Gauri Kund: Kedar Ghat

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Myths take a totally different form in Kasi. They merge their identity with factual accounts in such a manner that they can’t be separated and autopsied, as can be and is done in case of the myths of Greece, say. There is an additional layer of complexity added when folk beliefs seep into myths and the result is something strange and strong, and beautiful. The image seen above is of the famous (locally) Gauri Kund of the very famous Kedar Ghat (nationally). The people of the ghat tell stories, with the confidence that comes only when one is 100% sure of the veracity of their story, of the origin of the kund. I do remember, faintly, probably my grandmother mentioned the facts to me. It’s a part of the famous Puranic story of Shiv’s  tandav with Sati on his shoulders and Vishnu coming to save the world etc.

For those who may have forgotten, here’s an outline:

Sati went to her father Daksh Prajapati’s yajna despite her husband Shiv’s forbidding it. When she could not tolerate her husband’s insult at her father’s place, she jumped into the fire of the yajna. When Shiv came to know of this he was so angry that he took his wife’s body on his shoulders and started his tandav. He was so sad, at the same time that he could not observe how the whole world was being destroyed due to his tandav. Vishnu, as usual, came to the rescue. He took his chakra sudarshan and sent it to cut Sati’s body in small parts. Wherever her body parts fell, that place became sacred by association. The famous Manikarnika received her ear (lobes or piece I forgot). One of the parts fell in the Gauri Kund also. Thus it is sacred.

The kund is not very deep. Neither is it always full of water. Post monsoon flood inundates it for months. After the flooded Gangaji’s water recedes, the kund is full of mud that dries to become alluvial soil. The soil from the kund is doubly holy. People used to make clay diyas of the same when I was a little boy. In the image below there’s a chhatri at the right hand corner. The kund’s periphery starts after it. The temple in the background is the famous Kedar Temple.

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Kedar Temple takes its name from the famous tirth in Uttara Khand, Kedar Nath. There’s a nearly circular zone with Kedar Temple at its centre known as Kedar khand. Moksha was guaranteed to those who died in the khanda. Although, it is guaranteed to those who die in Kasi/Varanasi anyway. My grandparents used to say that even in Kedar khand, the most auspicious zone is within which the sound of the huge bells of Kedar temple can be heard. From our ancestral house one could hear the sound of the bells, at least, more than a decade ago.

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The chhatris have a very popular and conspicuous presence on the ghats of Kasi. They are not at all ornamental. Their practical use becomes very clear once the sun is overhead and the scorching sunrays become unbearable. There’s one person who has the right to conduct poojas and ceremonies under a chhatri. The right is inherited. In the image above there’s a pooja underway. The small white triangle at the left sids, just after the shade of the middle chhatri, is one end of the kund. The steps behind the chhatri lead to Gangaji. People consider the zone of the river making a kind of rectangle with the end of the stone steps of Kedar Ghat as its base a very sacred area. From Assi to Dashaswamedh, Kedar Ghat is second only to Dashashwamedh Ghat in popularity (foot falls) and sanctity. That too, because Dashashwamedh Ghat is the ghat that serves Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

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From the gali outside Kedar Ghat can only be approached through its temple. To do so, one has to leave one’s footwear out. Moving forward from where the gali begins in the image above, one reaches the entrance to the temple. The point from where the image given above was taken is close to Chowki Gha (We’ll talk about it later). The narrow gali that runs parallel to Gangaji from Kedar Ghat to Chowki Ghat is so full of life at all times of the day that it can be watched with profit and delight throughout the day (from 6 or 7 in the morning to 10 at night). The rush hours come twice: from 8 to 10 in the morning and from 6 to 9 at night.

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The main lane of Kedar Ghat begins at Bapuli Bari that can be seen in the background in the image above, just behind the trees and in front of its centre there’s a stone wall with Lali Ghat painted in two languages. Bapuli Bari is special for two reasons: it’s the house of Nepu Chacha (my father’s old friend), and it’s the place where Paramhansa Ramakrishna’s paduka rests.

The main lane ends at the Post Office (Kshemeshwar Ghat), i.e. it spans Lali Ghat,Vijaya Nagaram Ghat, Kedar Ghat, Chowki Ghat and Kshemeshwar Ghat. There are Saree Shops, Paan Shops, General Stores, Shops that sell various ingredients for different types of Hindu karm kand, Sweet Shops, and around Chaowki Ghat around ten street vendors of vegetables and fruits.

Imarti bhaiya’s family holds a monopoly in fruits. He is the eldest brother and sits at the shop at Chowki Ghat.

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When one ascends the stairs in the image above and passes by the Naag Temple beneath the tree (I strongly suspect it’s Neem, but can’t recall now), a newly sprung up guest house (I tend to actively forget the names of such abominations), a tea shop, ascend a very short flight of stairs, turn right and pass a couple of shops more, one finally reaches the ever smiling Imarti Bhaiya. Nowadays one may also meet his grown up son there. There are two more fruit shops run by the same family right at the entrance of Kedar Temple.

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The gentleman in the image above is Imarti Bhaiya’s younger brother Lakshmi Bhaiya. Beside his shop is another shop: Mahesh Bhaiya’s shop. Although Mahesh Bhaiya has passed away, I can’t call it by any other name. It’s run by his wife and sons now. As very new and welcome development, that I saw only the last time I was there, there’s a coconut shop run by a long time employee of the family: Nakhdu Bhaiya.

 

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Gangaji, Galis and Ghats: Kasi

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Kasi is famous for the network of narrow lanes that cover many square miles on the bank of Gangaji. Although there are a couple of breaks at places like Bhadaini, Harishchandra Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat etc. one does not need to leave the network of galis while travelling from Assi to nearly Raj Ghat, i.e. all the ghats of Kasi have two rivers running along: Gangaji and the galis.

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Ghats are the connecting link between the galis and Gangaji. The image of Gwalior Ghat has a narrow flight of stairs joining an equally narrow gali with the river front. There are around seventy ghats from Assi to Adi Keshav and many of them have narrow passages leading to the dense network of galis that runs parallel to Gangaji. Ah, the richness of life in the galis and on ghats! What the world knows as Kasi is actually mostly the section that is at an easily walkable distance from Gangaji. No, I’ll not quote from the ancient Puranas or from history books to substantiate my claim by proving the significance of various khandas etc. What I feel so strongly about mustn’t be adulterated with or belittled by any use of reason.

When I praise my city and my river in such a manner, people do sense an attempt at snobbery by association. (And they may not be totally off the mark). So, it must be declared beforehand that I am not claiming an essential and universal kind of superiority for my city or my river. Not at all. I am only claiming a very personal and unique kind of superiority that may exist only in my mind, and that of some other people: past, present and future. Moreover, I’ve not been all over the world to back up any such sweeping claims with personal experience. I can only share what I’ve seen and felt and leave judgement to the reader.

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I have had a waking nightmare in my last trip to my city. Not even two kilometers from my home, and I forgot my way in a gali just 300 meters from the river front. It filled my heart with pain and a strange kind of fear: the fear of losing one’s own self and identity due to the way time erodes memory. Looking at the image above, I feel a diluter version of the same fear. I do not remember where exactly the steps leading away from Trilochan Ghat lead to. Although I still have a definite recollection of at least one of my group of friends from my Intermediate years walking towards Gangaji through those same galis. There were many, but I can clearly remember Arnab only. He is not here any more; naturally. He is in Mumbai. That’s what life has done to us. The very generation of my friends has left the city, and they all used to live around ghats in the galis. Life in the galis is definitely changing: beyond recognition, just as the life on the ghats is.

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Panchkot Ghat used to be our regular haunt around 1989. We, the boys of classes 9-10 used to reach there from our Maths coaching (before or after our classes with Chaubey Sir). Now, unlike then, it’s an air conditioned, sealed place. Then it used to be a house on the bank of Gangaji that could be easily accessed from both the sides: no locks, no inhibitions. We responded in our natural manner by freely using it as the space to play. One can’t reach the pretty little garden behind the railings from the side of ghats now. Access denied. The place is being used for commercial purpose. A small instance of change: negative change, I should say.

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One place that the juggernaut of change has not engulfed is the most beautiful building  on any ghat of Kasi. It’s on Rani Ghat. And it is as it used to be a couple of decades ago. White, beautiful as ever, untouched by the ugly taint of the son of modernization: short-sighted and totally selfish commercialization.

The last time round when I was in Kasi, I went for my habitual walk from Kedar to Raj Ghat. Only this time round I did what I had wanted to do for nearly two decades and never could do. Whenever I used to see the breathtakingly(no hyperbole here) beautiful house at Rani ghat, I used to wish to go in and to go see who lived inside. This time round I had madness or courage enough to actually cross the threshold of inaction. I actually and finally went in. I was planning to see the owner. I met a tenant instead. A gentleman in his early forties, when asked about the house he took me to his mother. The part they took care of was a temple of Hanumanji and it was just a coincidence that I’d reached there on the very day they were celebrating Hanuman Jayanti(birth day, if I’m not wrong). The old lady very graciously welcomed me and offered me prasad and information. When she entered the house after marriage, she was around thirteen. She had taken care of the temple for nearly five decades or more. She too acknowledged that the old Kasi of ours was changing fast and beyond recognition. She felt the need of preserving the parts of Kashi’s cultural heritage that we saw as good and worthy and in need of protection. Only we did not know how.

Chet Singh Ghat

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What chance do facts have against legends, when it comes to being convincing and all-pervasive? Legends and facts may not match sometimes. When that happens, legends win in winning people over to their side. Here’s a legend: the legend of the brave warrior king Chet Singh of Kasi.

Once upon a time there used to be a brave king in Kasi. (Thus begin legends, even this one. He was Lord Dalhousie’s contemporary). An Indian nationalist, and a true son of Baharat Mata, he had some difference of opinions with the East India Company. The Company sent one full army to take the great king prisoner and he was forced to retreat to his palace at Sivala Ghat (that is around one kilometer from my home). His palace was surrounded by the Company sepoys and he was in peril of being imprisoned. Ganga was flooded and was flowing not very far below the balcony. The king mounted his faithful horse and jumped with it into Ganga. They crossed the river and he reached Ramnagar Fort safe, to continue his resistance against the foreign invaders.

There’s another equally popular and interesting ending to this legend: The Palace had underground tunnel that lead to his fort in Ram Nagar. Obviously, the tunnel went through the river bed and was well maintained till then. So, the brave king entered (with or without the horse) the tunnel, crossed the river and he reached Ramnagar Fort safe, to continue his resistance against the foreign invaders.

It is his name that the ghat that his Palace’s famous balcony overlooks is named.

Karnatak State Ghat

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Your name brings forth

the images – your images

and those of the ones you harboured:

the people, days, water

(not contained, it passed by)

feelings, lives, memories

(not contain-able, they passed by)

or minutes, hours, days, seasons

I spent on your steps, ,my life weaved

around you in its circadian rhythm.

They flow through the tip of my pen

taking shape as the blue of the ink

shapes strange things – words –

that were in the mind-womb

before being thrown out, words

that dirty the pristine, blank space –

and create something of worth?

They are true, aren’t they?

Digression’s good, isn’t it?

A poem too, is true

although made vomitingly sick

”by the pale cast of thought” before

the retching begins that finally

transfers words to their surface graves.

But what can I do?

When a polyphony I detect

It’s not just one man within

that hates to follow my conscious agenda;

there’s a full battalion

and each member –

uncivilized, unsubjugated

unprincipled, unchristened

trying to speak in a simultaneous cacophony

with an array of meanings and voices

arrayed variously – for or against –

one another.

Enough of this meta- stuff!

Return to the days and the level of material

materially verifiable facts.

That’s what i’d planned initially

but I’ve reached the end of my tether

End…

abruptly…

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I Could not Linger

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I am no natural poet.
No sir!
Poetry comes very rarely,
Infrequently, to me.
It had been knocking
The last few days
Faintly.
I did not open the doors
(Metaphorical), of mind.

I’m a busy man,
You see.
How can a professional
Adult Indian male
Be so weak as to stop running
His private-public rat race
And take time out
For a thing so insignificant
As licking his wound
That rankles with pain of (good) old days?

I could not linger on the platform that night.
I had a train to catch,
3 bags to place,
With a status of RAC.
Delayed heartache.
The prognosis I prophetically knew.
It was true.

Home is not where the heart is;
Home is where the purse can be filled.
And the belly.
Heart and all it can do,
Is nothing –
When compared to
What stomach does when aroused.

Therefore, I have travelled 798 kilometers
And come
To the city where I work
From the only city where I ever lived
From the city I loved
(And hated, and tried to flee from
But that’s another story.
I was a better/worse man/boy then).

So, I could not stay,
While coming or going,
On platform # 1.
12 hours and so much to do.
You see
I could not even meet you
And you and you.

A New-old Story (7)

The moonlit night, blue-black,

One of its constellations

Outlined the dog-monkey

Saw they, they said.

And dog-monkey too

Was outlined seated, pinnacled.

People lined for darshan

Late in the night

And brought with them a platter

On it some flowers white

Or yellow, red or mixed.

Some incense sticks and camphor,

Ocimum leaves, oil-kumkum –

The ochre paste in a bowl

To offer, anoint with the new god.

To colour him in the image

Of the stone templed Hanuman.

Our hero, elusive, wily:

Just manned his post silently.

Laddus for Hanuman, Shiv’s milk

Offered to him serially; ineffectually

Decorated on the platter

Of rich and poor alike.

So passed on days fourteen.

Dog-monkey took no water

Save rain/dew droplets small

Ate he just banyan berries

On overhead dangling branches.

Stone-like he stayed throughout.

A stone idol was he, or monkey petrified?

For darshans flooded devotees.

Singing bhajans of their new god –

The latest avatar.

It was a moonless night,

Draped in sheets of rain.

The neem-owl soundly slept.

Night watchmen skipped their beats.

The morning mysterious brought

Devotees for darshans came,

To their dog-monkey’s altar,

Offer some fruits and flowers.

A New-old Story (6)

Hanuman, the celibate deity

Of wrestlers, lifters & c.

Is popular next only

To Shiv and Shakti

In ancient, holy Kasi.

Shiv Shakar, Bhole Baba

Is king and principal deity.

His consort, goddess Shakti

Comes next in popularity

Then Hanuman, the monkey-god,

On all the days save two:

On Tuesdays and on Saturdays.

These two days all devotees

Of gods and goddesses other

Just go to Hanuman temples.

On that day it was Tuesday

The faithful temple goers,

The regular Kirtan singers

Were all eyes and ears.

Absorbing with full power

The new-born god: dog-monkey.

It’s infernal red streaks

Made prominent, deep, persuasive

His fur now darkish ochre

On a moonlit night half-somber

Hail Hanuman! Yelled they with joy.

Hail Hanuman! Our savior, today

Has come for us on earth

His blessings on us to shower.

And thus, on that very moment,

A god was born, established

In people’s minds strongly

As Hanuman incarnate.

What they had overlooked

And overlooked willingly,

Was dogness of dog-monkey.

For he was not so common

As scores of  others roaming,

Terrorizing, attacking Kasi,

Revered, protected, hated.

A monkey; he could bark.

To hear his was surprising

Surprising but forever,

For nature made him what he was,

And probably never another

(Thought every onlooker).

So clearly and conspicuously

This newly anointed god

Resembled himself not

The monkey-god hitherto-

The mighty Hanuman.

Though none had heard him speak

But widely was it known

He spoke full well, like humans

Barked he not. Amazing!

A New-old Story (5)

Mind isn’t generally its place,

And in itself, can never make

Heaven of hell; hell heaven.

Meaninglessness refined;  absurdity magnified,

Bedazzle, bamboozle

Yet stay nonsense.

The world becomes too much

With high narrator-relativism.

Let the “I” seep in

Through the rock bed of reason

Into the river-narration.

How would it not?

The story is of ghats,

And river, temples, lanes.

The story of Kasi

Can never form sans me.

Thus our dog-monkey,

Presently backgrounded,

Sulks ominously.

He, the sun, of the star-pantheon

Of living or dead deities

Worshipped in holy Kasi.

So our dog-monkey

Is found around the temple

And roams the ghats and galis-

My ghats and galis-

The places from my past,

I share with this celebrity,

This god, dog-monkey.

I’m surely no god

Yet god-like I create

A world and populate

The world with so much life

That blood, red and warm

That runs inside my veins

Gives colour, warmth; its life

To that which comes alive

In lines- the flesh and bones

That words and pauses fill.

A story gets its force, its life,

Power and colour, from mind

That creates.

Mind with its limitations

Sets things in combinations

By rules of its creation

Real, unreal, mixed

In varying proportions.

No, let’s not go that way.

The lane of truth lies there

And fiction lane too

Runs side by side some time

And merges then with truth.

Then what really is truth?

Who makes the final call?

Not me, nor you,

Then who?

And what is truth? Really.

Pilate-like, who wants to know,

When audience calls for action?

So now resume the story

Mind isn’t generally its place,

And in itself, can never make

Heaven of hell; hell heaven.

Meaninglessness refined;  absurdity magnified,

Bedazzle, bamboozle

Yet stay nonsense.

The world becomes too much

With high narrator-relativism.

Let the “I” seep in

Through the rock bed of reason

Into the river-narration.

How would it not?

The story is of ghats,

And river, temples, lanes.

The story of Kasi

Can never form sans me.

Thus our dog-monkey,

Presently backgrounded,

Sulks ominously.

He, the sun, of the star-pantheon

Of living or dead deities

Worshipped in holy Kasi.

So our dog-monkey

Is found around the temple

And roams the ghats and galis-

My ghats and galis-

The places from my past,

I share with this celebrity,

This god, dog-monkey.

I’m surely no god

Yet god-like I create

A world and populate

The world with so much life

That blood, red and warm

That runs inside my veins

Gives colour, warmth; its life

To that which comes alive

In lines- the flesh and bones

That words and pauses fill.

A story gets its force, its life,

Power and colour, from mind

That creates.

Mind with its limitations

Sets things in combinations

By rules of its creation

Real, unreal, mixed

In varying proportions.

No, let’s not go that way.

The lane of truth lies there

And fiction lane too

Runs side by side some time

And merges then with truth.

Then what really is truth?

Who makes the final call?

Not me, nor you,

Then who?

And what is truth? Really.

Pilate-like, who wants to know,

When audience calls for action?

Our dog-monkey – pinnacled,

Enjoys the orange full moon

That rises slowly, sliding

From sheets of darkness light

That  fills the eastern sky,

And trees silhouetted black.

The moon, orange, then cream,

It rises changing sheen

And colour till it’s seen,

Atavistically,

Serendipitously,

By bhajan chanters devout

Who look up open-mouthed

At a haloed sitting being

Atop the sacred sanctum

Of mighty monkey god.

A New-old Story (4)

The month of August,
The heavy-falling rain,
The green-mossy walls,
And flat temple roofs,
The wet slippery steps
Of stone on ghats
All that afternoon
His wide eyes devoured,
While ghat-ward he cut
Through strongly flowing river.
It was his first time
In Kasi, yet it wasn’t
New to him. For Kasi he’d seen
Before he’d ever seen,
Before he’d there been,
Before it had been
Displayed before his eyes.
The Kasi that he entered
Wasn’t the Kasi same
As all that he’d heard
And all that he’d seen.
They hadn’t exposed him
For all stimuli extreme
Of senses: eyes, ears, nose.

The monsoon nearly spent
And Ganga flood-risen,
He now was taken
With force to his own,
Very own, Hanuman Ghat.
Stone temple, statue of stone
Of monkey-god Hanuman.
It was there that all began,
The new-old story,
From a god of epics, the Monkey
Palindromically inverted to
A dog of epic new.
So, our dog-monkey
Then climbed to the pinnacle
And sat, tail wagging
And barking at sparrows,
At squirrels kept pouncing.

A New-old Story (3)

It was a damp dark day
Of July, of August, nay,
When right from the sky he fell,
Coming, as we know, from hell,
Into river-mother Ganga.
She, the destroyer of sins,
She, the remover of stains,
Received her newest son,
While the sky wept some
Heavy droplets of acid rain.

Now you with raised eyebrows
Squirm due to element discordant.
How else does one reconcile
Myths of old with times modern?
This is not the only instance.
And after such knowledge
There’s no ignorance.
So, acid rains taint the myth.
Yet, if you listen
It has some pith.
And beauty, rhythm, allegation
(No, allegory, or allusion?)
‘Tis told in a terribly playful tone.
A worn out needle of gramophone
Very well will play,
In a hackneyed way,
As mode and manner will meet there.

So, she the destroyer of sins,
Received her son, returned from hell.
He could not hear
What waves then spoke,
As wind and rain
Were both intense.
He did not hear
What waves then said.
His eyes were set
On the many-templed Kasi.
Not many have seen
Such an evening scene
With the sun sinking
Right behind domes; pinnacles.
Like none has seen
The morning rising sun
Above the farther sand-spread bank.
Riveted he saw
With dropped lower jaw
The beauty and glory incarnate.