The Imagined Topography of Varanasi



 The topography of the city of Varanasi has been imagined as a collage of its picturesque sites in various texts viz. films, literature of various genres and now, many of the blog posts about it (mine included). All these texts tend to essentialize the city in positive manner. Of course, there is the essentialization at the other end of the spectrum too, but the stronger voice is that of the positive essentializers: the creators of the imagined topography of the city.

The ghats of Kashi appear with predictability and regularity in the collage of Varanasi’s picturesque. Not without any reason. The written accounts of the city almost always wax eloquent about the majestic ghatscape of the city and linger there with pleasure (both for the writer and the reader). Text after text praises the ghats and the view from there. Of course they do mention the filth on the ghats and in the river, but that part is overshadowed by the foregrounded picturesque. What is the need to imagine the topography, to create a collage city, and to create one full system for others to marvel at from a distance, with no immediate benefit at the material level. What motivates them?

Those with a lot of time in hand – time that is free of physical or mental labour and of worldly cares – the people with a lot of leisure time in hand – face the problem of doing something with that time. All the time available to them, both leisure and work, when taken in totality, makes their life. They need to live, as they are evolutionarily programmed to do so. Therefore, they also need to find some sort of meaning in their accidental and meaningless existence. They think, therefore they are: literally. They invent a meaning and establish it working backwards – so that it appears to have arisen from life itself.

In the process of inventing meaning, their being is anchored on some fixity – an entity, an idea, a cause etc. e.g. some devote their life in service of their nation, some of their profession and some of Mammon. It’s only thus that the chaos and the cacophonous maddening sounds of meaninglessness can be made bearable and live-able. Otherwise – there’s only a tunnel, with no light at any of the ends, because there is no end as long as one lives, and no vision reaches after that end.

Myths have been created to explain life to those who live it. Epistemology and metaphysics are systematization of the scattered myths, needed to explain the inexplicable. They focus so much on the processes that they take all the attention away from the reactants and the products, and what happens with a living individual’s life. All the -isms do that with varying degrees of success. Meaning comes from faith, even if it is one’s faith in reason. In case of a certain kind of people, faith lies established firmly in the beauty and superiority of their city. Theirs is a special kind of topophilia: autopolisphilia.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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