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.
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.
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.
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.
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.