By ~ Sonavi Kher Desai
Early this morning, I watched the dew-soaked Hibiscus bush outside the veranda. It was laden with crimson flowers. They looked like bright red speckles on a lush green canvas. Some were magnificent, in full bloom, while others were in different stages of withering away. It was heartwarming to see the fertile bush that promised me fresh red blooms to offer to Ganesha in my morning puja. The sun was slowly lightening up the sky and warming up the day but the dewdrops still shone on the bush like little diamonds, slowly trickling down the leaves and petals and dropping to the ground. I gazed at the young, open flowers nestling side by side with those that were wilting. A million thoughts flitted through my mind. The Hibiscus bush seemed to reflect the trajectory of life – blossoming youth, maturity, and the eventual falling off. The dried up flowers would finally release their hold, merge with the soil that gave birth to them, and nourish the new buds that would emerge. The circle of life…
The sight of the blooms, maybe twenty-five or thirty, crowding the small bush, stirred my memory and my thoughts took me back in time to the mystical city of Varanasi (Benares, Kashi). Varanasi is a city of transcendence and sacred geometry. The design of the city and its myriad temples is based on a metaphysical mathematical arrangement. Hindus believe that giving up the ghost in Varanasi ensures a passage to heaven, and many come here to breathe their last. Its narrow, crowded streets, old temples, and ghats (steps to a river) leading to the holy Ganga have, in essence, remained unchanged over centuries. It is said that you either love Varanasi or hate it but you cannot remain untouched by it. So true!
It was the month of November about a decade ago and the festival of Dev Diwali (Diwali of the gods) was being celebrated. About fifteen days after the festival of Diwali comes Dev Diwali. The former is the celebration of the homecoming of Rama after his victory over Ravana. The latter is the celebration of the gods after the annihilation of three asuras by Shiva. Varanasi is well-known for its Dev Diwali celebration. On this day, at sundown, the ghats of Varanasi, numbering almost a hundred, are lit up with rows and rows of diyas (oil lamps). The steps of the ghats going down to the Ganga are dotted with thousands of diyas along the seven kilometer stretch from Assi Ghat to Raja Ghat. Against the backdrop of the darkened sky, the scene is spectacular. One can walk down the ghats or take a boat along the river.
Our boat slowly made its way down the river on that cool winter evening. A gentle breeze blew, creating mild ripples on the water surface. The sparkling ghats were reflected in the water; the scene was an optical delight. I could not take my eyes off the glow of lights. It was mesmerizing, really.
We passed Ganga Mahal Ghat, adjoining the palace of the Maharaja of Benares, followed closely by Tulsi Ghat, where Tulsidas wrote his great work, Ramcharitmanas. Going further, we came to Chet Singh Ghat, the scene of the battle between Chet Singh and Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India, that gave its control to the British. It was later reclaimed by the Maharaja of Benares.
As we slowly sailed by more and more ghats, some not as famous as their neighbours, I was transported to another world. It seemed to me as though a brightly illumined cinematic film was playing out, portraying an exotic world of culture, history, and spirituality. My “reality” was forgotten in the midst of this other-worldly milieu.
We saw Munshi Ghat, which houses the magnificent Darbhanga Palace of the royal family of Bihar, now partly converted into a hotel. Next to it is Ahilyabai Ghat, named after the Maratha queen, Ahilyabai Holkar, who did much to restore Hindu temples and religious places.
As we moved on, the atmosphere was getting charged with an energy that one cannot describe; it was intense, something to be witnessed and experienced. The innumerable diyas were a visual treat, holding the viewer spellbound. Somewhere along the way, enveloped in a sense of deep contentment, I had disconnected from the buzz of activity around me.
Then came into view, Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat, located close to the sacred Kashi Vishwanath mandir, where Brahma is believed to have performed the Dash Ashwamedh yagna (ten horse sacrifice), and where the famous Ganga aarti takes place daily . . . We would return there later for the aarti, one of the most profound experiences of my life. By then I was lost in reverie, my mind overflowing with thoughts, and questions, and insights, all together.
Pleasantly dreamy as we went along, I was rudely awakened from my trance a few minutes later as a ghat came into view. In the midst of the festive diyas and the revelry, a celebration of life as it were, stood the Manikarnika Ghat, a stark reminder of the transience of life. Manikarnika Ghat is where corpses are cremated. There is light there alright, but it emanates from the dull glow of burning pyres. It conveyed a palpable sense of morbidity. I could see the silhouettes of grieving relatives as they wept for the departed. As I scanned the landscape of the ghats, I saw this one as a dark blip surrounded by so much light. Whereas people laughed and sang with joy on the other ghats, this one seemed to mock the foolishness of mankind. While newly-weds and new-borns received blessings for longevity on the other ghats, the final goodbye was being enacted here. It brought home the truth of the co-existence of duality. It was a shock to my system, like the sudden slamming of brakes of a speeding car. The duality of life struck sharply into my consciousness. Happiness and sorrow, celebration and mourning, life and death. Where there is one, there is the other too. Two sides of the same coin. The moment we are born we are heading towards our end. Every breath we take is life-giving but at the same time it is propelling us nearer to the finish line. One takes off where the other stops. An endless cycle of birth and death, except to the evolved soul who has mastered it and broken the chain. But for the ordinary human being, it is beyond even comprehension . . . A sobering thought, and yet, there is so much in life to celebrate. Within this duality there is also love and passion and empathy and generosity. It is important to enjoy what is and cherish the pleasures of life. Ultimately, death is not what we understand it to be – a final ending. It is just the manifest returning to the elemental state, ready to manifest once more.
I was really “seeing” life for what it was for the first time. It was a deeply humbling experience; a rare connection to something larger than what I had ever known. By the time I “re-emerged” and was able to focus again on my surroundings, I had subtly changed. My perception had transformed. I saw the surrounding light in the context of the dark; the merrymaking in the context of the low points of life. I perceived life itself in the context of death, and more importantly, I began to question the reason for the in-between.
We returned to Dashaswamedh Ghat for the Ganga aarti, where large crowds had gathered. The Varanasi Ganga aarti is an experience of a lifetime. It is performed in a synchronised manner by a number of priests holding multi-layered brass lamps to the accompaniment of conch shells and bells. The smoke from camphor and incense fills the air as the flames leap and dance, and the aarti is sung in adoration of Mother Ganga. The atmosphere was electric, sanctified, rarefied. I had goosebumps all over my body amid a feeling of immense joy.
This day would be impressed on my mind forever. It was a new me that returned from Varanasi. I was ready to appreciate every moment I spent on this earth. I began to value the human life I had been given. And I came to respect the wonderful circle of life, whether of a human being or a hibiscus bush.