless of one's current place in samsara. For some Hindus, this is little more than a superstition and, while they accept the city as sacrosanct, its ability to act as a kind of spiritual "get out of jail free card" remains moot. For the vast majority, however, this belief is absolutely wholehearted, and thus the city's greatest power. Death here becomes free of terror and a gateway into the realm of the immortals. A folk saying - still muttered by pilgrims - reads "Kashyam maranam muktih3", "Death in Kashi is liberation."

"That is a very Western view. Because firstly, we do not say death is the end. Death is simply the cessation of activity in the body. Once this has happened, there is a period when the jiva - you may call this soul - prepares to continue its journey. It is our job to help that soul onwards, whether that is for liberation, or for incarnation in another body. If we do not complete the rituals properly, the soul may not find the transition it seeks, and even be caught as a ghost between the worlds." Leaning forward quickly, Gupta takes some ash from the fire and streaks some across his forehead, protectively. "But if we do our job properly, the soul continues without hindrance."

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