What we see every day of our life is familiarized after a series of exposures. When we look at the same familiar ghat/cityscape from a distance of, say, half a decade or around 800 kilometres, we may begin to observe and absorb the uniqueness and the beauty of what we had taken as common and for granted. This image is a very common sight on the ghats of Varanasi. There’s a wooden sitting space balanced on the stone steps with bamboo poles in what may appear to be a precarious position. The structure is not at all unique. Many ghats of Varanasi have similar balancing acts that have been there since the time I remember having seen them first, a couple of decades ago. The bamboo chhatri again, is not unique. Similar chhatris are used everywhere on Varanasi ghats. The more than a century(at least) old five-storeyed (at least) stone houses in the image are also not unique; neither is the square stone structure to the left of the person sitting under the chhatri. What is it?
It’s not at all the entrance to any of the houses in the image. It is, in fact, the entrance to all the houses in it. It is where the common lane ends/begins to which all the houses open up their entrances. The lane will invariably flow forth to meet the one main lane that runs parallel and nearly unbroken from Assi to at least Teliya Nala Ghat. Other Banarsis will please correct me if I have forgotten the details, but if I remember it correctly, the main course of the lanes breaks substantially at Bhadaini Pumping Station, and for around ten metres each at Harishchandra Ghat and Dashashwamedh Ghat where the main road intersects it.
Now, about the not-at-all-unique structure, looked at from a distance: what makes it catch attention? Its ambiguity I think. It becomes interesting, nay, mysterious even, because of this ambiguity that surrounds its reception. One asks whether the opening will lead to a common lane, or by entering it one will be tresspassing. The real thrill and joy of roaming in the galis is in these small risks one takes. It’s in deciding on the correct course. In not asking anyone for the right way to one’s destination in the convoluting galis, where even old timers may have lost their way at one time or other. It’s in rediscovering the exhilarating free fall like quality of these wanderings that may take one to places unexpected and unplanned. Letting oneself loose in the galis by the ghats is one sure way of feeling this joy if one is not fully inoculated against it. The narrow opening at the end of the flight of stone stairs of the ghats leads to another world, just as beautiful and shockingly defamiliarizing as the one by Gangaji.